Walks of Life

There is no better way to learn the intimate contours and culture of a landscape than to walk it. Step by step, even the most unfamiliar terrains yield their secrets to those who look and listen. Across the globe, at a time when people are hankering to venture outdoors and reconnect with nature, a number of new trails are opening. Some of them are previously untrodden, others have been repurposed or repaired, while still others weave existing trails together to create one long-distance journey. So whether you’re a hardcore hiker, or more of a gentle ambler, there are many ways to step out into the world, break established patterns, and see the world with fresh eyes.

Bondi to Manly Walk, Sydney, Australia

From gentle curves of sandy beach through to the jagged cliffs overlooking the ocean, Sydney’s Indigenous people have known for millennia that to tread the land is to know it.

Now, ushered by trail markers depicting the spiritually significant humpback whale, or buriburi, many more people can connect to country, and discover aspects of Australia’s history in order to reconcile a troubled past with a hopeful future.

The 50-mile Bondi to Manly Walk officially opened in December 2019. It threads together, for the first time, a string of disparate trails, links Australia’s two most famous surf beaches, passes by (or through, or over) landmarks such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House and highlights sites of cultural or spiritual importance to Indigenous Australians.

Wading through rock pools, clambering up and down steps, resting in the dappled shade of remnant bushland and listening to the raucous laughter of native kookaburras reveals a multitude of Sydney’s stories.

“It showcases the very best of Sydney, from the well-known beaches and international icons through to the small cafes, hidden cultural gems and museums,” says Elle Pacholski, Executive Director of the Bondi to Manly Walk.

The full Bondi to Manly Walk takes up to a week to complete, but many people attempt smaller, less ambitious sections.

The starting point, sun-drenched Bondi Beach, still swaggers with all the bravado associated with being the site of the world’s first surf lifesaving club.

Within easy strolling distance from Bondi lies a site containing Aboriginal rock engravings (petroglyphs). Use your finger to trace the outlines of a whale, sharks, and fish, and reflect upon the fact that people have viewed the ocean from this same spot for thousands of years.

You can also see Aboriginal etchings, including a kangaroo and boomerangs, at Grotto Point.

There are echoes of more recent history in landmarks like Mrs Macquarie’s chair, a sandstone bench hard-carved by convicts in 1810 to allow the governor’s wife to watch approaching ships.

Lady Macquarie’s favourite spot continues to provide a welcome point for rest and reflection for footsore walkers. Enjoy panoramic views of the harbour along with the tang of salt spray on your tongue.

Path of Parks, Italy

Steeped in history, culture and timeless architecture, Italian cities radiate charm.

Yet far beyond Rome’s Colosseum, Florence’s Duomo and Venice’s labyrinthine network of canals, the nation is blessed with breathtaking wild beauty, serving as a reminder that whatever the heights of human achievement, nature reigns supreme.

Among these features of untamed Italy are alpine lakes, snow-covered slopes, secluded beaches, pine forests, thermal spas, intricate caves, unusual rock formations and character-filled islands.

All of them can be seen as part of a new hiking itinerary, announced by the Italian Alpine Club as the nation emerged from lockdown. The new route will connect all of Italy’s 25 national parks, and boasts its own “passport” for travellers through each territory.

As envisaged in its entirety by developers, the Sentiero dei Parchi (Path of Parks) remains years from completion. Repairs are underway on existing paths damaged by natural disasters such as floods; new paths are being constructed.

However, the more than 4000-mile spine of the Path of Parks already meanders the length of the land, encompassing an existing path from the Italian Alps in the north, through to the Sicilian coastline in the south.

One of the more dramatic routes along the Path of Parks traverses the craggy mountains, verdant valleys and wildflower meadows of the Dolomite Mountain Range in northeastern Italy.

The spectacular Tre Cime di Lavaredo is one of the more popular trails in this area; those seeking less traffic might prefer the hike to Passo del Mulaz instead.

Further south, the Path of Parks will take in the pastel paintbox fishing villages of Cinque Terre, the dramatic cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, and the olive groves and vineyards of Tuscany. Sections of the walk are also set on the island of Sardinia.

Escondido Trail, outside Scottsdale, United States

A quarter century ago, a stray lightning bolt set dry desert grasses in the Pinnacle Peak area of the McDowell Mountain Range alight.

The resulting fire burned through 23,000 acres of desert wilderness, devastating this landscape of stark, savage beauty and its wildlife such as desert tortoises, deer and coyotes.

But hope and new life has burst forth from the ashes, with mesquite and jojoba trees regenerating, seasonal wildflowers in bloom, and animal populations recovering.

In 2013, a new multi-use trail opened too. Offering a 7.5 mile ramble or ride through the red dirt, pebbles and scrub of the desert, the Escondido Trail winds through parts of the McDowell Mountain Range that escaped the 1995 fires.

This barren landscape, which some visitors have described as “Martian-like”, rewards those who stride out with purpose, so strap on a pair of boots, turn your face towards the warm breeze and feel the satisfying crunch of rocks underfoot.

Among the highlights of this trail are stands of saguaro cactus, emblematic of this region, which strain their prickly limbs towards a blisteringly blue sky.

Sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, including the Sonoran Desert and Four Peaks, are also worthwhile.

Due to there being minimal shade en route, the Escondido Trail is best attempted in the cooler months. Travel at this time also carries the prospect of seeing the Mazatzal Mountains shrouded in snow.

In May, the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department announced a new nature and wildlife conservation centre to be established at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, ensuring the provision of public education, and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, for generations to come.

Empire State Trail, New York, United States

The challenges of the past year have highlighted the power of connection – to ourselves, our communities and our environment.

So it seems fitting that 2020 will conclude with the opening of the Empire State Trail, which closes the gaps between many smaller multi-use paths scattered across the state, and gathers them together into one epic 750-mile route.

Shaped like a giant T-bone steak, the Empire State Trail will stretch from its most southerly point, The Battery on Manhattan Island in New York City, through to the Canadian border in the north. Another arm will span the state from Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east.

Long-established sections of the trail, such as Hudson River Park, are already known for providing welcome green relief to urban residents.

Now, new swathes, such as that which cut through Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx, have been designed to open up and extend existing but underutilised assets.

While the Empire State Trail provides a picturesque passage through leafy parks, and alongside historic railway and canal tow path routes, you probably won’t be writing home about the Insta-worthy vistas or vantage points.

Rather, the new trail seeks to enhance connectedness, and to provide entry points for historic and cultural exploration on a scale that’s small and local, rather than vast and sweeping.

The new route will also forge new links to other regional trails, including the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, the St Lawrence Seaway Trail and the Appalachian Trail, says Andy Beers, Director of the Empire State Trail.

“The Appalachian Trail is the premier eastern US hiking trail (stretching from) Georgia to Maine,” he adds.

The Empire State Trail will open year round, opening up tantalising possibilities for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter.

This story was published in Issue 2 of the 2020 Four Seasons magazine. Read it there.

© 2022 Denise Cullen