Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year-End Donations: Help Make a Better Planet

It's not too late, folks. Did you just realize that you need (or simply want) to contribute more to charity before the imminent end of the tax year 2009? Do it today. Of course, there are tons of nonprofit organizations out there that could use your help, especially in these tough economic times. So, why not put your money where you know your heart really is, and donate some moolah -- and maybe some of your volunteer time in 2010 -- to great outdoors, wildlife and environmental organizations? Charity Navigator can help you find some of the best. For the record, here are a few faves close to where I live in California that I really believe in:
For social justice and environmental organizations with more global reach:
And don't forget to sign up for your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm-share program in 2010! We heart San Luis Obispo's CalPoly Organic Farm, which keeps our kitchen abundantly stocked with veggies and fruit year-round. Happy new year, everyone!

Photo: San Luis Obispo County (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Free e-Guide for US National Parks

If you're a die-hard national parks fan, or have been just recently inspired to get out and explore by Ken Burns' documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, then the National Park Foundation (NPF) has a freebie you'll want to download today. The America's National Parks Owners Guide 2009 overflows with good stuff, including pointers toward visiting little-known National Park Service (NPS) sites (for example, war memorials, maritime history sites and literary homes in the San Francisco Bay area).

The owners' guide, which you can download as a free PDF or browse through online, is organized into 20-plus regions, including Alaska and even Caribbean and Pacific Islands. Whether you're looking for new parks in your own backyard or maybe you're a planning an epic cross-country trip for next summer, check out the "Don't Miss" boxed texts. For more trip-planning advice, the NPF website also has a handful of short, snappy travel ideas.

Of course, if you're going to knock a few dozen more NPS sites off your life list in 2010, you're going to need an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80), valid at every national park and most federal recreation lands (a lifetime pass costs $10 for seniors, free for those with disabilities). Buy passes online or at any national park. While you're at it, consider making a donation to the National Parks Foundation. Anyone who contributes at least $50 gets a subscription to Parks magazine, which offers behind-the-scenes looks at what's happening in your parks right now.

Which national park is first on your list for 2010? Inspire us by posting a comment below.

Related posts:
Freeze and Stay Cheap (or Even Free!) in Yosemite
Free Online Vacation Planner for Hawaii
National Park Service Spotlights Route 66

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden Hiking Trails in West Maui

As winter clenches us in its icy fist, it's time to dream about making the trip over Hawaii. Peak tourist season for the islands is just now getting underway. That makes it key to find places where you can escape the hoards -- a lonely but beautiful beach, a remote rainforest waterfall pool or a hiking trail with no one on it.

On the west side of Maui, you don't have to be a guest of the high-end Kapalua resort just to set foot in its groomed hiking trails
. Kapalua's Coastal Trail, which stretches for 2 miles along prime beachfront, is always busy with walkers, runners and cavorting kids. But newer trails let you get away from all those crowds. High in the hills above the golf course, the historical Maunalei Arboretum is practically deserted. Here gentle footpaths wind through shady groves planted with native and non-native arboreal species. Even kids will enjoy the 0.5-mile Lower Loop, or the 1-mile Banyan Loop that passes by those exotic gargantuan trees.

More of a cardio workout, the 1.25-mile Honolua Ridge Trail climbs from the arboretum's tangled maze of shorter trails to an impressive forest lookout. If you want a real adventure, follow the epic Mahana Ridge Trail another 6 miles downhill to the ocean, treating yourself to gorgeous views of Lanai along the way. W
hen I hiked this trail in October, I didn't see another soul. The side loop through a sugi pine grove was a cool relief from the hot sun, but the spur through overgrown pineapple fields was a bush-whacking waste of time, because none of the plants were flowering or fruiting. Still, it was one of the most memorable hikes I've done on Maui.

If you plan to do the entire 7-mile Honolua & Mahana Ridges route, wear shoes with good traction and bring plenty of water. Surprisingly, you'll stumble across chilled drinking water and flush toilets about 2 miles from the end of the trail, at its intersection with a paved access road. When you get to the end of the trail at D.T. Fleming Beach Park, you'll need to march your muddy, sweaty self for another 10 or 15 minutes uphill through the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton hotel to get back to the Kapalua Adventure Center. Prepare yourself for disapproving looks from snooty resort guests.

The Kapalua resort provides a free shuttle service from the Kapalua Adventure Center, near the driving range and golf course, uphill to the arboretum several times daily. Currently, the shuttle picks up at the center at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., returning from the arboretum at 9:50 a.m., 11:20 a.m, 12:50 p.m., 2:20 p.m., 3:50 p.m. and 5:50 p.m. Make sure you sign a liability waiver and pick up a free hiking guide booklet at the check-in desk inside the Kapalua Adventure Center before hitting the trail. Note that private vehicles are not allowed to access the arboretum or its trailheads.

Related Posts:
Free Online Vacation Planner for Hawaii
How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking
Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?

