Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Harmony Headlands State Park: Go Now

With over 275 California state parks to choose from, sometimes it's the littlest parks that get overlooked. Honestly, that's OK with me, because it means more solitude when I hike. But low visitation numbers also equal a greater chance of that park being closed next time California has a budget crisis. That's why I'm devoting this entire post to showing you the giant beauty of tiny Harmony Headlands State Park. If enough of you get out there and go visit this park, it'll still be there for decades to come.

Harmony Headlands is the second-youngest California state park currently open to the public (only Fort Ord Dunes State Park on Monterey Bay opened more recently). At Harmony Headlands, you'll have a 4.5-mile round-trip hiking trail [map PDF] to the coast, across gently rolling former cattle and dairy ranch lands, almost to yourself, even on sunny summer weekends. Where Chumash tribespeople once camped and Chinese immigrants harvested kelp to send to San Francisco, today a wild beach remains unblighted by development. Sea otters and seals splash in the tidal waters, while brown pelicans soar on the winds. Black-bellied salamanders skitter and California king snakes slither along the trail beside grasslands.

To find this park, look for the Hwy 1 pull-off marked by a brown 'Coastal Access' sign pointing toward the ocean. There's only enough room in the parking lot for 10 cars, so you might have to park in a wide-open gravel turn-out immediately north, on the same (side of Hwy 1. The park is open from 6 a.m. until sunset daily. A day-use parking fee of $3 per car will eventually be charged, but it's free right now.

Harmony Headlands State Park is less than 3 miles south of Harmony (population 18), California's smallest town. Harmony is overshadowed by grandiose Hearst Castle, lording over California's Central Coast from a hilltop about 20 miles farther north up Hwy 1. The town is kept alive by artists' workshops and galleries. Inside a 19th-century creamery building are a historical post office, which townspeople keep trying to re-open, and a charmingly rustic Harmony Cafe run by an Italian expat - stop for espresso and homemade tiramisu.

What's your favorite California state park, big or small? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Want more stories and travel advice like this? 
Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List
Lovelorn Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

Photos: Harmony Headlands State Park (Sara J. Benson) & Harmony, CA (Jonathan J. Hayes)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Three Places to Reclaim Wildness on Hawaii's Big Island

Of all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island is the only one whose adventures I never completely exhaust, not even when I lived there. But like on Oahu, Maui and Kauai, the tides of tourist development seem impossible to turn back or even slow down. That's why it made me overjoyed recently to find both old and new spots on the Big Island where wildness still rules. Here's how you can visit them yourself while practicing malama aina (love, respect and care for the land), a Native Hawaiian cultural tradition.

In the jet-black lava rock desert of the Kau district, Ka Lae (check out my Instagram photo, above) is the southernmost point in the USA. It's said that the first Polynesian voyagers to reach Hawaii landed their canoes here, and for centuries afterward, return trips to Tahiti often launched from this sacred ground. Today you can drive here via local ranch lands (my travel companion couldn't resist pointing out "The southernmost cows in the USA!") and a high-tech wind farm. Park your car at the end of the rutted dirt road, then walk out to the ancient point, flayed by strong winds and high surf that crashes chaotically into the rocky shoreline. There's not a resort hotel or tiki bar in sight, I promise.

Less than an hour's drive away is the Kahuku Unit wilderness addition to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Although the park has owned this historic ranch since 2003, the unit has only been open on a limited basis to the public for the past few years. Across tranquil pasture land, through native forest and atop lava flows on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, several hikes let you escape the crowds over on North Kona and South Kohala beaches. Most varied of all, the Puu o Lokuana Trail barrels over an abandoned airstrip and climbs a cinder cone for views over dramatic lava all the way to the Pacific. The Kahuku Unit gates are currently only open between 9am and 3pm on Saturday and Sunday. Helpful rangers and volunteers at the entrance hand out hiking maps and give valuable tips and advice. 

