Take Your Book Club Outside
Your guide for starting an outdoorsy book club, complete with 27 book+hike pairings.
by Ashley Gossens
As I climbed to the top of Glacier Peak, I thought of Arlene Blum. In her memoir, “Breaking Trail,” she breaks down the process of becoming a world-class mountaineer. She began by simply running every day, each day a bit farther. As a mountain-climbing novice, I kept Arlene’s words in my head as I climbed. If she could do it, I could too.
I love finding connections between books and the outdoors. In 2015, I started a book club to share my love of books and hiking. Every month, the members of the Alpine Trails Book Club read a book and then take a hike. We’ve gone cloud spotting, hunted mushrooms and hiked to ancient petroglyphs.
Our book club even inspired us to get out to do some trail work. We read “Dirt Work” by Christine Byl and “Eating Dirt” by Charlotte Gill, both memoirs by women who worked daily in the outdoors. We paired these books with work parties on the Snoqualmie Lake Trail and at Little Mountain Park. We learned about the authors’ careers, and then we got to experience what a day of outdoor work feels like by “popping rocks” off the trail, using the “facili-trees” and nursing our aching muscles.
Books can bring the outdoors to life in new and unexpected ways. Learning the story of a trail — why it was built and who has hiked it before — provides deep connection and appreciation and reminds us why trails are important. Reading about nature fuels our childlike sense of wonder and awe that tends to wear off as we grow older. Memoirs help us to see things from other people’s perspectives and build compassion for people who are different from us. Books can also reflect back parts of ourselves, assuring us that we are not alone. They show us what we are capable of and inspire us to push ourselves, just like Arlene Blum did for me on Glacier Peak. And if you are very lucky, you’ll get to share a love of these books with new lifelong friends, like the ones I made through the book club.
Here are some book recommendations, and a corresponding hike suggestion, for those who love books and trails. Whether you read them alone or as part of a book club, they’ll bring new meaning to your next hike.
Book: “Saving Tarboo Creek” by Scott Freeman
Hike: Cascade Rock
Freeman and his family dedicated themselves to saving a once thriving watershed in the Olympics. He writes about how they had to balance the needs of the creek today along with the changing needs of the future. Visit this little known trail to see how the Elwha River, another re-claimed watershed in the area, is recovering after dam removals in the last decade. Note that, due to a road washout, you’ll have to do a road walk to reach the official trailhead.
Book: “Across the Olympic Mountains” by Robert L Wood
Hike: North Fork Quinault Valley
In 1889, the Press Party set out to trace the Elwha River to its source. It took them four months to follow the river, cross Low Divide and make their way down the Quinault Valley. Get a taste of the expedition route by hiking the North Fork Quinault Valley Trail. While struggling to imagine traversing this landscape without a trail, keep an eye out for lingering Press Party blazes along the trail.
Book: “The Sea is My Country” by Joshua L Reid
Hike: Cape Flattery
Cape Flattery is the home of the Makahs, a tribal nation with a culture rooted in the sea. For over 200 years, the Makahs struggled to maintain control of their home sea and to maintain their cultural identities. The Sea is My Country dives into this rich history of the Makahs and the continual controversy over traditional fishing and whaling rights and environmental issues. To access the trail, be sure to purchase a Makah Recreation Pass at the Makah Tribal Museum or Washburn’s Grocery.
Book: “A Year in Paradise” by Floyd Schmoe
Hike: Pinnacle Saddle
In the winter of 1920, Floyd Schmoe and his new wife, Ruth, set out in snowshoes from Longmire to Paradise as the new caretakers of Paradise Inn. After that winter, they spent many seasons on the mountain, and Floyd took many trips to Pinnacle Saddle. Head there yourself to see the views of the mountain and Paradise as described in this charming memoir — and to ponder how the area has changed in the last 100 years.
Book: “Tatoosh” by Martha Hardy
Hike: Tatoosh Lookout
Martha Hardy, a school teacher, spent the summer of 1943 as a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Tatoosh Ridge while the men who would have traditionally staffed the lookout supported the war effort. Follow in her footsteps on the long wildflower-lined trail to the former lookout site, which features up views of Mount Rainier and Tatoosh Lakes. This summer, WTA crews spent 8 days clearing logs, fixing drains, and improving the tread on this trail.
