Walkabout vacations, popular in Europe, gain a foothold in California

Atop Wolf Ridge on a clear day in the Marin Headlands several years ago, Tom Courtney paused to take in the view. Hikers always stop there, mostly to gawk at the Pacific Ocean to the west and Mount Tamalpais to the north, but also to catch their breath after a steep climb.

But Courtney had other reasons for peering pensively into the distance that day. Once, years before, he had a completed multiday hike in the Cotswolds in west-central England, hoofing it from inn to inn as part of a pastime Europeans call “walkabouts.”

So, as he gazed beyond verdant Tennessee Valley and over Mount Tam’s foothills, he wondered whether it was possible — logistically, not athletically — to string together a “walkabout” from Rodeo Beach to Point Reyes without resorting to pitching a tent and camping. Nothing wrong with roughing it, of course, but occasionally a guy likes to soak his weary feet in a hot tub, sip a fine merlot alongside a juicy steak, and sleep in high-thread-count sheets along the way.

“The Cotswolds were so fun,” the retired UC Berkeley professor recalled, “walking country lanes, stopping each night at a village and staying at a country inn, hanging out at the pub eating fish and chips and meeting the locals. It’s something I always thought about.”

Upon returning home after that Marin Headlands trek, Courtney unfolded some maps and played connect the trails, figuring out where along the way hotels, inns or bed-and-breakfast places were located without too much of a detour.

Let’s see, the Miwok connects to the Coastal, which leads to Muir Beach and the Pelican Inn. Then the Coastal connects to the Dipsea into Stinson Beach, where hotels are plentiful. Then, on Day Three, a walk through town connects with Willow Camp Trail, which connects with Bourne, which connects with the Audobon Canyon Loop, which leads to a milelong walk on Highway 1 to Bolinas. Day Four, the Ridge Trail connects with Bolema, which connects with Olema Valley, which connects with the Rift Zone Trail into the burg of Olema.

Four days, 38 miles, four inns.

Easily done.

Not that Courtney didn’t encounter a few logistical hurdles, the biggest being how to return to the starting point at the Headlands without retracing steps. He hit upon the idea of taking a Marin County transit bus from Olema to Sausalito, then a 20-buck cab ride back to Rodeo Beach.

The other walkabout workaround question: What about luggage?

Unlike in European walkabouts — most notably, the Cotswolds and Camino de Santiago — where valets transport your bags and gear while you step lightly with just water and basic provisions, no such organized schlepping exists stateside. Courtney’s solution: travel light with a 15-pound pack with one change of clothes, minimal toiletries, with water and food.

He put theory into practice a few months later when he and wife, Heidi, made the trek, enjoying the slow, but relentlessly forward, progress from inn to inn, chuckling at the reaction from an innkeeper checking out their dusty personages at the front desk.

“She had us fill out the form and when it got to our license plate and make of car, we said, ‘No car,’” Courtney recalled. “She did a double-take and said, ‘Then how’d you arrive?’”

B&Bs along the path

If Courtney, 65, has his way, the sight of B&B guests with scuffed hiking boots and well-worn backpacks will become commonplace.

Since that initial walkabout along the Marin coast, Courtney has sussed out numerous connect-the-trails routes with inns throughout Northern California. His multiday hikes span the region — Lassen Volcanic National , the Tahoe peaks, Emigrant Trail in the eastern Sierra, and a seaside journey from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay. In 2011, Wilderness Press published his guidebook, “Walkabout Northern California: Hiking Inn to Inn” ($16.95, 224 pages) and next year will release a sequel on walkabouts in Southern California.

Someday, Courtney hopes, the United States will boast the same type of structured walkabout tours that are common in Europe. Until then, those wanting to tour California by foot will have to be flexible and improvise, be content with getting by on less during a walkabout than European counterparts do. Either that, or revert to old-school ways and camp out under the stars.

“Americans have been going overseas to do these hikes, and a lot of people are surprised that you can do them right here,” he said. “I have no idea how many (walkabout hikers) there are in California, but I know thousands have bought the book, and I hear from innkeepers that more people are arriving by foot. Maybe they aren’t so surprised anymore. I mean, what can be better than to hike with only a 15-pound day pack and then have a nice dinner and a drink?”

At the Bear Valley Inn in Olema, owner Amanda Eichstaedt offers a 15 percent discount to guests who arrive via foot or bicycle. She says they account for about 10 percent of her business.

“We offer it because we think there are valid alternatives to automobiles and driving,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have our inn where it’s accessible to a culmination of trailheads. We had one couple stay here who walked here for their 30th wedding anniversary from Pacifica. They figured out the route themselves and took the bus back. It gives people a different way to think about travel.”