As a travel writer, I've rarely witnessed hotels being torn down, only built up (except for casino implosions in Las Vegas). Never before have I heard of a resort in Hawaii being demolished to make way for the restoration of ancient temples and cultural sites. But that's exactly what is supposed to happen in Keauhou, south of Kailua-Kona. The Outrigger resort hotel here has closed and may be demolished as soon as 2015. Sponsored by Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian heiau (temples) have already been restored, and plans call for building an outdoor education complex and community cultural center. In the interim, you can still visit these sacred Hawaiian sites by asking permission at the security guard shack. When I was there alone last week, hookupu (offering bundles) already lay atop the lava-rock altar and ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs were peeking out at low tide along the beach.

Where are your favorite wild spots in Hawaii? Tell everyone by leaving a comment below. Mahalo!

Want more travel stories & advice? Click below.
Tips for Epic One-Way Hikes in Hawaii
Maui's Best Walks for Wildlife Watching
I Am a Park Ranger: Video from Behind the Federal Shutdown's Locked NPS Gates

Photo credits: Big Island of Hawaii (Sara J. Benson)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Visiting Yosemite National Park? 5 Tips to Avoid Being Driven Mad by Crowds

I've visited Yosemite National Park more times than I can count, always trying to avoid the biggest crowds. It's a cinch to find solitude in a giant sequoia grove blanketed by snow in winter. But what about exploring the park during peak travel times, when waterfalls peak in late spring and during the busy summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day?

Here's what I've learned after years of getting stuck in Yosemite Valley traffic jams, being turned away from full campgrounds and jostling with marching armies of vacationing families on the park's most popular trails. (It also helps to have worked for two seasons as a national park ranger in the Sierra Nevada, I admit, so get ready for some insider tips.) 

1. Don't Drive Anywhere, If You Can Help It

You can visit many areas of the park without ever needing a car, which saves you parking headaches and wasted time in traffic jams. Free shuttles circulate around the valley year-round, and along Tioga Road during summer. YARTS public buses travel Hwy 120 and Hwy 140, linking the valley and high country with the Eastern Sierra and the western Sierra foothills. Amtrak offers train service to Merced, with connecting buses to Yosemite Valley.

To reach Glacier Point, take the fee-based tour bus from Yosemite Valley in summer. Most people don't know about the free summer shuttle between Yosemite Valley and Wawona, although it only runs once daily in each direction and on-board space is very limited. From Wawona, free and frequent seasonal shuttles take you to the Mariposa Grove.

2. Hike In Reverse, or Just Hike Further Away

If you want to hike the Mist Trail up from the valley or traipse around Tuolumne Meadows, there's no escaping the crowds during summer unless you get a crack-of-dawn start. But Yosemite has 750 miles of trails to explore, so why limit yourself to just the easiest, most accessible hikes that everyone else is taking? By going even slightly off the beaten track, or at least by hiking in the opposite direction, you'll get a much more peaceful walk in the woods.

Hike even a mile down the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point and the crowds of shutterbugs just melt away (and you won't encounter nearly as many people as on the famous Four Mile Trail either). Off Tioga Road in the high country, the trail to Gaylor Lakes is only lightly trod, even at the height of summer. Looking to bag Half Dome? Instead of hiking up from the valley in just one day, hike downhill from Tuolumne Meadows via Cloud's Rest or the John Muir Trail on an overnight backpacking trip.

3. If You're Not an Early Bird, Get a Late Start

I love a lot about being outdoors: camping, hiking, backpacking, canoeing, skiing etc. What I don't love is getting up early in the morning. But instead of that being a drawback, it can actually be an advantage when visiting a busy national park like Yosemite. If you start your day at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., you'll be two hours behind the worst crowds all day. While that might prevent you from getting a parking spot right by the trailhead, it can be perfect for finding a no-reservations campsite (as other campers are checking out) or taking a hike with fewer people on your tail. Some of the most relaxed days I've spent outdoors in Yosemite have ended around sunset, after which I've walked into the Mountain Room Restaurant and gotten a table with no waiting.