Book: “Pickets and Dead Men” by Bree Loewen
Hike: Skyline Trail Loop
You can spy Camp Muir from this trail that Bree Loewen traveled countless times as a climbing ranger. In her memoir, she does not shy away from the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated field and the harrowing accounts of rescues on this beautiful and dangerous mountain.
Book: “The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin
Hike: Peshastin Pinnacles
Visit in the spring and hike this sandstone trail for sweeping views of Cashmere and its blooming orchards. This is the setting for “The Orchardist,” a sweeping historical novel about a solitary orchardist who shelters two young runaways.
Book: “The Thing With Feathers” by Noah Strycker
Hike: Umtanum Canyon
Central Washington is a hotspot for bird watching and Umtanum Canyon is no exception. Visit in the spring for wildflowers, lush views and a chorus of bird song. Pair your trip with this fascinating book that explores the intelligence of birds and how they may not be all that different from us.
Book: “Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide” by John Soennichsen
Hike: Lenore Lake Caves
This is a short hike jam-packed with fascinating history. The caves have been used for thou-sands of years by Native Americans as shelter and as a gathering and sacred space. Learn how the caves were formed during the Great Missoula Flood and how the flood carved out much of the central Washington landscape in this guide to the Scablands.
Book: “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan
Hike: Copper Butte
Hike in the Kettle Range through a forest that burnt after a lightning strike started a fire in 1994. Pair the hike with Egan’s classic about the epic 1910 fire that tore through Washington, Idaho and Montana. This fire changed the way that the Forest Service reacts to and prevents wildfires to this day.
Book: “Wildfire” by Heather Hansen
Hike: Bonaparte Trail
You’ll have a new appreciation for the old lookouts on Mount Bonaparte after reading “Wildfire.” Hansen recounts her two years spent on the front lines with wildland firefighters near her home in Boulder, Colorado. In a journalistic style, she weaves in personal stories, science, and the struggles to keep up with increasingly looming threat of wildfire in the West.
Book: “Bold Spirit” by Linda Lawrence Hunt
Hike: Dishman Hills — Rocks of Sharon
Read about Helga Etsby’s 1896 walk from coast to coast to raise money for her family. Then head to the Rocks of Sharon for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area (Helga lived not too far from here) and contemplate just how far it is to New York City.
Book: “The White Cascade” by Gary Krist
Hike: Iron Goat Trail
Travel the old railroad grade to the site of the deadliest avalanche disaster in America. In 1910, an epic blizzard stranded two trains for five days before an avalanche swept them down the mountain. Visit the site in the fall — when the leaves are vibrant yellow — to see the tunnels and snow sheds put it place to attempt to defy the formidable terrain.
Book: “Forest Bathing” by Dr. Qing Li
Hike: Deception Creek
Bathe in the old-growth forest along Deception Creek as you wander with no particular destination. Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku, comes from the Japanese who have long known the benefits of spending time among the trees. Explore your senses along the trail: listen to the babbling creek, look at every detail of a pine cone, smell the plants, hug a tree and revel in the stress leaving your body.
Book: “Reclaimers” by Ana Maria Spagna
Hike: Middle Fork Snoqualmie River
Spagna gives voice to women fighting to reclaim taken land. She travels up and down the west coast to Humbug Valley and Death Valley, places where Native peoples fought to be recognized as the rightful owners of their ancestral land. She traveled to the White Salmon River to tell of the complex management of dams and how they affect Washington’s beloved salmon. Pair this book with the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, a river that has also been reclaimed. The river, once a favorite dump, has been restored over the past few decades by a coalition of volunteers.
Book: “Stehekin: A Valley in Time” by Grant McConnell
Hike: Agnes Gorge
Travel back in time to Stehekin, a tiny settlement at the head of Lake Chelan, that is only accessible by plane or boat. Take the National Parks shuttle from town up to High Bridge, the start of the pleasant Agnes Gorge hike with mountain views, waterfalls, and the constant company of Agnes Creek. The trip is not complete without a stop at Rainbow Falls and Stehekin Pastry Company. Pair it with McConnell’s memoir of life in Stehekin from the 1940s to the 1990s to learn what life was like in this unique place.
Book: “Headwaters” by Saul Weisberg
Hike: Washington Pass Overlook
Saul Weisberg’s poems sing to the joy of the trails. They capture moments and details that come from years of a naturalist’s observation. Weisberg is the executive director of the North Cas-cades Institute and his love of the North Cascades is evident in this collection. I recommend pair-ing this with the Maple Pass Loop, a trail worthy of a poem. Washington Pass Overlook, a stun-ning vantage point to the wonder of the North Cascades. This short trail also has the added bo-nus of being wheelchair accessible.
