Unfortunately, a badly sprained right ankle brought me crashing back to earth. I could not walk without a painful limp. I passed nearly four weeks nursing my injured ankle back to health, along with my appetite for adventure. During that time, all my travel plans were put on hold.
But once my ankle mended considerably, so too, did my desire to travel. After Kalugong, I had set my sights on its taller neighbor – Mount Yangbew. Now that I could walk again without limping, I wanted to proceed with that plan. I invited a friend of mine to come with me. He agreed, and I began preparing for our trip. A few days later, however, he informed me that he could not join me after all, as he had a more pressing errand to attend to. Being loath to travel alone, I decided to postpone our trip to Yangbew.
But I was itching to be outdoors. So I turned to another friend – my good friend Mike – and invited him to hike with me. He readily agreed. I initially thought of bringing him to Mount Yangbew, but Mike has no experience with hiking, let alone mountaineering. I decided climbing a mountain wasn’t a good idea just yet. I resolved to look elsewhere, somewhere near and accessible that offers a welcoming – and inspiring – introduction to hiking. Almost immediately, Camp John Hay’s Eco-Trail came to mind.
Camp John Hay’s Eco-TrailI have hiked in Camp John Hay several times before, along the Forest Bathing Trail – the old Yellow Trail that weaves and winds through the pine woods on the southern and eastern parts of the Camp. But I have not yet had the opportunity to walk along the Eco-Trail, which lies on the opposite side, running through the northwestern forest cover of the Camp.
According to information I gathered online, the Eco-Trail measures around 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) in length. From its one end across Le Monet Hotel at the heart of Camp John Hay, the trail proceeds on a northwesterly course for about a kilometer, and then heads west for another kilometer or so, eventually reaching its other end near Gate 3, the Camp’s former main entrance.
Because it is shorter, the Eco-Trail is more popular than the Forest Bathing Trail, and therefore sees far more visitors. For this reason, I had reservations about the Eco-Trail, worried that it might be too touristy. But because I wanted to give my good friend Mike an easy and welcoming baptism to hiking, and also because my sprained ankle wasn’t fully healed just yet, I eventually settled on paying the Eco-Trail a visit.
The Gate is ClosedOn a fine February morning, I met up with Mike near his apartment at Cabinet Hill. We decided to walk towards Gate 3 of Camp John Hay, which lay only about a kilometer (0.6 miles) away. I assumed that hiking the Eco-Trail is similar to the Forest Bathing Trail in that you can begin your trek on either end of the trail. I was planning on entering the Eco-Trail from Gate 3 and from there work our way towards its other end at the center of Camp John Hay.
From Cabinet Hill, our route involved walking south, following Marcoville Street, then continuing on a southeastern direction along Upper Session Road, before crossing towards Loakan Road, where Gate 3 is situated.
I have not seen Mike in person for almost two years, even though we both lived in the same city, in Baguio. Our communication was only through brief messages via Facebook Messenger. So I felt utterly delighted to finally reunite with him. Even as we walked towards Camp John Hay, we caught up with one another’s life, and the lives of our other friends. We had so much stories to tell, so that we didn’t notice that we had already gone past Marcoville Street and Upper Session Road, and were now nearing the threshold of Loakan Road.
We made a brief stop at Panagbenga Park, a small park situated at the intersection of Loakan Road and South Drive, just beside Gate 3. After taking some photos of the park, we then proceeded to Gate 3. We found it be a small fortified guardhouse built in the middle of a concrete road that ran uphill. On either side of the guardhouse extended chain link gates that barred the whole width of the road.
As we drew near, we saw that the gates were closed. Fastened on one of the gates was a small, old sign that read JOGGERS AND WALKERS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER. TAKE NEW GATE.
So my plan to enter the Eco-Trail from Gate 3 was no longer possible. We now needed to go to the heart of Camp John Hay to begin our hike.
Camp John HayWe didn’t mind this change of plans, though. In fact, we welcomed it. A distance of only a kilometer separated Gate 3 from Gate 1, the main entrance to Camp John Hay. From there, it was only about 500 meters (0.3 miles) to the Eco-Trail, whose one end – now the only trailhead – lies somewhere across Le Monet Hotel.