4. Last-Minute Camping: Be Ready to Rough It

For Yosemite National Park campgrounds that require reservations, you'd better get organized five months in advance. Personally, I'm not all that keen on booking my trip that far out, or camping at noisy, jam-packed campgrounds in the valley. I'd rather take a chance on turning up mid-morning at a first-come, first-served campground and seeing if any sites are available. True, you might have to sacrifice some amenities at these campgrounds or possibly travel on a dirt road to get there, but unless you're visiting on a summer weekend, your chances of finding a spot are pretty good. Otherwise, there's always free, DIY dispersed camping (read: no toilets, drinking water, bear lockers or campfires) on national forest land adjacent to the park.

5. Plan as Much as You Can in Advance

I'm more of a spontaneous traveler myself. But if you're going to visit Yosemite during the summer, even a little bit of advance planning will go a long way toward making your trip easier and more fun. Book lodging, campsites and Half Dome day-hiking and all wilderness permits several months in advance (or check for last-minute cancellations just before your trip starts). Download a free PDF of the park's seasonal newspaper ahead of time so you can better plan your days around what's going on during your visit. Read up on Yosemite's hiking trails and pick out which ones you want to try before you arrive. 

And here's another way to make sure you don't waste a minute of your next Yosemite trip (shameless self-promotion alert!): buy this Lonely Planet guidebook I co-wrote, called Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, available in print and as an e-book.

Have you got another tip for avoiding crowds in national parks? Share it by posting a comment.

Related links:
US National Parks: 4 Advantages of Autumn Travel
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door
Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome: Photo Essay
Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Photo credits: Yosemite National Park (Sara J. Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

US National Parks: The 4 Biggest Advantages of Autumn Travel

Along the Skyline Trail in Mt Rainier National Park, WA
Having worked for the National Park Service (NPS), one of the best ranger travel secrets I learned is that the best time to visit many US national parks is fall, not summer. The deserts of the Southwest are more temperate during autumn. Fall foliage is blazing with reds, golds and oranges across the country, from Appalachia's Blue Ridge Parkway to Yellowstone National Park way out West. Summer crowds have drifted out of California's lofty Sierra Nevada Mountains and the volcanic Cascades Range just inland from the West Coast. Even some of Alaska's spectacular national parks - including Denali and Kenai Fjords - are easy to access during early autumn, at least before the first snow falls.

The sweet spot for maximizing good weather but avoiding summer vacation crowds is usually right after Labor Day through the end of September or even October. Still not convinced that fall is a perfect time to visit many national parks? Here are four good reasons to time your trip after summer. 

Save more money. Rates at lodgings both inside the parks and in nearby gateway towns often drop steeply after Labor Day. Ask about off-season discounts when making reservations. Beware that some park lodges shut down in mid-September or early October, like the North Rim's Grand Canyon Lodge, Crater Lake Lodge in Oregon or Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park. But a few stay open year-round, like those in Yosemite Valley.

View of Mt Rainier and Nisqually Glacier in autumn

Enjoy some solitude. On a recent backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park during mid-September, I only saw about 10 people each day - and this was on the park's most popular backcountry loop around Rae Lakes! In early October in Mt Rainier National Park, I was one of only four people sitting on the front porch of the National Park Inn catching sunset from the old-fashioned wicker chairs. When I've driven Yosemite's high country Tioga Rd (Hwy 120) in late October before snow closes it for the year, I've had viewpoints and day-hiking trails almost all to myself. 

Warm days, cool nights. Have you ever sweated out a national park trip during the dog days of August? Unless you're one of those wild and crazy ones who wants to experience what 120 degrees Fahrenheit feels like in Death Valley, the balmy weather of fall at at many can be a relief. Days are usually still sunny, with temperatures becoming crisper and cooler ovenight - cue your excuse to put that campfire or cabin fireplace to good use. Dress in layers, and you'll stay warm and comfy enough.
Alpenglow after sunset over Mt Rainier from Longmire, WA

Wildlife on the move. Last, fall is a great time for wildlife spotting in many national parks. Watch bears hungrily prowl before denning for the winter, elk and moose dramatically clash over mates, and a field guide's worth of birds migrating south for the winter.

