The Case For Alternates and Side Missions – Redefining Blue Blazing
Lilac Blazing – Why You Should Get Off the Trail and Do More (and sometimes less) Miles
Maybe you’ve heard the term “blue blazing” thrown around when discussing thru-hiking a long trail. If you google “thru-hike blue blazing,” the first result reports it as “Cheating.” The hiking community sometimes invalidates, discourages, and perceives the alternates as “bad” or “unworthy of doing” or even “cheating.” Screw that. It’s time we redefine the choice to take side trails because they can be dope alternates and extraordinary, unique experiences.
I’m sure this will break the hearts and brains of some purists, but this is my case for not hiking on the trail and doing as many of the alternate routes and side missions as your heart desires.
My friend Soccer Mom calls it Lilac Blazing. It’s the art of the alternate. Side mission extravaganza. It’s the “You get to do whatever you want on your thru-hike and no one else gets to say how you should or shouldn’t hike your own hike” choice. This is my ode to the other options. To the shortcuts and extensions of your dreams and nightmares. Following is why Lilac Blazing is rad and why you should do more of it.
Have you ever found yourself standing at an alternate junction thinking these thoughts?
“Extra miles? Why do more walking? ”
“I don’t have enough time.”
“I need to make it to… (insert terminus here).”
“I don’t have anyone to do it with.”
“I’m doing my thru-hike the ‘correct’ way.”
“What will the super-serious ultralight bro purists who are definitely better than everyone else think of me?”
If you have thought these thoughts or others like it, keep reading. This is for you.
Side missions and alternate routes to the trail are easily overlooked adventures. At times, I, too, have been the person super dedicated to just the trail. I’ve been worried about the perception of ultralight bros who are so totally “doing it the right way.” During my PCT hike in 2018, I couldn’t imagine hiking miles that weren’t on the trail I had set out to complete, especially ones that added off-trail mileage and effort on an already challenging thru-hike attempt. These days, I love getting off the trail. I love a Lilac Blaze.
I’m here to tell you it probably is, and by that I mean almost always is, worth it to check out an alternate route or side trail if you have the desire to.
6 Reasons to Lilac Blaze on Your Current Or Next Long Trail
1. Sometimes It’s More Scenic
There are many times when trails dip low, descending down into easier terrain. Often trails make a beeline for a destination like water sources and towns and shelters. Sometimes, for whatever other reason, the trail just doesn’t go to the coolest places. Sometimes it goes into the trees or way around a lake, or right past a mountain. Many times, a trail goes near, and by near I mean right next to, some dope stuff that you would never see or even know about otherwise.
2. You May Find Yourself Alone
While this can be perceived as a “bad” thing, or maybe the idea of leaving the trail makes you nervous (which is of course totally OK, understandable, and reasonable) it can be a nice change of pace from the busy dirt highway that is a long trail. Not that many people do alternates and side missions. More than a few times I have found myself standing on a peak less than a mile from the trail, enjoying an epic view in peaceful solitude.
3. Sometimes It’s a Good Challenge
There are times when, well, actually most times, it’s going to take more work on your part. But hey, you are already working pretty hard doing a big ass hike. Why hike past that cool thing that is right there and completely miss it? Because it’s hard? Do that summit you had a twinge in your heart to check out. It’s like, only two miles round trip. Cue memory of walking past Butt Mountain on the PCT. The views from the ridges were pretty darn good but there was also a super sick 360-degree view from the peak (dang, I wish I hiked that one).
Hiking is hard. Truly it is an incredible challenge to do all or some of a long-distance hiking trail. But sometimes we want to challenge ourselves a little bit more. And we who have done, or are hiking, long trails know that we have to work a lot for the rewards of the trail. Hike it, baby. Climb the mountain. Expand your discomfort cave. You’ve got this.