We opted not to ride a jeepney to Camp John Hay, preferring instead to walk. It was a fine morning for a walk. The sun was warm and mellow, the breeze was cool and clean, and the sky was as clear and blue as can be. Besides, our route along Loakan Road was lined with pine woods and other pleasant sceneries. Along the way we continued exchanging stories and, more importantly, jokes and anecdotes. In one another’s cheerful company, time passed, and the distance seemed shortened. Ere long, we had entered Gate 1 and were proceeding uphill along Ordonio Drive towards the Eco-Trail.
It was still early as we made our way east, deeper into Camp John Hay. The cafes and retail shops of the Ayala Technohub were still closed or lay mostly empty, and the road for the most part was clear of vehicles. It was delightful to find Camp John Hay this way, for all too often it is overcrowded with people – mostly tourists from the lowlands – along with their cars, commercial light vans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).
But more remarkable than the empty shops and the vacant street were the flowers that blossomed throughout the Camp. This was, after all, the month of February, the season of blooming in Baguio, and all the plants that could flower now were putting on a spectacular display of colors. Even the wild and common plants whose name I didn’t know, but which I often dismissed as mere weeds, were laden with beautiful clusters of little, white flowers.
Getting LostAfter a very quick visit to the picnic grounds that lay on the other side of Ordonio Drive, we crossed the road back and continued uphill. Though I knew that the trailhead of the Eco-Trail is situated opposite Le Monet Hotel, somewhere close to the adventure park known as Paintball Republic, I wasn’t sure where it is exactly. But I felt confident we would find it without a hitch.
We were nearing Paintball Republic when we saw a signpost along the road that read ECO-TRAIL in black lettering, with a red arrow pointing to the right just beneath the lettering. Immediately next to this signpost was another sign bearing precautionary advice and several emergency contact numbers, all printed in white paint.
Beside these two signs was the beginning of a narrow but well-trodden dirt path that meandered through a slope clad with pines and patches of undergrowth; it passed by a rather old wooden house painted green and white, seemingly made to resemble a cabin, albeit larger, or even a country house. This must already be the entrance to the Eco-Trail!
Excitedly, I called Mike, who was wandering nearby. When he drew near, I told him to take to the path and start the trek already. I urged him to go ahead and simply follow where the path leads. He went forward promptly, while I followed behind at a slower pace, taking pictures of the sylvan scene laid out before us.
We followed the twists and turns of the dirt path only for a brief while before Mike came hurrying back to tell me that the path ahead seemed to have disappeared, or at least he could no longer see a path to follow. Slightly puzzled, I went ahead and saw that the dirt path, indeed, faded, until it seemed to vanish completely into the rank undergrowth.
I told Mike to look around and search for some trace of the dirt track. After a minute, I recognized a path that wound through a thick carpet of ferns, but it was clearly not a beaten path. Perhaps it might have been one once, but now it looked like it had not seen any visitors for a while. It was almost entirely obscured by ferns, which made it hardly visible to a quick glance. Surely this was not the Eco-Trail.
Nonetheless, we decided to take this path and see where it leads. We made our way through the ferny expanse, which grew exceedingly dense so that we could not see where our feet landed. We felt no firm ground underneath our shoes. There was only a thick matting of dead and dried grasses and fronds. We proceeded cautiously, for fear of our feet accidentally slipping into some hole or pit hidden in the undergrowth.
Eventually, we forced our way through and emerged on a rugged slope riddled with makeshift wooden barricades and ramparts built around the bases of pine trees, along with used tires and green fine mesh netting. All about our feet were tiny, yellow paintballs, most of which were already burst or broken. We were on the game field of Paintball Republic, and definitely not on the Eco-Trail.
Once more, we scoured our surroundings for any sign or trace of a trail or a track. When we could not find any, we gave up and returned close to where we started, near the two signposts we spotted earlier. Here, we recognized yet another dirt path, a broader, more pronounced path that ran roughly parallel to Ordonio Drive, which was on our left side.
