Skip to main content

John McKinney: My Life as a Hiker

Excerpted from John McKinney’s The Hiker’s Way.

The Wonder Years My unusual career path began when I was a Boy Scout in Troop 441 in Downey, California. I lived for the monthly hikes in the mountains, deserts and forest around California, and for weeklong summer hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains and the High Sierra. Hiking was far and away my favorite merit badge earned on my way to becoming an Eagle Scout. (It should have been a tip-off that I wasn’t cut out to be a Wall Street mogul when I needed three tries to pass the test for the Personal Finances merit badge.)

When I was fourteen, my parents sat me down for what they characterized as a frank discussion about my future.

“John, your mother and I appreciate how fun this hiking-camping-outdoors stuff is for you,” my father began. “But let’s face it, you’re not going to be doing this as an adult.”

“When I’m a grown-up, I’m going to keep hiking,” I declared.

“What your father’s saying,” my mother chimed in, “is nobody makes a living by hiking.”

“You need to take up a sport that will help you in the business world,” my father continued in the persuasive manner that garnered him salesman-of-the-year honors at the huge corporation he represented. “So we’ve decided to help you out by—”

“Not another tennis racket,” I whined.

“No, you’re going to be surprised,” mother cautioned, as my father disappeared into the next room, soon re-emerging with—

“Golf clubs,” I said glumly.

“And a certificate for eight lessons at the club,” Father enthused.

My heart sank. I had been hoping for a new backpack. I took the golf lessons to please my parents, but my heart wasn’t in it. For me, golf was a good walk ruined, years before I ever heard of the Mark Twain quip.

Trails and Trojans My studies for a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Southern California proved to be somewhat useful to my life’s work; more so were my collegiate extracurricular activities. I helped found, and lead hikes for, the U.S.C. Hiking Club. While the cheerleaders for the football team looked good on TV, the coeds who hiked looked great on the trail—and that made them the most interesting and attractive on campus—at least to my way of thinking. The post-hike beers with my fellow hikers, when we talked about our next hikes and where our life paths may lead, I remember even now.

Hikes in the Hollywood Hills For a while, I did the Hollywood hustle, working as a location scout and nature film writer by day, writing the Great American screenplay at night (If you know a producer interested in biopic about John Muir, “John of the Mountains” is a great script…) Between film screenings and pitch meetings, I went for hikes in the Hollywood Hills. I discerned that the hills are blanketed with a green-leaved, red-berried native plant called California holly—which gave Hollywood its name. I discovered I greatly preferred being on top of hills and looking down at Hollywood than being in Hollywood and looking up at the hills. What could this mean?

Trail Writer While the industry never came through with those six- and seven-figure offers I thought my screenplays deserved, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that magazine editors would pay me two, three, and four figures to write about hiking and the great outdoors. Readers of California, Sunset and Los Angeles Times magazines enjoyed my hiking stories while Islands magazine sent me from Fiji to Kauai to Corfu to hike around the world’s islands and write about them.

My articles about hiking caught the attention of legendary California publisher Noel Young and his Capra Press, who signed me to write Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California. This title, now Hike Hike Southern California, A Day Hiker’s Guide, expanded from 50 trail accounts to 150, is still popular, and remains a regional bestseller.

In 1986, a Los Angeles Times reporter interviewed me for a story he was writing about hiking. In mid-interview, he stopped and declared: “Hey, you should be writing about this subject. Let me introduce you to the editor.”

So began my 18-year stint as the newspaper’s hiking columnist. The weekly column proved tremendously popular. Maybe the Missing Persons song lyric, “Nobody walks in L.A.” is true; however, it seems most everybody hikes. Local parks had to assign extra staff on the weekends following some of my hike write-ups because so many hikers turned out to hit the trail.

My Times readers liked my accounts of regional hikes but soon requested that I go farther afield to detail hikes. So off I hiked, around the West, across the East, and to intriguing hiking locales all over the U.S. I compiled the trails I described for The Times and other publications into a dozen guides, including Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks, Great Walks of New England and Great Walks of the Pacific Northwest.

Hiking: Isn’t it Romantic? Meanwhile, even my social life revolved around hiking. I must confess I took my dates on (sometimes too) rigorous hikes and I’m sure more than one woman not-so-fondly remembers not only a bad date but the hike from hell. Fortunately, I met a gal who could not only keep step with me on the trail, but surpasses me in every other way. Cheri and I have been together since our first hike, uh, date.

Pioneering the California Coastal Trail Of the many lands that have called to me, spoke to me, my home shoreline and coastal mountains have called the loudest. I answered the call by agreeing to the California Coastal Trail Foundation’s request to pioneer the California Coastal Trail. And so I took a little walk—a 1,600-mile hike as it turned out—from the Mexican border to the Oregon border along California’s diverse shore, through the coast range and redwood forest. It was a life-changing hike for me, as I transformed from a sportsman with something to prove to a traveler with something to learn—and share. I wrote a narrative, Hiking on the Edge: Dreams, Schemes, and 1600 Miles on the California Coastal Trail that chronicled my adventures and the unique people and places I encountered.

Hiking Vacations An upscale walking vacation company headquartered in England asked me to set up a North American branch. I helped create weeklong hiking holidays from the Olympic Peninsula to Santa Fe to the coast of Maine, and let tours around Santa Barbara and Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. I thoroughly enjoyed guiding hikers form all around the U.S. and Europe and some lovely paths, getting to know some wonderful people, and learning what goes on behind the scenes in this fun and rewarding part of the travel business.

Kids on the Trail  I enjoyed family hikes and sharing the trail with my daughter Sophia and son Daniel. I’ve learned as much from my children as they have from me, and I’ve bee delighted by the opportunity to share what we’ve learned together in a pocket guide, “HIKE with Kids,” and in four more books about hiking I’ve written for other publishers.

Recently I’ve been quite alarmed by the rise of what the outdoors recreation community calls “Nature Deficit Disorder,” brought to our  attention by author Richard Louv in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods. I’ve been speaking out on that topic and writing books about hiking and outdoors skills for kids, including Let’s Go Geocaching! and Let’s Go Hiking!

Older, Wiser, The Trailmaster Nearly 20 years ago, a California newspaper reporter, who shall be held blameless and left nameless, branded me “The Trailmaster” after interviewing me for a story he wrote about hiker safety. Shortly thereafter, a radio talk show host picked up on the name and invited listeners to call in with their questions about hiking for “The Trailmaster.”

The name is easy to remember and is as good or better than any of the other names I’ve been called: “Trails expert,” “Hike writer,” and “Hiking spokesman” as well as less flattering terms—“eco-crank,” “curmudgeon” and coastal access extremist.”

At a certain time in life, some of us feel a calling to share our calling. For me, that time is now. It’s time to share the gospel of hiking, its rich tradition and its many benefits for body, mind and spirt.

I make no claims to be the smartest and most eloquent spokesman for hikers, but I do have one standout ability that helps me spread the good word: I can walk and talk at the same time.

Go on and scoff. But it’s harder than you think to hike and impart hiking wisdom at the same time, particularly with a TV camera tracking your every move. To be sure it’s an obscure talent, but one I’m delighted to use to share the hiker’s way.