When I choose a hike, I typically look for a trail that gets me up where I can see far and wide. It may be a mountain summit, an exposed ridgeline or the saddle of a pass, all of which offer a vista that provides ample reward for the effort I’ve expended. If I’m hiking in lower climes, I still seek the gratification of reaching a goal: the ocean beach unveiled after a walk through coastal forest, or a lake that sparkles through the woods.

Very rarely would I ponder turning around when I am intent on my destination, regardless of whether I’m tired, or the trail is relentlessly steep. Only a premature lightning storm is generally enough to deter me from the alpine heights.

So, I’m always a bit surprised when I encounter fellow hikers, especially on mellower paths to short-distance destinations, who ask as I’m headed down, “Is it worth it to keep going?”

That’s happened to me three times in the past month. Last week, an older, slow-moving couple (more power to them, for being out there) passed me on a trail to Lake Isabelle in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. It’s a 2-1/4 mile gentle uphill grade from the parking lot, through subalpine spruce forest, to an exquisite cirque at the base of a small glacier beneath the Continental Divide. Shortly before ascending to the lake, the trail emerges into lush meadows, crowded with multi-colored wildflowers. This couple had hiked at least halfway when they stopped to ask me if I thought they ought to keep going.

Lake Isabelle, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Lake Isabelle, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

“Yes, absolutely!” was my reply, encouraging them with a description of the flowers, the waterfalls ahead, and the glistening sapphire lake surrounded by lingering snowfields.

I had the same response to another set of day hikers who had walked a half-mile or so toward a beach in San Juan Island National Historic Park in Washington. They stood 50 yards or less above the hidden cove, contemplating a steep-ish descent on a dirt trail that would take them to the water.

“Is it worth going all the way down?” they asked, pondering their footwear, which was sturdy enough.

“Yes, absolutely!” was my reply. I told them how amazing the driftwood was, a tremendous jam-up of silvery logs wedged into the crescent-shaped beach by a string of winter storms. The wood pile resembled some natural contemporary art piece, not at all visible from the bluff on which they stood, surveying the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the distance. If they had turned around, they would have missed the intimate little cove entirely.

Beach at American Camp, San Juan Island Historical Park, WA. Photo credit: Jenny Frohwerk

Beach at American Camp, San Juan Island Historical Park, WA. Photo credit: Jenny Frohwerk

In each of these cases, the labor necessary to reach the reward was relatively small. Yet the payoff, in striking natural beauty, was great. I think about how many people don’t set out in the first place. Or how many answer that question for themselves: “Is it worth it?” and conclude that perhaps it is not, and turn around.

While it’s a question born of a particular moment—often amidst a long set of switchbacks on a hot afternoon, or a paddle into the wind when you can’t see around the next point—it’s an inquiry we might make in all sorts of life circumstances, when we’re faced with a tough path or we can’t see where we’re headed. Uncertainty is worrisome. No one likes to think they’re working hard, or facing risk, for nothing.

I think we can take a lesson from our outdoor adventures, though, whether they’re day hikes or alpine ascents or kayak expeditions. While of course it’s important to use reasoned judgment (I hope I would relinquish the summit of Everest if a storm moved in when I was shy of the top—not that I’ll ever be facing that question!), in most cases, I think we can assure ourselves that our efforts to reach a ridge are not in vain.

Speaking personally, I can’t think of a single wilderness adventure that hasn’t been worth the challenge. If there’s a ridge in view, I’m always seduced by what surprises lie on the other side.

What about you? What have been your greatest rewards in your own “”expeditions corner””? Have your exploits always been worth it?  Any cautionary tales? Any regrets? I’d love to hear your stories.

Glad to keep going,