Do you have a helpful travel tip for visiting US national parks during fall? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links:
Fall Travel: Sunshine on California's Coast
Ghost Towns: Escaping Crowds at US National Parks
Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Photo credits: Mt Rainier National Park (Sara J. Benson)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome [Photo Essay]

Often reading about a hiking trail doesn't give you enough information. Honestly, how difficult is it to hike up Half Dome inside Yosemite National Park? Take a look at our trek and decide for yourself.

View of Half Dome from Clouds Rest peak in Yosemite National Park

Heading up to Clouds Rest from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead off Tioga Road, you get panoramic views of this glacially polished granite dome. Its rear profile resembles a hawk perched above Yosemite Valley.

Lightning strikes, falling from the cables and other risks

Warning signs at the base of Half Dome are ignored by hikers too intent on making it to the summit despite inclement weather. Fatalities from lightning strikes or slipping off the cables have happened.

Half Dome cables, which are put up seasonally each summer

To safely ascend the cables bolted into the rock, leather gloves and climbing shoes or hiking boots with good traction help. So does upper body strength, as you'll be pulling yourself up to the top of the cables, not pushing off the rock with your legs.

Walking on the top of Half Dome on a summer weekday before 10 a.m.

Is it worth the effort of getting up early enough to beat the crowds to the top? Yes. Fewer people on the cables before 9 a.m. makes it quicker, easier and safer for you to ascend and descend the cables. You'll need to get a hiking permit in advance.

View of Yosemite Valley from the summit of Half Dome

At the summit, stop to catch your breath, let your cramped arm muscles loosen, and gaze down at evergreen trees and meadows beside the Merced River, which meanders through Yosemite Valley

Safely back down the cables, thanks to climbing rope and clips

We finished our 20-mile overnight hike in Yosemite Valley, descending from Half Dome and over the wooden bridge above Nevada Fall. Take the John Muir Trail if you're already knock-kneed, or drop down the steeper Mist Trail beside Vernal Fall.

Have you climbed Yosemite's Half Dome? Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Have any other tips for novices? Leave us a comment below!

Related links:
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Photos: Yosemite National Park (Michael Connolly Jr. & Sara Benson)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Planning your first trip to Kings Canyon National Park? Or maybe you just want to find how to make the most of your time at the Sierra Nevada's least-visited park? Here's what you need to know, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Why go? Kings Canyon gives you classic Sierra Nevada mountain scenery without the crowds of Yosemite Valley, plus giant sequoia trees without the traffic jams of Sequoia National Park next door. You can drive down into the canyon itself, one of North America's deepest, and find swimming holes alongside the frothy Kings River, go wildlife watching or lace up your hiking boots and trek to waterfall cascades and alpine lakes.

Access? There's only one way into Kings Canyon National Park and that's via Hwy 180 to the park's Big Stump Entrance outside Grant Grove Village, starting either from Fresno in California's Central Valley or Sequoia National Park via the Generals Hwy. Kings Canyon National Park's two main areas, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, are geographically separated by the Sequoia National Forest and its Giant Sequoia National Monument. But they're connected by the twisting, narrow Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180), which edges along the face of dizzyingly sheer cliffs for 30 miles down the canyon. This byway is open to Hume Lake year-round, but closed to Cedar Grove by snowfall, usually from mid-November through mid-April.

When to beat the crowds? Like elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada, summer is peak tourist season, especially from July 4th through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Right now, the slower period between Memorial Day and late June is an optimal time to visit, as is September immediately after Labor Day. In winter you can still visit the Grant Grove area of the park to go snowshoeing among the giant sequoia trees.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait for a parking space, don't miss seeing Grant Grove, where many of the park's biggest trees live. The nature trail is kid-friendly, and you can walk right through the Fallen Monarch, a giant sequoia stump that once served as a hotel, a bar and a horse stable for US Cavalry who were the Sierra Nevada's first park rangers. Near the end of Hwy 180 past Cedar Grove Village, pull over at Zumwalt Meadow. Across a scenic bridge, a short nature trail loops around the grassy meadows where mule deer graze, black bears forage with their cubs and bird song echoes off canyon walls.

