(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006)
Panting and gulping water, we stop and look out from a section of the Superior Hiking Trail atop Mystery Mountain along northeastern Minnesota's Lake Superior shore. North Woods dotted with maples flaming red and orange slope down to the deep blue lake. To the south, more color crowns Moose Mountain, where we took in a similar view an hour or so ago. "We were way over there?" I ask. A little feeling of accomplishment blooms. "Yes, and I think that's where we're going," my husband, Ken, says, pointing far away.
We've made the classic, beginner mistake, the one Scott Beattie, veteran hiker and owner of trailside Pincushion Mountain Bed & Breakfast, warns his guests about. "Everyone wants to hike too far the first day," he says with a smile.
We're no exception, but this view and the others along this seven-mile section make the climb and complaining muscles worthwhile. We wanted to see as much as we could in a weekend on this trail, which has worked its way over the last two decades 275 miles from Duluth northeast almost to the Canadian border. Barbara Young of Boundary Country Trekking, who coordinates hikes with stays at trailside inns and lodges, arranged hikes for us on two stretches. Both offer everything an autumn hike here should: mountaintop views, streams with waterfalls and paths through tunnels of trees.
The next day, we tackle a manageable five miles that skirt the rim of Devil Track Canyon. The river by the same name boils at the base of steep granite cliffs a dizzying 200 feet below. South of the canyon, the trail becomes a grassy boulevard. A sign marks the turnoff to Pincushion. We tell Scott that we think we've seen the best parts of the trail. "Those are some nice ones," he agrees, and then rattles off about a dozen of his favorite sections. Some sound just as or more appealing. No wonder hikers return year after year.
Bright leaves frame weathered Rawson's Mill and a clear blue sky as our canoe slips into Nottawa Creek. The small, winding stream is part of Michigan's first Heritage Water Trail, a 50-mile network along the Nottawa, Portage River and St. Joseph's River systems in the quiet southwestern corner of the state. The trail links the tiny towns of Mendon and Colon and flows through pretty, peaceful countryside known for its inns and Amish farms.
Geff Clarke, owner of the Mendon Country Inn in Mendon, drove us upriver and dropped us off for what seemed like the ideal way to spend this cool fall day together. It is. The views that slip by are as peaceful as the water. My wife, Bridgit, paddles in front while I steer from the back. Behind us, water spills over the dam, as it has since the mill was built in 1836 when settlers started arriving in this area. Earlier, three Indian nations ruled the region, and great pioneers-Hennepin, La Salle, Marquette-plied these waters. Just down from the mill, we pass level ground where the Potawatomi tribe once lived. We paddle on as trees alight with autumn reds and golds close in around us. In the silence, we almost feel like we've floated into the days before asphalt and airplanes.
A few hours later, we drift into Mendon and pull our canoe up on a bank behind the inn, not quite ready to return to the present. We don't have to. The inn, a former stagecoach hotel built in 1843 and rebuilt in 1873, has been renovated, but its old-time character endures. Aromas waft from the kitchen, where Geff creates dishes that draw on fresh ingredients and his own origins. He and his wife, Cheryl, South African transplants, landed in the area almost by accident and grew to love it. Tomorrow, we'll paddle to another of Geff's favorite spots, the 1887 Langley Covered Bridge on the St. Joseph River, now the centerpiece of a park-perfect for a picnic and another foray into the past.
As the country's longest developed rail trail, Missouri's Katy Trail calls to die-hard bicyclists and dreamers like me. The 8-foot-wide, mostly level gravel path stretches 225 miles west of St. Louis toward Kansas City, rolling across old trestles, through lush farmland and beside soaring bluffs. It's a trail that begs to be explored, one I've hated to leave after short rides.
This time, with the help of an outfitter who ferries luggage, I don't have to. All I need to do is enjoy the ride. I'm pedaling the central section known for towering cliffs, tree-lined ridges and winery towns-a 112-mile journey from Rocheport east to Augusta. The first day I'm up at dawn, and Dixie Yates, owner of the Yates House Bed & Breakfast in Rocheport, already has the coffee perking. The sky is ominous to the west. Otherwise, I'd hang around and explore the village's shops and artisans' studios. I pedal east, past bluffs splashed with autumn hues. Blink-or-you'll-miss-it towns pop up every few miles. In Hartsburg, home of an annual Pumpkinfest, orange globes appear like goblins in the haze.
Later in soft afternoon light, it's easy to see why this country reminded 19th-century German settlers of their native Rhine Valley. Hermann, a historic village with church steeples rising above sturdy red brick buildings, beckons from across the river. Mat Wilkins, owner of The Captain Wohlt Inn, offers to shuttle me to Adam Puchta Winery, one of a dozen in this area.
In the morning, I follow the route east through wine country, past ornate stamped-metal storefronts in Dutzow and Marthasville. The trail leads directly to Augusta Valley Brewing Company. I have to stop for a cold one before the uphill ride to The Red Brick Inn, where homemade cookies, a hot tub and a much-needed bed await.