4. Sometimes It’s Easier
For a lot of us, myself included, the idea of walking every single step of a trail for thousands of miles in a row is incredible. I mean, who doesn’t drool in their sleep dreaming about completing that full frickin’ walk from border to border, terminus to terminus? I’ve definitely dreamed of it. And drooled over it. Seriously. More than once…
Alternates are easily passed up when there are more miles. But what about when it’s fewer miles? “Skipping trail bro,” Says the purist hiker doing it “better” than you, “that’s not a ‘real’ thru-hike then.” First of all, hike your own hike, please. Second, hike your own hike, please.
Something that comes to mind is the Gold Valley Rim Alternate near Sierra City. It certainly shaved off more than a few miles. But it also rode an incredibly beautiful, consistently flattish ridgeline high above the PCT down in the forested valley (the PCT had more verticle climbing). It was wonderfully enjoyable and scenic and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Spice It Up, Pup
Sometimes it’s nice to do something different and shake up the monotony of walking the same damn trail every single day. Tired of doing the same thing? Want a change of pace? Desire a different perspective on the land? Feeling bored of slogging day in and day out? Alternates and side missions can bring a hint of freshness to the experience. Or a real beautiful smack in the face. You never know what you’re going to get! Either way, it adds a little spice. Maybe Something cool will happen, too.
Eminem Was Right
You only get one shot, take your chance, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But for real, let’s think about this for a second. Statistically, you’re less likely to die in the backcountry from, well, just most things, than in a car accident on the highway making your way to the Mexican border. Additionally, you are even less likely to take a second crack at that long trail you’re hiking down the line.
So many people only do a thru-hike once. Some of us are lucky enough, or crazy enough, to do it more than once. So yea, maybe if you felt like doing that thing then do that thing. Do those extra miles you hiker Highnesses. When else are you going to hit that hot springs alternate in the Sierra? Or bushwhack down to the cliff diving waterfall spot near Deep Creek? Or take time to play in the swimming hole only a few miles before Sierra City? Maybe never again.
Try not to convince yourself to miss opportunities because of “next time” or a deadline. The land of maple syrup and Katahdin aren’t going anywhere soon. Rest assured, however, that moment sure is.
Remember, at the end of the day, hike your own hike. Consider keeping that comment about “how to do it right” to yourself. It’s their walk, not yours. Lilac Blaze or not, let’s support each other to all have the experience we came to choose for ourselves.
Story Time: The Lilac Blaze of My Life
My favorite example of this so far has been the Castle Peak Alternate on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ll tell you a little about it to make you jealous now. Just after crossing over I-80 near Truckee, California, the trail climbs up the short Castle Pass (mile 1159.9) and then immediately goes back downhill less than a mile more toward Peter Grub Hut. I sat down to wait for my tramily. There I was on the not super remarkable Castle Pass. Behind me was a mountain which the map told me was called Castle Peak. I wanted to climb it because it looked cool so I started thumbing through Guthook comments (which might actually be the best and worst thing about the entire app) to see if anyone had summited it.
Voila! A description, albeit not a super detailed one, emerged! Minimal details with a great recommendation. Unknown but definitely at least 4 extra miles, maybe more. two peaks, and a sick ridgeline all above the trees, connection right back to the PCT.
It was close to sunset. “Where the hell is Soccer Mom? He was right behind me” I knew he would want to go. Sunset was about to start her light show. Four other hikers had said no to my side mission invitation already. It looked cool, but the extra miles and the hut with dinner time were too close for everyone else.
Finally, he appeared. “I’ve got an idea and you have 10 minutes to say yes,” I told him. He said yes and we loaded some snacks into accessible pockets. Shirtless and shouting out our psyche we tore up the side trail and climbed higher away from the PCT. it turned out to be sick and we summited Castle at the pinnacle moment of the sunset, ran the ridge to Basin Peak before we were blessed with the night, and meandered the loop back to Peter Grub Hut in the dark, arriving just before 10:30 PM. Totally Epic. Jaw-dropping beautiful. A lilac sky for a lilac blaze is one experience I’ll never forget.
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