Best day hikes? In addition to the nature trails at Grant Grove and Zumwalt Meadow, the most popular day hike is from Road's End in Cedar Grove to Mist Falls, over 8 miles round-trip but worth every step for the canyon views and waterfall cascading over granite. Extend this hike another 2 miles each way to reach Paradise Valley. A day hike most visitors miss is the peaceful 8-mile Hotel Creek-Lewis Creek Loop, which tops out near the Cedar Grove Overlook and is especially great for birders in the early morning.

Best swimming holes? Cedar Grove has 'em all, but most aren't safe enough to swim in until the Kings River flow slows down later in summer. When in doubt, ask a ranger first before taking a dip. At Road's End, hit the river beach near Muir Rock, where conservationist John Muir once gave inspiring outdoor talks and kids today jump screaming into the river. Or follow the path west from Road's End along the riverside, curving left and south to find the Red Bridge, usually a less crowded swimming hole. Off Hwy 180, Hume Lake is another popular place to swim and paddle around in summer, with USFS recreational areas and beaches by a Christian camp that rents boats.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? Unlike in Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Campgrounds in Grant Grove usually fill up before those in Cedar Grove, although on summer holiday weekends, it's not unheard of for all campsites in the park to be taken by early Friday afternoon. Check at the Grant Grove visitor center about campground availability in Cedar Grove before making the drive all the way down canyon.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? You can find primitive campgrounds and free dispersed camping in the Sequoia National Forest just outside the park, including near Hume Lake and along Big Meadows Rd off the Generals Hwy between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. 

Any hazards? Drowning is the number-one cause of fatalities in the park, usually in rivers and streams that are flowing too fast and too furiously to be safe to swim in, as well as from fatal slips off boulders by the top of waterfalls. Kings Canyon is also black bear country: all food and scented items (e.g., sunscreen, soap, toiletries, gum, soda, beer, empty coolers and recyclable containers) should be within arm's reach at all times, or else properly stored in a bearproof storage locker and never left visible in your vehicle. When camping, treat the bearproof storage locker at your campsite like a refrigerator: always keep the door closed. For more tips on bear safety, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Kings Canyon National Park or neighboring Sequoia National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Related posts:
Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Free Online Mini-Guides to Offbeat National Parks
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley

Photo credits: Kings Canyon National Park (Sara J. Benson), Sequoia National Forest (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite Valley

Sometimes travel is all about (un)lucky timing. You can plot your trip out months in advance, reserve your favorite hotel or campground, pack all the gear you'll think you need, and then wham! Nature decides it has other ideas for your trip: how about a massive Sierra Nevada snowstorm in spring? 

This last weekend in Yosemite National Park, so much snow hit that wet clumps falling off spindly pine trees in the valley actually hurt as they thumped my head. Even with AWD and snow tires, driving up into the mountains to Big Oak Flat from Groveland felt like Mission Impossible. Trekking to the bathroom and shower house from my tent cabin at Curry Village was more like a mini hike, post-holing through a heavy blanket of snow.

But who cares once the storm clouds floated away, piercingly blue skies were revealed, and the powder dusting on Half Dome looked as ethereal as a fairlyand? Even when grey skies fleetingly returned, snowshoeing across the meadow by the Merced River still felt like a movie set, with us as the pioneer explorers heading for unknown parts. Frazil ice in the stream below Yosemite Falls was a bonus.

It even snowed along Hwy. 49 in California's Gold Country, which made me imagine mid-19th-century gold miners shivering in their tents by Sutter's Creek, praying they'd make it through another winter on hardtack biscuits and rancid bacon, until they could pan for gold again next spring. Just like a few of them did, I got lucky, too. Adventuring in Yosemite during a snowstorm turned out not to be bad luck at all.

Have you had a memorable trip that got messed up by weather, only to turn out spectacularly? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below!