Photo: Puu Kukui Watershed Reserve, Maui (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eating Sustainable Seafood Made Easy

Making sure that you eat sustainably harvested seafood has just gotten even easier, thanks to the eco-conscious folks over at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who run the Seafood Watch program. For years, they've been publishing those handy pocket-sized "Seafood Watch" cards to help you pick the most sustainable seafood, whether you're buying fish at the market or dining out. Those pocket guides are available for six U.S. regions, as well as in a specialty sushi edition (all available as PDFs here). But now you can skip the paper altogether, and just download the free iPhone or iPod touch application. It's customizable to whatever U.S. region you happen to be traveling in, which is a lot more convenient than carrying around all of those paper guides.

If you live in California, or even if you just buy seafood caught offshore here, buying sustainable seafood at the grocery store will soon get easier, too. Two months ago, Assembly Bill 1217 was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Assembly Member Bill Monning from Carmel, just down the road from the fishing port of Monterey. AB 1217 will develop a voluntary program for labeling seafood caught by California fisheries that have been certified as sustainable by the California Ocean Protection Council, also using the Seafood Watch program standards.

That's good news for consumers who want to make more informed seafood buying choices. But it's probably not such good news for Trader Joe's, which earlier this year received the worst scores of any national supermarket chain when it comes to selling sustainable seafood, as rated by Greenpeace (again, using the Seafood Watch list standards). Even mega-retailers such as Walmart ranked better than TJ's in a mid-2009 evaluation. (Whole Foods, incidentally, came in third.) For the full nationwide scorecard results, click here.

When you're shopping for seafood, you can also look for the blue sticker of sustainability as certified by the international Marine Stewardship Council.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CityCenter Now Open in Las Vegas

So, this is it. The moment has finally arrived on the Strip. No, I'm not talking about New Year's Eve insanity in Las Vegas. I'm talking about the much ballyhooed CityCenter, a massive hotel, condo, shopping and entertainment complex that some predicted would never be finished. Despite the economy and this MGM Mirage project's ups and downs, CityCenter is now open for business just off Las Vegas Boulevard.

Well, kind of. When I visited CityCenter this week, there was still a lot of work left to be done. Hand-written signs said "Elevator This Way" and the hulking complex was still half empty. Curious tourists were poking around the boutique shops and hotel lobbies, a bit perplexed as to where they could and couldn't go (omnipresent security staff were quick to educate them about the latter). As I drove around the confusing maze of access roads and driveways, valet parking attendants hungry for tips enthusiastically waved me toward them. Apparently, the party hasn't really started yet.

But that's not unusual for mega-hotel and casino openings on the Strip, at least not in the 21st century. Construction delays and half-baked "soft" openings are par for the course. Here's a thumbnail guide to what's open now at CityCenter:
  • The free monorail between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio casino hotels is back in service, after years of sitting unused. This is fantastic news for everyone who was tired of battling the crowded sidewalks between Tropicana, Harmon and Flamingo Avenues. Now, you can skip all that by riding the monorail for free.
  • Las Vegas' sleek, brand-new Mandarin Oriental hotel truly is a "nongaming oasis." The petite ground-floor entryway with its impressive Asian artwork is nothing compared to the 23rd-floor sky lobby with its tea lounge and Eurasian fusion restaurant Twist by three-star Michelin French chef Pierre Gagnaire. Don't miss salivating over the window displays at street-level Amore Patisserie. If you book now, you can get a complimentary night with one night's paid stay (hotel rooms from $545, excluding taxes and fees).
  • You can't miss the geometric facade of the shopping mall Crystals angling out into Las Vegas Boulevard. There is no catwalk fashion label too haute for this place -- think Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and the like -- but the most talked-about shop open so far is boudoir-ready Kiki de Montparnasse. Perfectly positioned is Eva Longoria's restaurant Beso, to be followed up on New Year's Eve by Eve Nightclub. Look for Wolfgang Puck's mod French brasserie and Mastro's Ocean Club for steaks, seafood and stiff martinis opening soon.
  • Vdara hotel and spa, tucked away from the Strip on the far west side of CityCenter, is a nongaming, nonsmoking all-suites hotel with a spa, sky pool and lounge. The Silk Road Restaurant has outrageous sculptural interior design alone worth a look. Suites currently start at $129/night, excluding taxes and fees. Although they're not stand-outs compared with other luxury boutique hotels on and off the Strip, the views and handy location do measure up.
So, what's next to be unwrapped at CityCenter? Aria, a hotel that is LEED Gold Certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, expects to open on Wednesday, December 16. Smack in the heart of CityCenter, Aria will ultimately have 16 restaurants, 10 bars and lounges, three pools with cabanas (including an adults-only pool, Liquid) and a deluxe spa. Rooms right now start at $149/night, excluding taxes and fees. There will also be a quirky new Cirque du Soleil production, Viva ELVIS (preview tickets cost $87 to $150). Yes, that's right folks. Flying acrobatics in blue suede shoes. Whatever will they dream up next?