Book: “Breaking Trail” by Arlene Blum
Hike: White Pass - Pilot Ridge Loop
Blum’s memoir of proving herself as a scientist and world-class mountaineer in the 1970’s when both fields were dominated by men, will propel you along on this multi-day thigh-burning loop. And when you get to White Pass in the heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the stunning views and burst of wildflowers will keep you going. Blum led the first successful all-women expeditions to Annapurna and Denali and has inspired many, including me as I climbed Glacier Peak from this very trail, to follow their dreams.
Book: “In the Blast Zone” edited by Charles Goodrich
Hike: Southwest Loowit Loop
This slim collection of essays captures the eruption of Mount St. Helens from different perspec-tives, including scientists and naturalists but also fiction writers and poets. Many recall their sto-ries of the eruption, others spent several days backpacking together and studied how the mountain has recovered. This book pairs well with any trip to Mount St. Helens, but a few days on the Loowit Trail is an excellent way to see how the mountain has recovered for yourself.
Book: “Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart” by Carrot Quinn
Hike: Goat Rocks: Cispus Basin
Quinn’s memoir of her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail is best enjoyed following in her footsteps on the trail. Get a taste of the PCT on this multi-day hike through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Book: “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” by Steve Olson
Hike: Harry’s Ridge
Olson relays the compelling narrative of the events leading up to the eruption of Mount St. Helens and how the natural disaster was handled in the aftermath. Pair this book with a hike named for a local man who refused to leave his home on the mountain before the eruption. Notice the return of plant life as you climb the ridge to views of the blast area and Spirit Lake.
Book: “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Hike: Columbia Hills State Park
In the spring, Columbia Hills bursts in the yellow and purple of balsamroot and lupine. Kimmerer explains why this combination of colors works so well together in her book, “Braiding Sweet-grass.” She takes her Native American knowledge and applies it to the science of the natural world. If you make a reservation in advance with the state park (see their website for details) you can visit the petroglyphs with a guide to get a deeper understanding of the Native American his-tory in the Columbia Gorge.
Book: “Bretz’s Flood“ by John Soennichsen
Hike: Cape Horn
Bretz was the first scientist to theorize, correctly, that the Columbia Gorge was formed in a rapid event like a massive flood. Read about his determination to prove his wild theory to the geologic community amid a wash of disbelief and scorn. Then hike up to Cape Horn for a panorama view of the gorge carved by the ancient Missoula flood.
Book: “Riverwalking” by Kathleen Dean Moore
Hike: Lewis River Falls
Moore’s lyrical prose in this collection of essays perfectly encapsulates the feeling of walking along a river. Each essay tells of an experience on a specific river, but it’s the combination of all the stories together that bring out the quiet reflections of spending time near babbling water. This book could be paired with any river walk, but the Lewis River Falls with its old-growth, carpets of vanilla leaf and spectacular waterfalls makes for a lovely match
Puget Sound & Islands
Book: “Spirited Waters” by Jennifer Hahn
Hike: Deception Pass Headlands
Jennifer Hahn recounts her impressive solo journey through the Inside Passage from Washing-ton to Alaska. Along the way she encounters the kindness of strangers and forages for food on the beaches. The terrain at Deception Pass with its cliffs, tight waterways, and island views cap-tures the essence of Hahn’s voyage. For an even deeper connection to the book, see if you can find some of the flora and fauna she sketches in the book.
Book: “Shell Games” by Craig Welch
Hike: Ebey’s Landing
Besides having spectacular views, Ebey’s Landing gives you an excellent vantage point of the Puget Sounds. After reading “Shell Games, “you’ll be particularly looking for any suspicious ac-tivity going on out there. Welch writes about his encounters as a journalist covering a sophisti-cated ring of poachers in the Puget Sound. The book will open your eyes and keep you wondering where your seafood comes from.
Book: “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams
Hike: Discovery Park Loop
After presenting research on the ways that nature improves health and reduces stress, Williams challenges her readers to spend at least five hours in nature a month. For some this may be an easy task, but for those that don’t have access to the mountains, it can be a challenge. That’s where our local city parks come in. Even a quick visit to a nearby park can improve creativity and mood and those quick visits can add up to great benefits.