Trail enthusiasts are getting out on the Ridge Trail more than ever, but the Kastner family decided to take it to a new level this year. They are close to circumnavigating the Ridge Trail–our term for hiking all sections of the nearly 400 miles of the trail–and then some. Over the past year, the Kastners have learned about navigation, the natural world, and each other, through the memories and experiences that have come along with their circumnavigation experience.
Andy and Leslie Kastner, parents to Nora (9) and Asher (11), have always loved getting outdoors and trying new things, but this challenge has taken on a whole new meaning for them. Before the pandemic, the family enjoyed weekend visits to museums, trips to places like the Grand Canyon, and getting together with friends. Asher spent a lot of his time playing baseball and piano while Nora enjoyed gymnastics and science projects. Now, the whole family finds comfort in the ritualistic weekend activity of working together to circumnavigate the Ridge Trail, bonding and connecting in the process.
We were so intrigued by the Kastner’s story and wanted to learn more about them, so we sat down to ask a few questions about their journey on the Ridge Trail so far.
How did you learn about the Ridge Trail?
Andy: I spent hours on trails, hiking and running, looking for patterns and I started seeing the Ridge Trail’s trail blazes and that struck my curiosity. I love trails that tell a story and connect to other trails, so I found the website and bought the guide book. I started linking up sections of the Ridge Trail when out running and, after a while, it turned into a family project. It picked up steam during the pandemic. It became one of our “Covid-19 projects.” We’ve always loved hiking, but the lockdown definitely pushed it to the forefront for us as a way to spend time together.
What motivated your family to circumnavigate?
Leslie: Nora sometimes needed coaxing onto the trails but she is always happy when she does it. Asher decided that after doing so much of the trail, he wanted to continue. During the beginning of the lockdown, there was nothing to do; normal things like hanging out with friends and cookouts and going to museums were not happening. So, as a family, to have a goal and intentional way to spend time together is nourishing and fun. Since not all parts of the trails are marked in a map, there’s work for the kids to do with a lot of the sections. Parts of trails in Napa and Sonoma involved a lot of puzzle piecing and free work and work on the fly.
Andy: We decided to start circumnavigating in 2020 and now we are determined to finish circumnavigating in the time we have left in the Bay Area. (The family is relocating to Boston in a few months.) We have done most of the East Bay, Marin, South Bay, and San Francisco and are about 70% done. Our final hike will be in Marin and over the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. The goal is to finish by June. We want to honor the place we love so deeply through the process of walking.
What are your “rules” for circumnavigating? Order, timing, gaps?
Andy: There aren’t too many rules. We have mostly done the hikes clockwise, minus one hike and are not mapping sections continuously. Sometimes we leave a section of a hike for another day. It’s really all about the snacks and food for our family. We love sushi seaweed wraps with various fillings and we serve them like a taco bar on the trail. ProTip: We bring a glass dropper for soy sauce.
Leslie: Cheez-its are a special treat, too. Anything that helps to power up.
What is one of the most unusual things you have encountered on the trail? Any animal encounters?
Andy: We saw two bald eagles circling above once and a coyote on a distant hill. Then there was the hike with three inches of hail on the Garin trail. That experience helped with preparedness, grit, and trust in one another. It was one of my favorite sections, because it started hailing and we ended the trail in the dark. It ended up being 16 miles and we had thought it was only 12.
Leslie: We saw paragliders that almost landed in the street during a hike that connects Solano county to Napa county. Every time we go out there’s something that happens. We walked through Niles Canyon and happened upon the most delicious donuts.
Nora: We saw a lot of banana slugs once, it was like a rainforest for about 6 miles.
What was each of your favorite trails, spots or sections? Why? What was special about it?
Andy: We loved the docent led hikes in the Watershed on the Peninsula. Another great section was the urban environment in San Francisco, which maintained a trail-like feel, while weaving in and out of parts of San Francisco. We like it all–each one is beautiful in its own way. There’s always an experience and story that occurs at the time.
Asher: Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock. After doing Loma Alta, we had lunch near the radio tower and it had tremendous views of the bay and the city. It was a great place to have lunch. There were also cows on the trail!
What separates or distinguishes the Ridge trail from other trails you frequent and how has it changed/improved/etc. in recent years in your perspective?
Leslie: Now that there’s a challenge present in completing our circumnavigating, it feels like traveling since we’re moving through different sections on a path. It’s a meditative experience being on that journey. There are other amazing trails, but being always high up is just a different way of seeing things. We had done a lot of hikes in Marin, the East Bay, and the city before, but not much of the North or South Bay until our Ridge Trail challenge. We get to see different sides of the area and see new neighborhoods. The Ridge Trail creates a pathway of connectivity to the land, space, and people that live in these different areas. It’s a unifying way to make your way around and connect to different parts of the region.
What would you tell another family (or person) who was interested in taking on the Ridge Trail? What advice would you give?
Nora: Sometimes you end in the dark, so bring headlamps and maybe even prepare for a surprise hail storm. There’s also the iNaturalist app where you can take a picture of a plant and it tells you what it is.
Asher: Be ready to bounce back from unexpected things. Set aside an extra time for a section, because Google Maps may tell you to go one way but there may also be ten signs that say “no trespassing” or maybe there’s a hidden brook on the path.
Leslie: Layers are key. Bring camelbacks, an open mind, and be flexible. Have fun!
Andy: The practical pieces include having multiple maps, like Ridge Trail’s own maps, or maps from Gaia, Google Maps, or regional park maps. We started out with the intention to circumnavigate and stuck with it. We usually hike both days of the weekend. Sometimes there would be a lot of gaps where we rode a bike alongside the ridge to make that happen. Make sure, though, to hike within your limits. Be brave, ambitious, and take pictures. Share your adventures. We’re sharing our story with friends and maybe we’ll even write a book on our story, who knows? Walking a trail is magic; it’s a focused and shared way of being together. We can be talking the whole time, learning about each other and gaining significant life lessons such as being present. Walking the trails with children is a story worth telling.
How has this experience changed your life?
Asher: It’s made me stronger, more resilient, and opened my eyes up to more things.
Nora: It has pushed me to do harder things I didn’t think I could do. It opened my eyes to new things. It’s been an amazing experience.
Leslie: It’s a nice process to be able work on skills like presence and being in the moment, as I can be an overthinker. Being on the trails helps me practice these skills. I don’t worry or think about things I might otherwise. To get to the point where an eight to ten mile hike is a short and relatively easy hike is great. We’ve become more appreciative of our minds and bodies and what they’re capable of.
Andy: Circumnavigating sets the conditions for a life-changing experience. We have become a lot sharper too since doing the trails. Nora and Asher make up riddles on the hikes and hone them. There are just always fun things to pass the time, it’s been nice to reflect on the journey. Our kids are right at the cusp of pre-adolescent growth. Eventually, they will change and seek more independence, so the window’s closing where they will want to be around us. Completing this challenge had created a deep bond and connection between all of us that we will always share.
For resources and more information about circumnavigation here.