Before you get the wrong idea: Trails are good. Trails are made from the collective experience of adventurers that have gone before us. We can be pretty well assured that as long as we stay on the trail we'll get where we are going, but that safety comes at a price.
When we follow a trail we go where the trail takes us. There are often amazing sights just off the trail that we miss out on if we don't go off the tread. Finding your own way is definitely harder than walking along a trail. You have to not only figure out where you're going, but how to avoid obstacles on your route. What you get, though, is an experience that few others will have.
On this trip there were just two of us and the dog. The first two and a half miles were on a trail. It's not a heavily used or official trail, but it is a trail. From where the trail ended we could look across the valley to the peak 1,000 feet higher. We've looked at that peak many times and lamented the lack of a trail. Rather than turn for home, we left the trail and headed down into the valley between us.
Finding a route without a trail was liberating. You know how you sometimes wonder why the heck the trail designer went down 20 feet only to climb right back up? Wasted effort! Not a problem when you're picking your own route. You get to go where you want to go.
Don't get me wrong, though, it's not easy. In fact, it's pretty humbling. You have to be able to read the terrain and find your way around obstacles. Animals do this instinctively, but given the number of times I've had to backtrack while off trail I don't think we have that ability as a species.
Climbing out of the valley we headed up steep slopes of heather between rock ledges to gain the ridge. Once up high we simply followed the narrow ridge, detouring around huge rocks that blocked the way. The only real challenge came from the marmots that whistled and screamed at us for invading their homes.
To get to our destination, the highest point on the ridge, we could circle the basin with some elevation gain we'd have to subsequently lose over what looked to be gnarly talus. Instead, we dropped into a snow-filled basin with a tiny tarn. There, Treen learned a hard lesson. The lesson we humans usually learn at 7-11. She learned about brain freeze.
The poor girl was hot because it was hot. Really hot. We humans were hot, too. The tarn was full of water that had only just melted out of the snow field and was just a few degrees above freezing. I'm sure it was amazingly refreshing when she jumped in and gulped down a ton of water. I feel bad for her because she probably had no idea why her head was suddenly screaming in pain. (Good thing I had the camera handy or you wouldn't believe me.)
To get to our destination we navigated a narrow, blocky ledge with big drops on either side. Nothing actually dangerous, but a little nerve wracking given we weren't prepped for it. The picture of me on the summit is just a butt shot because I crawled my way up there and then crawled my way back down. It wasn't the kind of place I'd consider doing an Instagram pose. I don't need the likes that much. (Treen was leashed below the rocks. She would have liked it even less than I did.)
Without a trail to guide us back down we chose a different route. Instead of running the ridge we had climbed we dropped into the basin and hopped slabs of granite and patches of snow. I've been up the other side of this basin many times, but never had a chance to dip down and it was just as awesome as I had hoped.
Not being complete anti-social hikers we did rejoin the trail for the hike out. It's a steep slope full of slide alder and devil's club, not to mention 10-20 foot ledges, so following an established trail was a good plan.
I'm sure you're itching to go explore off-trail now. Before you go make sure you have the skills to stay safe, you have the tools to navigate, and understand how to minimize your impact through the seven principles of Leave No Trace.