Photo: Crystals at CityCenter (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Binion's Hotel Closes, Vintage Vegas Lives On

Did you hear the news that troubled Binion's hotel in downtown Las Vegas is closing? Of course, Binion's poker room -- where the World Series of Poker was born in 1971 -- will remain open, and so will the casino. But you won't be able to get a cheap steak-and-eggs deal in the coffee shop anymore, and there will be no keno (well, who cares about that, really). A favorite of real-live Nevada cowboys, Binion's 24th-floor steakhouse will close on Monday, December 14, after the NFR rodeo leaves town, but should reopen by December 28 in time for New Year's. I'm just crossing my fingers that the casino-level snack bar, with its hand-made burgers and sweet cherry pie, doesn't go anywhere soon.

I'm a die-hard fan of all things classic Las Vegas, but I've got to admit those hotel rooms at Binion's were just not up to snuff the last time I stayed there. Stiff competition, including from the glittering Golden Nugget and its brand-new Rush Tower across the street, was just too much. Even the basic rooms at Main Street Station are better value than Binion's. Still, it's hard not to get nostalgic about the downfall of a Fremont Street legend like Binion's, which has already changed owners more times in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of places downtown, on or off Fremont Street, to get that vintage Vegas vibe:

Related Posts:
Las Vegas: Save Money, Escape the Strip
Las Vegas: Mad Dash to the Rodeo

Photo: Fremont Street, Downtown Las Vegas (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Zion's Angels Landing Hike: So Popular, It's a Killer

Recently, there has been some interesting debate on the National Parks Traveler website about the hike to Angels Landing in Utah's Zion National Park. On Black Friday, Tammy Grunig fell to her death while hiking up the trail. This was the second fatality on this trail in 2009. The previous accident occurred in early August, when Nancy Maltez died after she also slipped and fell en route.

Now, how dangerous is it really to hike to Angels Landing? There's a huge range of opinion out there -- just scroll through all of the comments on National Parks Traveler's original news post about the most recent fatality, and you'll see what I mean. I've hiked the trail myself, and can testify that the last narrow section from Scout Lookout (aka "Chicken-Out Point") to the tip of Angels Landing, which overlooks the Virgin River from an uneasy height of almost 5800 feet, is a white-knuckler. You've got to scramble over slickrock, grab onto chains that NPS has installed and take care with every single footfall. For a virtual look at this infamous trail, check out Zion's Angels Landing eHike.

But Angels Landing is not the most dangerous hike in Zion National Park, let alone the entire national park system. So why all the fuss? The same reason that deaths on Yosemite's Half Dome get plenty of media attention. Both are insanely popular trails with park visitors, not all of whom are experienced or well-prepared enough. I've seen people in tennis shoes with no tread and only one small water bottle to sustain them on both hikes. Perhaps what makes each of these trails a killer is the sheer volume of day hikers. Rush hour on either trail can be a dangerous scenario. Not only is it too crowded to be safe, but also there is the psychological effect of, "Well, since everyone else is doing it, I will, too."

So what's the solution? Being an avid hiker, but also having worked as a seasonal national park ranger, I can see both sides of the story. Requiring hiking permits would be too costly, in terms of the time required for rangers to give safety talks, write permits and enforce regulations. So, what about closing these classic trails? Unthinkable, to outdoor enthusiasts. Taking risks in the wilderness is what many of us love to do. Of course, hikers who get in trouble don't end up paying the bills for costly search-and-rescue operations, so that's easy to say.

Ultimately, the possibly fatal cost of hiking these trails is a choice we all make, every time we pull on our hiking boots in any national park. I still vote that we get to take reasonable risks, as long as we're honest with ourselves about how experienced we are in the wilderness and come prepared with more than just a bottle of water, a few peanut butter cookies and a banana, like my mom packed for us when we hiked in the Grand Tetons when I was eight years old. We never made it to that summit lake (though, thankfully, we all survived to tell the tale).

How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking
Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Photo: Zion Canyon (Sara J. Benson)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Freeze and Stay Cheap (or Even Free!) in Yosemite

During summer in Yosemite National Park, Curry Village -- a family-oriented complex of cabins and tents dating from 1899 -- is a buzzing hive of activity. But did you know that you can stay there more cheaply during winter? Depending on how cold it is, your stay might be free. And if the temperature dips below zero, they'll actually pay you to sleep there. No kidding!

Just check out the Temp-RATE-ure deal being offered this winter at Curry Village. If you stay in an unheated tent cabin midweek between January 22 and March 27, 2010, the rate you'll be charged will be equal to the previous night's low temperature in degrees Fahrenheit inside the park. Their promise: you'll never pay more than $39, based on double occupancy, not including taxes. If the overnight low reaches zero, your stay will be free. For every degree the overnight low drops below zero, you'll actually get paid to stay there.

Does an unheated canvas-covered tent cabin sound too chilly? Curry Village's All U Can Heat special offer lets you stay in a heated tent cabin for just $10 more per night. Using the same rules as the Temp-RATE-ure deal, the nightly rate maxes out at $49 per double occupancy, excluding taxes. Of course, there are far fewer heated than unheated tent cabins in Curry Village, so book early. Cold sleepers will want to bring their own sleeping bags, no matter which type of cabin they end up staying in.