Diane and Ron Stell, avid hikers from Elk Grove, describe themselves as “light hikers” who aren’t really keen on camping.

“One great thing is,” Ron said, “you see the country a lot differently on your feet than when you are in a car. That, and not having to set up a tent and cook in the wild and (deal with) mosquitos and West Nile virus — all that great stuff.”

What’s needed, said walkabout veteran Lil Dauria of Lincoln, is a sense of adventure and the ability to keep the schedule flexible. Last year, she and a friend embarked on a three-day walkabout from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay as a “training walk” for the Camino de Santiago in Spain. They enjoyed walking south along the shoreline from Ocean Beach but ran into a detour in the form of high tide.

“We had to walk through Daly City,” she said, “then follow trails back down into Pacifica. You adjust. In Pacifica, we didn’t pack a lunch. Just water and some snacks. We stopped in a coffee shop to get breakfast on our way (south) and they had quiche. The waitress said, ‘Oh, I have to get it out of the freezer,’ and we said, ‘You know, just give us the frozen quiche. It’ll thaw.’ And when we got up to the mountains later in the day, the quiche was ready.”

Take your time

Time slows on a walkabout, veterans say. Courtney says some neophytes believe you have to traverse the trails as swiftly as possible and worry that many of the walkabouts in the book (distance ranges from 15 to 45 miles) are too tough for them. But he points out that in summer and early fall, increased daylight make hiking at a leisurely pace not only doable, but preferable.

“If I told you we’re going on a 10-mile hike, you might be tired after three or four hours before you went home,” he said. “But if I tell you that you have all day with nothing to do but walk, you can sleep in in the morning, eat a leisurely breakfast, stop along the trail to read a book or have a picnic and you’re still going to arrive (at the inn) in time for happy hour.”

Still, it takes a modicum of fitness to hike 40-plus miles in three or four days. Some walkabouts are more strenuous than others. Tahoe and the Emigrant Trail have high elevations, the Lost Coast and Mount Tamalpais steep climbs.

Scott Jordan, 63, a retired district court judge in Reno, has completed six walkabouts, three in the rugged Sierra Nevada, and says this is not a vacation option for those whose idea of a workout is walking from their beach chair to the cabana bar for another margarita.

“Let’s use the Donner Pass (walkabout) as an example,” he said, referring to the three-day trek on the Pacific Crest Trail from Donner Pass to Squaw Valley, then Alpine Meadows and into Tahoe City. “There are a couple of hard stretches. You walk down to Squaw and spend the night, but then you’ve got to walk back up the next morning. That’s hard. Especially in the Sierra hikes, there’s a tremendous altitude change.

“But it’s more doable than it normally would be for a lot of people who would have to carry a heavy backpack.”

Traveling light on walkabouts is an issue for some, Courtney said. A day pack can fit only so much gear, clothing and provisions, so choose wisely, he said. Courtney recommends one extra set of clothes, with an “overshirt” for warmth and “nice enough for dinner at a restaurant,” a light rain jacket, first aid gear, water and snacks.

“Only what’s essential,” he said. “This is an issue of debate in my household — what is essential on the list. But by only carrying 15 pounds, you get to the end of the day and your shoulders aren’t tried. You may not even realize you have a day pack on. It’s a pleasant way to travel.”

Delight the locals

Plus, it’s a conversation-starter. Once, when Courtney walked into Smiley’s Bar in Bolinas after a full day on the trail, the bartenders and locals were quite interested in his mode of transportation.

“They were engaged in a lively debate about the merits of (walkabouts),” he said. “Nobody there had been out on those trails.”

Part of the fun, Courtney added, comes from absorbing the local color on and off the trail. At Smiley’s, for instance, he listened to a rousing concert by a band consisting of three ukeleles and an electric bass. At the New Albion River Inn on the Mendocino coast, there are 75 choices of Scotch from which to imbibe. At the Caples Lake Resort, off Highway 88 in the eastern Sierra, you can rub shoulders with hard-core fishermen. On the Marin walkabout, one option is staying at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, where you can meditate with monks and then “maybe walk down to the Pelican Inn to get a pint of Bass Ale before going back to the zen center.”

Using hiking as your main mode of vacation transport may come off as wacky to barflies and couch potatoes, but Courtney says it can spur something deeply rooted in our being.

“We are a walking species,” he said. “We left Africa by foot and walked to new places. Until only the last couple hundred years, if you wanted to leave your village, you had to walk long distances. It’s just part of our DNA to take a long walk.”