Related posts:
Skiing & Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Tahoe Trails Without the Crowds, But with Dogs

Photo credits: Yosemite National Park (Sara J. Benson)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List

Nothing against motel and hotel chains, which are great in a pinch when you want to save money. But coastal California's most inspiring places to stay are one-of-a-kind. Vintage beach houses, wooden cabins with ocean views, canvas-sided yurts perched on sea cliffs, and safari tents are just a few of the more offbeat (and often eco) lodgings along my stretch of Pacific shoreline.

Cruising from south to north, my top 10 favorite by-the-beach hideaways that I've found so far are:
  • Crystal Cove Beach Cottages, Orange County - Authentically restored 1930s, '40s and '50s seaside bungalows in a state park's historic district. With a beach bar and breezy cafe, you won't need to leave all weekend long. Reservations are tough to get, however.
  • El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara County - Creekside cabins and "glamping" tents in a canyon uphill from El Capitan Beach, another state park. They're a great deal in winter, when rates (and temperatures) drop. In summer, the canyon is traffic-free.
  • Jalama Beach Cabins [PDF], Santa Barbara County - Rustic, but newly built wooden cabins with fun bunk beds for the kids and a futon for any friends who decide to come along at the last minute. It's windy here!
  • Treebones Resort, Big Sur - You'll drive a squiggly road uphill from Hwy. 1 to find your canvas-sided yurt waiting with a pedestal sink and cozy quilt-covered bed. It's far from the rest of Big Sur, though, and can be noisy.
  • Asilomar State Park, Monterey Peninsula - In the old-timey seaside resort town of Pacific Grove, this state park conference grounds books uniquely historical rooms in California arts-and-crafts buildings designed by Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. They're thin-walled and the beds aren't comfy, but the common rooms have chatty fireplace nooks.
  • Costanoa Lodge, Pescadero - A short scenic drive north of Santa Cruz, this rustic lodge is all about its tent cabin villages, where you can warm up by outdoor fireplaces in the comfort stations before retiring to your unheated cabin (mercifully, the beds have electric warming pads to keep you toasty).
  • Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino County - Stay in historical lightkeeper's homes at the edge of the ocean, guarded by the tallest lighthouse in California that visitors are actually allowed to climb to the top of. Architecturally speaking, the digs are drab, but the rocky panoramas are mesmerizing.

Got another gem of a California coastal lodging spot to share? Let us know by leaving a comment below. We'd especially love to hear about secret spots near San Diego and on the Redwood Coast!

Related posts:
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur
Edible Travels: Farmers Market Finds
SoCal Desert Blooms: Poppies, Cacti & More

Photo credit: Pigeon Point (Sara J. Benson)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Skiing & Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park

With California experiencing one of the worst droughts in the last century, everyone in the Sierra Nevada keeps asking, "Where's the snow?" Believe it or not, you can still find it in Yosemite National Park, which is where we traipsed around with our skis and snowshoes this week. Bathing in the Zen silence of giant sequoia groves, spotting the tracks of snowshoe hares in fresh powder, and gazing at granite peaks glistening with icy snow all draw us back every year in late February, around the time of Yosemite Valley's famous but unpredictable firefall.

Bare patches of brown grass, mud filled with twigs and dead leaves, and small melting pockets of snow are mostly what you'll find on the valley floor right now this year. But if you head up to Glacier Point Road to Badger Pass, the snow coverage is still 99%. Strap on a pair of XC skis from the nearby rental shop and start gliding down the rolling park road, with its groomed skiing terrain. Snowshoers break off onto the winter trail to Dewey Point, which stretches toward panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley and its waterfalls below.

It's not only Badger Pass that keeps the snow secrets of Yosemite. The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, near the park's southern Wawona entrance, is open to hikers (bring YaxTrax for better gription) and snowshoers; we even saw a hardy couple setting off with backpacks for overnight camping in those ancient woods. Up north near Crane Flat and closer to the park's Big Oak Flat entrance station, you can snowshoe and/or hike to the more mellow Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove of ancient sequoias, the latter with interpretive signs to pique your interest.