To book either of these winter packages at Yosemite's Curry Village, call (801) 559-4884 or go online for
Temp-RATE-ure reservations or All U Can Heat reservations. These special rates are not available on weekends, holidays or from February 12 to 14, 2010.

Photo: Yosemite Valley (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Dinner Cheat: Your National Parks

Not feeling up to cooking Thanksgiving Day dinner this year? No problem. Load up the family and head to one of the West's national parks for an unforgettable day outside, followed by a pretty darn good holiday meal at one of the parks' justifiably famous lodges.

Several years ago, I took a friend to the south rim of the Grand Canyon on Thanksgiving Day. We hiked in the snow near Hermits Rest, then bellied up to the no-reservations Bright Angel Restaurant for cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey -- basically, the Thanksgiving works. The canyon-view window table didn't hurt either.

After all, doesn't food always taste better after you've been playing outside all day? Especially when you don't have to cook it yourself. And just
maybe this is the right year to start a healthier family tradition of exercise, not overeating. So, take a look at these scenic national park dining rooms, most of which don't require reservations:
Do you have another favorite national park restaurant? Recommend it by posting a comment below.

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr. & Sara Benson)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries: Open Tomorrow

Forget Napa and Sonoma this weekend. The Santa Cruz Mountains, ranking among California's oldest wine-growing regions, are beautifully untrammeled. With vineyards spread beneath old-growth redwood forests, many of these winemakers have achieved cult status, especially for their estate Pinot Noir bottlings.

The trouble is, some top Santa Cruz Mountain wineries are only open to the public four times each year on quarterly Passport days. Your next chance to visit some of these hidden vineyards is Saturday, November 21. Participating wineries will be open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. (click here for a map). Even wineries that are normally open to the public often celebrate Passport day by pouring special vintages and offering barrel samples.

To buy a Passport ticket ($40), which can only be used once at each winery but conveniently has no expiration date, call (831) 685-8463 or pick one up at any participating winery. You can use that same ticket again on future Passport days, usually held on the third Saturday of January, April, July and November.

After all, there's much more amazing wine to dig up in these mountains than anyone could possibly tipple on just one Saturday afternoon. And don't worry if you can't make it tomorrow, because chic Vinocruz wine store in downtown Santa Cruz pours rare and outstanding local vintages every day of the year, no passport required.

Do you have a fave winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains? Or another under-the-radar California wine country you'd recommend? Let me know by posting a comment below.

Photo: California vineyards (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

California State Parks: Open or Closed?

It has been a tough couple of months for California State Parks. First came the much-debated budget cuts, which totaled $14.2 million for this fiscal year. (Over half that amount was courtesy of Gov. Schwarzenegger's line-item veto power over the state budget, by the way.) Then, it was proposed that over 100 state parks would have to close completely. Although that didn't happen, it's still a confusing situation if you want to find out whether a state park is open or not on any given day.

Even though park entry and camping fees went up in mid-August, that additional revenue alone hasn't been enough to keep all 279 parks across the state open. This week California State Parks started announcing partial closures and service reductions for state parks on a region-by-region basis. Cost-cutting measures so far have included closing visitor centers, restrooms, campgrounds and even entire parks for a few days per week, plus reducing educational programs and school tours. And what about infrastructure repairs and improvements? Forget about that until at least mid-2010.

For details about ongoing state park closures, including at beaches, forests, historic sites and campgrounds, check out state parks' 2009 news releases online, including for:
More regional closure lists are expected in the next few days. Or, like the old TV ad says, phone first.

Have you experienced state park closures where you live? Tell us about it by posting a comment below.

Photo: Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Where to Find Rare Ansel Adams Prints

Are you a fan of Ansel Adams' iconic black-and-white Western landscape photography? Right now, you have a chance to see dozens of his vintage prints dating from the 1920s to the '50s. The San Jose Museum of Art will be the only West Coast stop on the Ansel Adams: Early Works exhibition tour. Most of the prints are held by private collectors. These include the earliest known extant version of Clearing Winter Storm and two contrasting prints of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. They will be on view in San Jose through February 28, 2010. Admission is $8 per adult, $5 for students or seniors; children under 6 are free. You can also catch the exhibition in Park City, UT at the Kimball Art Center from November 5, 2010 through January 5, 2011.

Wanna know a secret? You can also see rare original Ansel Adams prints year-round at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Call (209) 372-4413 in advance to arrange for a curator to escort you into the gallery's back room on the 'Fine Print' tour. The tour is limited to 5 people -- and it's totally free. The gallery also sponsors free guided photography walks (max. 15 people), but only during summer, usually starting around 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. For details and up-to-date schedules, check the gallery website or the national park's free seasonal newspaper, the Yosemite Guide, which is also downloadable online.

Photo: Half Dome, from Clouds Rest (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Backpacking the Sierra High Route -- for just $6495

Recently I've started letting my travel magazine subscriptions lapse. It's not just economics, the backload of past issues I may never get around to reading, or the wish to waste less paper, even if I do end up recycling everything. No, it's just that travel magazine journalism rarely applies to the real world.

