General Considerations for Finding a Place to Hike
The first thing to ask yourself is, what exactly are you looking for? Then, consider what places are within your reach, practically speaking. Be sure to find out if the activity you have in mind is permitted in the place you're going to. Last and perhaps most importantly, consider what you can handle.
With all these things in mind, you can start looking. There's a list of suggestions and resources at the bottom of this page.
Places you can get to
Read those maps carefully! Sixty miles by road might look like an hour's drive, but not if it's an unpaved logging road through rough country. You don't want to get caught out in wilderness unprepared, and unable to get out before people start worrying about you.
If you are planning to visit the area repeatedly, allow yourself plenty of time to get to know the place. Try a few alternate routes to find the best one. Try a few different access points - parking lots, trail heads, etc. - before you pick which one will be "your place." You'll be back many times, so don't get discouraged if you find that your first choice is not as good as you hoped.
If you are going on a once-in-a-lifetime visit, you might want to hire a guide. Yes, it's an expense and a bit of an intrusion, but it's better than getting in trouble. When you contact the guide to plan your hike, make sure they understand your objectives - whether you want to race to that mountain peak, or just take it slow and watch the birds - and give them an honest assessment of your capabilities. If they are taking you as part of a group, make sure the rigid tour schedule will not make your vacation a chore for you.
Is it Allowed?
Take stock of what you intend to do, and whether it might be prohibited or restricted. Many parks do not allow camping. Fishing is forbidden or restricted in many lakes and rivers. (I know a beautiful pond in a state park where only children are allowed to fish.)
Are you planning to bring your dog along for the hike? Not all parks permit dogs, and most require that the dog be on a leash.
There are also restrictions on power boats, snowmobiles, and even off-road bicycles. Make sure the place you plan to go permits what you plan to do.
Can you take it?
Make an honest assessment of your abilities, both physical and mental, and plan for caution. Think you can walk twelve miles in a day? Don't plan on more than seven miles in unfamiliar country.
Carefully read the trail descriptions and degree of difficulty before you decide what you can handle. If it says "rugged," that means you should not plan on setting any land speed records there.
Bear in mind that most trail guide literature is written by people with extensive hiking experience and above-average physical condition. If you're a couch potato hoping to become a great outdoorsman, don't plan on taking the same hike that the great outdoorsman calls "challenging."
Pay attention to the contour lines you see on most trail maps. They tell you how steep the trail is, generally. A one-mile trail that climbs 500 feet is a walk in the park. A one-mile trail that climbs 2,000 feet might be impassable to the average sedentary person.
Again, make sure your self-assessment is honest. You might tell a great adventure story at home, but you can't fool the elements. When you're out on the trail, no amount of bravado can make up for a lack of physical fitness.
Don't overlook a place because it's popular. True, crowds take away from the sense of peace and solitude, and wildlife avoids contact with people. But if you go at the right time of day, you might find something close to wilderness, even in a place that is usually crowded. Most people are most active late in the day, and most animals are most active at dusk and dawn. That spells it out for you: Wherever you go, try to go there at dawn.
If you are fortunate enough to have a state or national park nearby, that's probably your best choice. Otherwise, for frequent quick visits, don't overlook your city parks and private property.
Before hiking on private property, introduce yourself to the owner. As long as they know who you are and what you're up to, most people are happy to allow hikers to use their woods and fields. Of course, some landowners have had bad experiences, and you certainly must respect their rights to protect their property from damage and their livestock from injury and harassment. Remember that many landowners have agreements with hunting clubs, so they might not be able to let you hike on their land during hunting season.
When planning a trip to an unknown area, make sure you do your research ahead of time. Again, state and national parks are probably your best choices. Not only are they the most likely to offer a good hiking experience, they are also the best documented. You certainly won't be able to find a source on the Web that tells you what to expect on Farmer Jones' back forty, but there's a wealth of information about public parklands. On another note, you'll find plenty of information about commercial recreation areas, but they all have a financial interest in getting you to visit the place. Public parks are more likely to have plain and truthful information available.