Looking for a cabin to cozy up inside after your snow trekking? Our number-one choice is always the Evergreen Lodge, just outside the park's Big Oak Flat entrance station off Hwy. 120. If you're on a budget, try the Yosemite Bug hostel off Hwy. 140, under an hour's drive southwest of the valley.

Got a great tip for visiting Yosemite or any other national park in winter? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Related posts:
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Freeze and Stay Cheap (or Even Free!) in Yosemite
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

Photo credits: Yosemite National Park (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Planning your first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Or maybe you just want to make the most of your time in Colorado's most-visited parkland? Here's what you need to know first, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you frustratingly dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO)

Why go? Rocky Mountains scenery doesn't get much more classic than this, from alpine tundra spackled with wildflowers to skyscraping peaks and gem-like lakes. Megafauna including moose, elk and bear all inhabit the park, which sits atop the spine of the Continental Divide. The park encompasses Longs Peak, one of Colorado's vaunted 14ers (summits over 14,000ft high).

Easiest access? The park's most popular eastern entrances are just over a 2-hour drive northwest of Denver, Colorado; Estes Park is the nearest gateway town. Far fewer people approach the park from the west, just over a 2-hour drive from the Winter Park ski resort area; the nearest gateway town is Grand Lake. The two sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Rd (peak elevation 12,183ft), which is only open from late May until mid-October, weather permitting.

How to beat the crowds? ROMO gets over 3 million visitors per year, ranking right behind the USA's three most popular national parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite). Most people visit ROMO during July and August, so plan your trip for the shoulder months of June or September. Check to be sure that Trail Ridge Road will be open - don't miss those dizzying alpine panoramas!

Best day hikes? If you've got limited time, short leg-stretcher hikes you won't regret taking include the Coyote Valley Trail alongside the Colorado River; the Tundra Communities Trailhead, near the Alpine Visitor Center; and the chain-of-lakes hike, connecting poetically named Dream, Nymph and Emerald Lakes. Tip: Trailhead parking for these lakes is extremely tight, so save yourself the trouble and instead hop on the free, ecofriendly park shuttle, which runs from late spring through early fall.

Best wildlife-watching spots? On the park's west side along the Colorado River, look out for moose. Marmots and pikas are common in the alpine tundra off Trail Ridge Rd, where you may also spot herds of elk in high-altitude meadows during summer (the elk move to lower elevations from autumn through spring). Bighorn sheep graze around Sheep Lakes (duh) on the park's east side.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait in line for a parking space, stopping at the seasonal Alpine Visitor Center is memorable, if not just to take photos then at least to catch your breath and acclimate to the 11,800ft elevation. If you're driving back and forth across the park and the Old Falls River Rd is open, take the 11-mile backcountry ride over Falls Pass, navigating hairpin curves with no guardrails. The dirt road is so narrow that one-way traffic sometimes backs up for 20 minutes while gawkers take roadside photos.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? NPS campgrounds on the park's east side fill up fast, and reservations are essential for most in summer. If you show up early in the day, you may find first-come, first-served sites still available at Glacier Basin Campground or tent-only Longs Peak Campground. Otherwise, head over to the park's west side and pitch your tent by the Colorado River at Timber Creek Campground, which is open year-round and doesn't take reservations. Otherwise, take a look at USFS campgrounds and free dispersed camping in nearby national forest areas.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? Estes Park is an overcrowded gateway town with traffic headaches and non-stop crowds in summer (and a very disappointing brewpub). You could day trip to the park from Denver or Boulder, but it'd be a really loooong day to drive over Trail Ridge Rd and back again. Although Grand Lake is the closest gateway town to the park's west entrance, save big bucks in summer by renting a ski condo in Granby instead. Bonus: staying on the park's west side puts you near Hot Sulphur Springs Resort for a long, very hot soak after a hard day's hiking in the mountains.

Any hazards? For safety tips on everything from lightning to black bears, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Photos: Rocky Mountains National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)