Travel + Leisure was once my favorite version of travel porn. But I got tired of salivating over African safari resorts I'll never be able to visit on my freelancer's paycheck. Next I stopped subscribing to Outside, whose inveterate sexism just doesn't come off as cool in that bad-boy way anymore. Now, I'm down to just National Geographic Adventure. After their November 2009 issue's article on the supposed 25 best new trips in the world, I'm done with them, too. (Full disclosure: I once wrote an article for NGA several years ago, but have had no contact since.)

Among the trips that NGA highlights is Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (SYMG) Sierra High Route, a guided 26-day backpacking trip. The 195-mile route itself was pioneered by Steve Roper
in his 1982 book, and it connects many of the high points in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by little-traveled routes. When I was a trailhead ranger at Kings Canyon National Park, I met hard-core thru-hikers who said it was the best trip they'd ever done, exploring remote areas of Kings Canyon NP and Yosemite NP and the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderenesses.

So far, so good. The Sierra High Route is admittedly a hard trip that requires logistical planning, plus brute strength, endurance and some mountaineering skills. I can see where some backpackers might elect to take along a guide instead of making this an epic DIY adventure. But this is not a new adventure, and I'd hesitate to call it one of the 25 best trips in the world, never mind what NGA claims. More importantly, though, I was slack-jawed at the price of SYMG's guided trip: at least $6495 per person.

Now, you'd think for that price that perhaps you'd get someone to carry your pack for you, but no, you've got to carry your own (it'll weigh up to 35 lbs, with food drops en route). The group size is small (3-6 hikers, plus 2 guides), so that's a bonus. But apart from that, what are clients really paying for? Oh, that's right: a shared hotel room for one night in Fresyes, van shuttles to/from the start/end points of the hike, rental backpacking gear and a wilderness permit ($15 per group when issued by
Kings Canyon NP). And don't forget to tip your guides 10-20%, of course!

That's what has ended my subscription to NGA. I know how these magazine articles are written by committee, and how the emphasis is on content that merely looks and sounds interesting, rather than exhaustively researched information with significant value added. But if paying someone over $250/day to accompany me on a long-distance hike in California's mountains constitutes one of the world's 25 best trips, what is the world coming to? Seriously.

By the way, if any of you would like to trek the Sierra High Route, I'll charge you half as much to be your guide. (Just kidding. And anyway, you'd still have to carry your own pack.)

Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door
How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking
Free Online Mini-Guides to Offbeat National Parks

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?

I've worked a few seasons as a national park ranger, and I can tell you that a lot of visitors seem to leave their brains in the iron ranger (i.e., that old-style fee-collection canister) when they arrive in a national park. There is a persistent public perception that national parks should be, as one ranger friend of mine put it, "Nerf World." Forget that wilderness is truly wild. What many visitors want is a safely insulated experience, in which they can admire the scenery but be protected from all the kick-ass forces of nature.

If you've been watching Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea (free episodes are still viewable online), then you'll know that some of the biggest proponents of national parks would heartily disagree. Take, for example, John Muir. That mountain man rode down an avalanche and almost got blown over a waterfall in Yosemite. Do you think he'd ever agree that park visitors should be able to forget their common sense in the wild? Or take Edward Abbey, who argued in his classic rant Desert Solitaire that national parks shouldn't be "improved" to the point where visitors can simply drive along paved roads and never truly encounter nature. As Abbey wrote in The Journey Home, "To those who see our land in that manner, the best reply is, yes, you are right, it is a dangerous and terrible place. Enter at your own risk. Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures. Pray frequently."

