Exploring his heartland
Former CN&R columnist releases hiking-trail guidebooks
For someone who loves majestic views of nature, the Hawaiian island of Kauai would seem utopian. It’s nicknamed “the Garden Isle”—revered for a predominance of rainforests, along with coastal peaks and cliffs, that define tropical splendor.
John Soares appreciated living there. He’d moved from Chico in 1996 and spent three years experiencing life in the tropics. Yet, he felt tugged back to the North State, to places he first explored as a child in Tehama County. Soares (pronounced SORE-ease) says he had “island fever”; also, a case of homesickness.
“Hawaii’s beautiful; it was fantastically beautiful,” he said by phone last week. “But I just missed the wide variety of landscapes of Northern California—the ability to go to the coast one weekend and the Sierra Nevada the next and then hike in the foothills and have the Sacramento River.
“Plus, it was my home territory … it was just really embedded in who I am.”
In a Ford Econoline van, with two golden retrievers, Soares spent the next 18 months camping and hiking across the Western U.S., primarily in the upper reaches of California. He retraced his steps along many trails he wrote about as a hiking columnist for the CN&R in the mid-’90s.
“I have very fond memories of that [traveling],” he said.
Soares decided to settle down—“I wanted to be in an environment where I could control the temperature,” he quipped—but homeownership and home-based work as a freelance writer (primarily of educational and professional materials) didn’t extinguish his love of the outdoors. He continued, and continues, to hike around his heartland, even after moving to southern Oregon. Often joining him: Stephanie Hoffman, his partner.
Soares shares his passion through his Northern California Hiking Trails blog. He’s also published four books—with a fifth on the way—through a leading publisher in the field, Mountaineer Books.
In the past three months, he’s had two releases: the fourth edition of 100 Classic Hikes: Northern California, which debuted in 1994, and the new book, Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Regions. Soares is on track to have Mountaineer publish Hiking the Parks: Redwood National and State Parks next spring.
Mountaineer Books is an independent publisher with over 700 titles focused on the outdoors and conservation. Founded in 1960, it’s part of a Pacific Northwest nonprofit, the Mountaineers.
Soares first connected with Mountaineer Books in 1990, fresh out of grad school at UC Davis, looking to match his writing skills with an interest other than his subject of study, political science.
“I had always been an avid hiker,” he said, starting as a young boy in the foothills outside Anderson and progressing as a teen to backpacking in the Trinity Alps, Mount Shasta area and Lassen Volcanic National Park. “I saw there was a geographical spot that had not been adequately covered [by guidebooks.]”
The result was Best Short Hikes in and Around the Northern Sacramento Valley, unveiled in 1992 (now out of print). Two years later came 100 Classic Hikes.
Soares’ guides emphasize user-friendliness. He rates hikes not by preference—though he certainly has favorites—but rather by features such as difficulty, distance, vistas and solitude.
The latter ranks high with him: “It doesn’t have to be total, absolute solitude, but vast numbers of people on a trail decreases the quality of that hike for me a bit,” he said. “I like relative solitude and some combination of great natural beauty.”
In each of the 2018 books, Soares lists trails, then describes them. All the information is first-hand; although he has a network of sources (including old friends from Chico) keeping him apprised of changes, he hikes every trail he highlights. He uses a hand-held voice recorder to note what he sees.
Hoffman, who works for a business consulting firm, comes when she can. Now that they’ve planted roots in Ashland, Ore., and she commutes to Medford, Soares takes some trips alone. True solitude.
The Day Hiking book covers areas northward from Red Bluff. Butte County trekkers will find a closer trail in 100 Classic Hikes: Feather Falls. (Deer Creek and Mill Creek below Black Rock are in both.)
Soares shared a half-dozen personal picks with the CN&R. At Lassen, try trails to Brokeoff Mountain, Kings Creek Falls and Cinder Cone and Snag Lake; around Mount Shasta, go for South Gate Meadows, Deadfall Lakes and Mount Eddy.
His overarching advice is to “hike your own hike.” That common expression, to Soares, means “you do what you like to do—what’s most comfortable to you and what pleases you and most calls to you.”
Some people like to pull out ropes and pitons to scale rocks, or journey 30 miles in a day; “other people, for them hiking their hike, they just go to Lower Bidwell Park and they walk on the paved path along the creek, and that’s absolutely fine.
“That doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t challenge yourself,” he added, with self-permission to turn around if the going gets too tough. “It’s about enjoying the process, not about reaching a destination.”