Feeling slightly more confident that we have found the Eco-Trail at last, we pursued this path, faithfully following all its ascents and descents, its weavings and windings. All the while, we were slowly but steadily moving on a southerly course, and, it seemed, walking back towards Gate 1.
Every so often the path branched into several ones, each heading to a varying direction. Whenever we came across such splits, Mike would ask what path to take. I honestly didn’t know myself, so I simply told him to follow the path that looked the most well-trodden. This strategy stood us in good stead for the most part. But some of the most well-trodden paths still led us to dead ends, forcing us to return to where the path branched and choose another route.
But even as we wended our way through the wooded slopes, I could not shake off the nagging doubt that we were not on the Eco-Trail. I was not worried, however. We were in no danger of being lost, for the road was always within our sight. If we so choose, we could simply trek uphill, leave the woods, and return to the road.
Besides, the beautiful scenery around us preoccupied most of our attention. We were walking beneath the shade of pine trees that grew tall and sturdy, through grassy slopes graced with many wild blossoms of white, blue, yellow, and violet hues. The air was cool and carried the crisp redolence of pines, and the sunlight was warm. By no means was this an unenjoyable experience.
But the path we were following eventually took a bend and once again split into a number of lesser tracks, all of which descended on a verdant downslope and seemed to fade at length, until they vanished altogether. Below us stretched the grey length of Loakan Road, along which we had walked earlier. We were at the southernmost bounds of Camp John Hay already. The Eco-Trail, as I recall, lay somewhere on the northwest.
There was now no mistaking it. We had been walking on the wrong direction all this time. I had hoped that the path would keep on bending until it eventually struck a route to the northwest. But my hope cheated me. We stood before a dead end.
I was about to call Mike so we can return to Ordonio Drive when I spotted a man far up the hill walking down towards us. Intending to ask him for directions, I waited for him to close the distance. Once he drew near, I asked him if we were anywhere near the Eco-Trail. He laughed and smiled and told us that we were very far from it. He told us that the trailhead to the Eco-Trail was at Paintball Republic.
Feeling both foolish and relieved at the same time, I thanked him and he walked away. We began retracing our steps and climbing uphill, making for the road up ahead. We didn’t mind the entire fiasco. We passed it off good-naturedly. In fact, Mike said it was an excellent way to burn calories. We laughed all the way to Ordonio Drive.
On the Right TrackApparently, if one sees the white signpost along Ordonio Drive that reads ECO-TRAIL, do not take the footpath that lies just beside it. It is not yet the entrance to the Eco-Trail. Instead, one needs to continue walking past the signpost, past the old, green and white wooden house of American colonial architecture, and right towards Paintball Republic.
The trailhead to the Eco-Trail is located on the right side of the entrance to Paintball Republic. It is marked by a white tarpaulin sign fixed upon a wall. The sign bears the word ECO-TRAIL in black lettering and above it, a black arrow, which contains THIS WAY in white lettering, pointing to a path that leads to the right.
This path we now entered, feeling relieved and reassured that we were finally on the right track. We found ourselves walking on a dirt footpath, its surface thickly covered with pine needles, leaves, and petals that had fallen from the variety of plants, both wild and ornamental, that grew dense along its sides.
This path stretched on level ground for only a few meters, before it gently descended downhill over a brief series of steps made out of concrete slabs and blocks – now mostly broken – and wooden retaining walls. These stairs have clearly seen better days, yet they possessed a rustic and natural charm that suited the scenery.
Past the broken-down stairs, the narrow footpath proceeded once more on even terrain. Grasses, ferns, shrubs, and all manner of plants flourished at the feet of tall pine trees that rose on either side and stuck their twisted roots across the path.
Overhead, birds swiftly passed from one branch to the next – fluttering, alighting, and then taking off in a flurry of wings. They chirped and chattered, tweeted and trilled. Now and then, Mike and I would pause our conversation to excitedly remark at a birdcall, and peer through the leaves and branches to find its source. We were familiar with the croaks of the large-billed crows and the chirps of the brown mayas (Eurasian tree sparrows), but there were many other calls that came from birds whose names we didn’t know.