But as a nation, perhaps we've lost this wilderness ethic. Case in point: the National Park Service (NPS) just paid $5 million dollars to the surviving family members of two hikers who died in Haleakala National Park on Maui in 2003. A USA Today article about the case seemed sympathetic to the family, focusing on the tragedy of the deaths. But was the park really to blame? Consider:
  • The family was irresponsibly hiking off-trail in Haleakala NP. If you do something that a national park advises against, you clearly do so at your own risk. If I break the rules, should I then hold the park rangers responsible for my foolishness? The USA Today article stated that "Makahiku Falls, off an established trail in the park, is considered a destination for tourists." That's just not true. And besides, considered by who? Travel guidebook authors who often encourage trespassing and damaging off-trail exploration? (Yes, I'm talking about you, Maui Revealed -- or as some locals are now calling it, "Maui Reviled.")
  • The trail-of-use that the family chose to hike was obviously dangerous. I've been to Haleakala NP at least a dozen times over the last 15 years, and never once have I been tempted to hike down to Makahiku Falls, because it's clearly dangerous. (See photo above.) Do you really need a park ranger to remind you that hiking on these crumbling cliffs or in the rushing stream near these falls might be fatal? No. The family's lawyer said, "They [the family] had no reason to think that walking across these rocks was dangerous." Really? Even though there were dark clouds already threatening rain overhead? And the water was flowing quickly? Which brings me to my next point.
  • Hawaii is known for its flash floods, especially in this area of Maui. If you've been to the Kipahulu section of Haleakala NP, you'll know that it's impossible not to notice the several, and now dozens, of signs warning about the hazardous potential for flash floods. In fact, this applies to almost every mountain stream and waterfall pool on the island. Any tourist who goes for a waterfall swim or stream hike has to take responsibility for her or his own safety. The family's lawsuit claimed an electronic warning sign was not working on the day they visited the park. Having been to the park many times both before and after this fatal incident, I can testify that there are plenty of other non-electronic warning signs indicating the dangers of hiking off-trail and swimming in the stream. You just have to take time to stop and read them.
  • Visitors who cause search-and-rescues (SARs) cost parks money. Lawsuits are even more debilitating to park operations, and do little, if anything to improve visitor safety. Haleakala NP rangers spent four days looking for the bodies of the two hikers who died in the flash flood. SAR operations are incredibly costly, and if I were to ever cause one as a result of my own foolish actions, I would feel guilty about it. (In fact, visitors who get into trouble in national parks rarely donate money back to the park, to help defray the cost of their own rescue.) I certainly wouldn't sue the park, whether out of greed or grief, if a family member died while hiking. National parks have enough issues with budget shortfalls and maintenance backlogs that million-dollar lawsuits will only impede their ability to do their jobs.
I think this case is most remarkable for the attitude of the Brown family, who blamed their unfortunate wilderness encounter on national park staff. Perhaps it's symptomatic not only of the heedless culture of national park tourism, but also common tourist attitudes in Hawaii. People often come to these islands expecting paradise, and they typically behave however they want to, regardless of the effects on Hawaii's natural environment (hello, water-wasting golf courses!) or cultural heritage (trespassing on sacred Native Hawaiian sites just to get a photograph). As more people visit Hawaii and its national parklands, it's time for each of us to take responsibility for our actions. Show some aloha 'aina (respect, care and love for the land). And don't blame park rangers when you get into trouble and it's clearly, if also tragically, your own fault.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking

I'm a big fan of Backpacker magazine's blogs because they're topical, timely and give you news about the Great Outdoors that is hard to find elsewhere on the web. Steve Howe's recent post Smarten Up had me yelling "Yes, yes!" as I read it. His outdoor-savvy post offers a "checklist of 8 steps that would prevent most searches, rescues and deaths in the woods." My favorite recommendation might be "Take some freakin' gear." How many times have I seen naive folks head out for a long-distance hike on a hot summer day with oh, 12 ounces of water, no sunscreen and flip-flops without any traction?

I'd just like to add two more items to Steve Howes' list, to round it out as a Top Ten list of ways to smarten up:
  • Let someone know where you're going, and when you plan to be back. We all know the story of Aron Ralston and other unlucky hikers who might've had a less terrifying experience if they'd let someone know about their plans. After all, how much time does it take to send a friend a text message with your planned hiking route and ETA back at the trailhead? (Or when cell-phone reception fails, rely on that quaintly retro piece of technology, a pay phone.)
  • Be aware of flash floods, and don't cross streams that aren't safe. Maybe I'm saying this because I often hike in the Southwest deserts, Sierra Nevada mountains and Hawaii, all places where flash floods and/or tricky stream crossings are a real concern for hikers. But when you're hiking, you need to know the weather report and resist the temptation to cross streams that are rushing too quickly or flowing too high to be truly safe. Especially when conditions could be even worse later in the day or whenever you may be retracing your steps. Remember what happened to Chris McCandless, as retold by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild.
Stay tuned for my next posting, about why irresponsible hikers shouldn't be rewarded with a $5 million dollar settlement from the National Park Service. That recently happened here on Maui, where I'm currently researching a new hiking guide. And yes, I'm doing it without crossing any dangerously high streams in flash-flood warning zones. And I always let someone know where I'm going.

Photo: Sequoia National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Santa Barbara: Life in Lotusland

California is full of hidden gardens that are open for public tours. In Santa Barbara (actually, it's in the posh eastern suburb of Montecito), Lotusland is the former estate of the eccentric, artistic Madame Ganna Walska. This is no ordinary botanic garden, as I found out when I took a tour last week.

Although the garden does have its formal aspects -- parterre hedging, topiary of animals and chess pieces, and a Moorish mosaic-tile fountain -- mostly left over from the family that owned the property in the early 20th century, there's no riot of flowering bowers here. What you've come to see are the obsessive gardens planned by Madame Walska herself, an operatic singer, spiritualist and serial monogamist in the style of Elizabeth Taylor. Madame Walska was not a fan of nurturing flowers as much as she was of planting several dozen of the strangest-looking, most exotic plants you can imagine altogether, sometimes whimsically themed by color. Look for misty ferns, scores of aloe and cactus varieties, ancient cycads and even a rare dawn redwood from China.

