Go with a 29er then if you need hardtail.
Problem is funds. I can get a pretty sweet 26er with a better spec drivetrain (SRAM X9) with 140mm RockShox Sektor RL for $850.
If I go 29er it is with X7 drivetrain, and I want more than the stock 100mm fork that they mostly come with, so I'm looking at at least $1000 for the bike and then an extra $300 for a Manitou Tower Pro 120mm fork.
This is still within my budget but I have a hard time justifying an extra $500 so I can get the big boy wheels for a bike I might ride 15-20 days a year.