The rich avifaunal life came as no surprise, however, for the Eco-Trail is well-known for it. It is, after all, a frequent and favorite haunt of birdwatching enthusiasts. I made a mental note to join a birdwatching trip here one day, just to acquaint myself with the local species.
Before long, the path brought us before a little footbridge that spanned a narrow and shallow gully. The bridge was made of wooden planks with wrought-iron railings painted dark green. Beneath the bridge, water trickled through the gully over a rocky bed. Lush vegetation grew all around, notably ferns with massive fronds.
We thought the bridge looked quite picturesque, so we took turns standing and posing on its midst and snapping shots of each other. Once done, we crossed the bridge and continued along the dirt track that waited for us on the other side.
The path was level for only a few meters, before it climbed through a flight of steps dug on the slope. These dirt steps were kept in place by wooden retaining walls. A crisscross fence made of sticks bounded one side of the stairs.
We cleared the dirt steps and proceeded on even terrain once again. The path, which ran in a winding fashion, now widened considerably. Along its sides, pine trees stood straight and sturdy, towering over the ipil-ipil (river tamarind) trees and other smaller trees that were also gathered, albeit in fewer numbers. Surrounding the feet of the trees was dense undergrowth.
Mike began telling me how much he loves being out here, in the woods, with the warm sun and the blue sky. I told him I feel the same way. I was glad to see him enjoying the hike. All I wanted was to inspire in him a love for nature and the outdoors, partly in the hope that we can have many more travels in the days to come.
Brooks and BridgesWe continued along the path, our footsteps muffled by the soft matting of pine needles that overlaid the earthen track. A few meters ahead, the path curved and went down a slope. But before its downhill descent, it passed close by a low and little mound. The sides of the mound were covered with a variety of wild low-growing plants; its crown was mostly bare save for a number of pines that grew around the edge. The mound seemed like a good spot for a picture, so we took turns posing on the open space within its brow.
We left the mound thereafter and returned to the trail, descending over a series of dirt steps carved on the slope. These steps led to a tiny makeshift bridge of wooden planks and railings straddling a small brook. The brook was murky, and was shallow, though now and then it collected into deeper and darker pools. I suspected that the flowing water might be the runoff channeled from nearby parts of the Camp.
We paused on the bridge and stared down at the brook as it wended its way beneath the overhanging, jungle-like vegetation. Within the brownish and grayish water, we could see a multitude of tiny, black specks moving with the current. Fishes? No. Tadpoles, thousands upon thousands of them, carried swiftly by the flowing water.
If there were tadpoles, then surely there must be frogs. Excitedly, we tried looking for frogs among the stones and plants by the banks of the brook. But we could not find any. Either they were really absent, or just really clever at hiding. We moved on.
We came across another bridge similar to the one we just left. In fact, the brook it spanned eventually merged with the brook we crossed just a while ago, forming a brownish stream that emptied where I could only guess.
We passed over the footbridge and landed on an earthen track. To our right, the ground sloped upwards. We were flanked on both sides by tall pine trees that marched in ranks as far as the eye could see. About their roots grew an exceedingly luxuriant carpet of ferns that spread far and wide, a scene seemingly lifted straight from artists’ depictions of the ferny forests that flourished back when dinosaurs still walked the earth. Indeed, even as I surveyed the ferny scene, I half-expected seeing the long neck of a brachiosaur slowly rising from behind the fronds!
Over this ferny groundcover, a few tree ferns with scaly trunks jutted out. It looked to me that these were the ferns that, upon seeing the tall pine trees about them, were no longer content to crawl upon the ground like their smaller cousins, desiring the loftier heights instead, were there was more space and sunlight. But though these tree ferns grew impressively tall, for we found many that stood several meters high, they never matched the heights of the soaring pines.
Through this piney and ferny land the dirt path now made its way, advancing in a winding manner over fairly level ground. We followed it in a leisurely pace. We trod upon pine needles, and took care not trip over the gnarled and twisted roots of the trees that were embossed all over the footpath. We paused every now and then to admire the sound of the rushing wind, and to listen to remarkable birdcalls.