The best time to visit the garden is when the lotus pond is in full bloom, usually between late June and late August. Another colorful time is after winter rains in early spring, when everything is lush. But if you go now, you can take advantage of a special rate ($25) for a two-hour guided tour, which normally costs $35. Tours are currently offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday from mid-February through mid-November. For reservations (which are required), call (805) 969-9990 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, or 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday.

Photo: Montecito, California (Sara J. Benson)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel Tips for Peru

Thinking of traveling to the land of the Incas? Or just dreaming about a South American sojourn? Check out my latest interview about Peru with Latin America for Less. I've got the 'Gringo Trail' from Lima to Cuzco covered, plus alternative treks to Machu Picchu, what to see if you've only got two weeks in-country, and where to find Peru's best travel bargains and luxury hotels. Even better, the Latin America for Less blog post also has a discount code for 20% off ordering Lonely Planet travel guides online.

Photo: Inca ruins of Moray, Sacred Valley (courtesy of Matthew Barker, Latin America for Less)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Online Vacation Planner for Hawaii

It seems like a lot of my travel-writing chickens have been coming home to roost recently. The new edition of Lonely Planet's Hawaii guide, which I co-authored, is now available. I researched and wrote up most of the Oahu chapter, while a few of my talented colleagues covered the Neighbor Islands.

You can get a jump-start on your next Hawaii vacation planning by downloading the book's 'Getting Started' chapter for free (for the PDF, click here). If you don't want to buy the entire guidebook, you might want to just purchase and download PDFs of individual chapters (starting at $2.40) via Lonely Planet's Pick & Mix online shop feature.

Only going to 'The Gathering Place' (i.e., Oahu) and not any other islands? See my earlier post for a free excerpt from the brand-new, full-color edition of Lonely Planet's Honolulu, Waikiki and Oahu travel guide, which I also co-authored.

Later this week, I'll be heading to Maui to research, take photographs and do GPS mapping for a new island hiking guide. If you have any tips for places to explore on the Valley Isle, of if you'd like to recommend your favorite hiking trails, let me know by posting a comment below.

Friday, September 25, 2009

National Park Service Spotlights Route 66

This week, the National Park Service (NPS) launched an intriguing new Route 66 mini-site. Now, this isn't the same NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program site that has been around for several years, and which doesn't offer much in the way of useful free travel info. The new site, co-funded by American Express and the World Monuments Fund's sustainable tourism initiative, is more user-friendly, especially for armchair historians and curious travelers who haven't gotten their kicks on Route 66 before. It's part of a larger nationwide project of free history-themed travel itineraries designed to connect the dots between National Register of Historic Places sites, anywhere from Shaker settlements to Underground Railroad stops to Florida shipwrecks.

The new NPS Route 66 mini-site, subtitled
'Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary,' offers historical essays; abbreviated state-by-state lists of historic motels, diners and other attractions; and links to local tourism agencies and nonprofit Route 66 preservation associations. While the mini-site will give first-time travelers a basic orientation to the Mother Road, it isn't as detailed or comprehensive as some other free Route 66 travel websites. That said, the background information on select Route 66 gems is refreshingly in-depth. For example, check out this history of Lou Mitchell's, an iconic coffee shop in Chicago's downtown Loop neighborhood. I happened to visit Lou's earlier this month -- you can't beat the free donuts, ice cream and Milk Duds (although I could've lived without the prune)!

If you're planning a cross-country road trip on Route 66, also check out my recommendations gleaned from years of driving back and forth between Chicago and LA in this free online mini-guide to Route 66.

Photo: Lou Mitchell's, Chicago (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NorCal: HI Redwood National Park Hostel Closing

If you've ever driven the Del Norte County coast along US Hwy. 101, you'll remember the wild, wind-battered beaches that lie north of the riverside hamlet of Klamath. You may have even passed by Hostelling International (HI) Redwood National Park, huddled against a backdrop of giant coast redwoods opposite a practically private cove. If you didn't stop to stay overnight, you may have missed your chance, though.

January 18, 2010 is the date that this youth hostel, crafted out of a historic pioneer homestead, is set to close its doors. Why? The century-old, weather-worn buildings need repairs, as well as seismic retrofitting and renovations to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The National Park Service estimates that it all might cost around $1.5 million.

Why not take a road trip this fall or winter to visit the hostel before it closes? It's conveniently near the beaches and hiking trails of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, which claims 50 percent old-growth redwood forest. The hostel has all the cozy amenities you'd expect, including a shared kitchen, fireplace lounge and a 'snack-quoia' shop selling locally made gourmet chocolate bars and bark. Special festivities are planned for the hostel's closing weekend. Dorm beds cost from $21/10.50 per adult/child, while the two private rooms start at $59 each; all have shared bathrooms. Make reservations online or by calling (707) 482-8265 or (800) 295-1905.

You can also support future fundraising efforts by the HI-USA Golden Gate Council, which hopes to one day reopen the hostel's doors. The council oversees nine other Northern California hostels, including the historic lighthouse hostels at Point Montara and Pigeon Point, south of San Francisco; the off-the-beaten path Point Reyes and Marin Headlands hostels, north of San Francisco; and the little-known Hidden Villa, on a working organic farm tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains. All have dorm beds costing from $22-25/night.