Once more, I let Mike walk ahead while I tarried a short distance behind, collecting photographs I hoped to post later in my blog. If truth be told, I thought that the Eco-Trail would not be as picturesque as the Forest Bathing Trail. But now, feted with these glorious scenes, I realized how very wrong I was.
Spanish BreadEre long, the path abandoned the flattish terrain and slowly made for the high ground, mounting a series of earthen steps dug on the upslope. These steps we languidly climbed, until we halted before a massive pine log whose considerable length barred the entire path.
We explored the log, admiring its largeness and wondering if it had been felled by a storm or foul weather, or by human hands. The latter seemed more likely. In fact, the huge trunk seemed to have been cut down and left here by design, perhaps to serve as a seat for hikers to rest upon.
It was now past ten o’clock. The sun had ridden high in the sky. We were not sure of our progress, where we were on the trail exactly, or how far we have actually gone. All we knew was that we had been walking for quite a while now.
In my mind, I began tallying the total distance we have covered. From Cabinet Hill to the trailhead of the Eco-Trail, or at least close to it, we walked about 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles). I added another kilometer for the backs and forths we made when we were, ah, lost. Then, from the trailhead up to this point, I thought we covered more than a kilometer. If my reckoning is right, we have been walking for almost 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) already! Surely we need a rest!
It seemed we found the log on cue. Needing no further encouragement, we sat side by side upon the log, taking swigs from our water bottles and munching on the snack I brought from home. I had packed a bag of Spanish bread – yellow buns with butter and sugar filling that are popular bakery items here in the Philippines. Why it is called Spanish bread, I can only guess. But we were in no mood to determine the history behind its name. For the moment, all we were concerned about was finding out if it was enough to satiate our hunger. It was, and it tasted really good. Between mouthfuls of the sweet buns, we continued our conversations, all the while basking in the lazy peace that hung in the air.
The Final StretchAfter more than fifteen minutes of rest, we decided to resume our hike. We gathered our things and, upon making sure that we were leaving the resting area as we found it, took to the trail once more.
We carried on the uphill path, passing by a couple doing some sorts of stretches along the wayside. By and by, the path reached the crest of the slope it was climbing, and began to even out. It then dipped for a while, before continuing on level fashion through the wooded land.
Eventually, we saw that the path ahead passed through some sort of a dark tunnel, which, upon drawing near, we found out was formed by a thick array of rather short bamboos that grew in dense and overarching formations. Even as we entered this veritable tunnel, we felt the temperature drop a few degrees, or so it seemed to us. For outside, the air had grown warm, but here it was still cool and crisp. Underneath the shade cast by the bamboos, we lingered for a while, delighted that we had found a refuge from the sun.
We left the tunnel of bamboos soon after, venturing once more beneath the glare of the sun. On either side of the path, bamboos thinned out, yielding to the tall pines, leafy ipil-ipil trees, and other trees that grew more and more numerous. The path meandered onwards, ascending and descending, twisting and turning, but always only ever so slightly. Along the way we met and exchanged greetings with an elderly Japanese couple.
We came by a signpost that stood amidst the thick vegetation on our left side. The sign read STRICTLY NO HIKERS ARE ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT. It was an old, worn-out sign, dirty with age, its paint peeling in many places. The iron posts that held it aloft were rusty. Upon reading the sign, we grew confused. Surely we were still on the Eco-Trail.
But we decided to pay the sign no heed and press on regardless. The path curved and we emerged on a grey concrete road stretched along a slope. We looked to our left and saw that the road ran downhill, passing through a guardhouse with chain link fences on either side – it was Gate 3, the very same gate we had found closed earlier.
So we had reached the end – and the exit – of the Eco-Trail already. The hike finished too soon for my liking. But all in all, it was a good hike. We walked downhill towards one of the gates, unsure if it was closed from this side. Tentatively, I pulled it. It swung open. We headed out.
As we walked along Loakan Road, I asked Mike how he felt now that he had successfully completed his first hiking experience. He told me he felt fulfilled, and was raring for more hiking trips in the future. I smiled. There would be more trails to traverse, mountains to climb, and sights to see and experience, I promised him. I had a whole list of destinations waiting. We were only just beginning.