Photo: Coast redwoods (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Free Online Mini-Guide to Oahu's Best Experiences

Do you ever get tired of free travel tips? Nope, me neither.

I recently co-wrote the brand-new, full-color edition of Lonely Planet's Honolulu, Waikiki and Oahu travel guide. An excerpt, covering island highlights and recommended vacation itineraries, is available for free download online. Here's a sneak peek of what you'll find inside it:
  • Hitting Oahu's best all-around beach, for its kid-friendly waves or adrenaline-charged water sports.
  • Shopping for vintage aloha shirts and catching traditional Hawaiian music and hula shows.
  • Discovering tropical forest hiking trails, just minutes from downtown Honolulu.
  • Viewing ancient Hawaiian artifacts, like priceless feather capes once worn by royalty.
  • Driving Oahu's most scenic highway (no, it's not on the North Shore!)
At the end of the PDF, you'll also find 3-, 5-, 7- and 8-day vacation planners, plus more trips for surfers, hikers, families with kids and ecoconscious nature lovers.

Share your favorite spots on Oahu by posting a comment below.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Free Online Mini-Guide to Route 66

Ever wondered what it'd be like to travel all 2400 or so miles of Route 66? You'll just have to hit the road to find out, because it's more amazing than I could ever describe: time-warped motor courts and railway whistle stops, 1950s mom-and-pop diners, kitschy roadside attractions and other retro Americana, and so much more.

If you want a preview, I've written an online Route 66 travel itinerary that gives you a bite-sized sampling of highlights of my many trips along the Mother Road, stopping at such classic places as Funk's Grove for maple "sirup" in Illinois, the Devil's Rope Museum in Texas, Tucumcari's Blue Swallow Motel in New Mexico and the genuine Old West mining town of Oatman, Arizona, where wild burros still run amok in the dusty streets.

You can read about all these places, along with dozens of other quirky pit stops between Chicago and Los Angeles, at Route 66: Finding America's Mother Road.

Photo: Cool Springs, Arizona (Sara Benson & Mike Connolly Jr.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Last-Minute Labor Day Outdoor Escapes in California

Are you scrambling to plan a last-minute Labor Day camping trip? California's state parks have some tools to help, and you've still got pretty incredible national park options, too.

First, there's a special California State Parks web page dedicated to updating Labor Day campground availability. As of today, over 40 state parks still have campsites available for reservations. But you've got to act fast. For campground arrivals on Friday, Sept. 4, you must book your site before 5 p.m. (PST) on Wednesday, Sept. 2, either online or by calling (800) 444-7275 .

If you can't get a camping reservation for Labor Day, check out this lengthy list of first-come, first-served California State Park campgrounds, which typically fill very early on holiday weekends (e.g., you'd better get there bright and early on Friday morning, or even late Thursday night). Some of my faves:
California's national parks and monuments also offer some primo campsites, not all of which are booked out in advance, like Yosemite Valley always is! For example, you can try your luck at Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, where half the sites are unreserved, or at smaller Yosemite Creek, Tamarack Flat and Porcupine Flat campgrounds, all off Tioga Rd. (Hwy. 120). In Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, most campgrounds are first-come, first-served, including near the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway at Cedar Grove, hidden deep down inside the canyon, where you can splash around and cool off in the Kings River next to your tent.

Photo: Yosemite National Park (Mike Connolly Jr.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New HI Hostel Open in Seattle

Open only since July 31, Hostelling International (HI) Seattle is giving budget and youth travelers an affordable option close to the city's waterfront, just a block from the Amtrak station. Inhabiting a newly renovated four-story building, this spic-and-span hostel has all the amenities you'd expect, from self-service laundry and bicycle rental to a common kitchen and TV and game room. It's also open 24 hours a day. Rates start at $35/night for a dorm bed or $86 for a private room, all with shared bath including breakfast. Nonmembers pay an extra $3/night. For reservations, call (206) 622-5443 or click here. The hostel is located at 520 S. King Street.

Have you stayed at this new hostel? Tell me about your experience, good or bad, by leaving a comment below.

Photo: Courtesy of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tribal Tourism: More or Less Like Las Vegas?

If you've been traveling around the Southwest recently, you'll have already heard about the Grand Canyon Skywalk which opened back in 2007 on the Hualapai Nation. This glass-bottomed cantilevered bridge juts out over the Grand Canyon at a head-spinning 4000ft above the Colorado River. Costing over $30 million to build, the project was bankrolled by a Las Vegas businessman, reported NPR.

Even today, tribal members don't agree on whether the Skywalk is a step forward for their nation or a disturbance of sacred ground. And if you want to visit yourself (as more than 700,000 people have already done), it's going to cost you over $70 per person. What's more, it's not as if the Hualapai Nation didn't already offer myriad (and relatively pricey) tourism opportunities for thrill-seekers, from whitewater rafting to airplane, helicopter and Hummer trips.

But building Las Vegas-style attractions in wilderness areas isn't the only answer for Southwestern tribal nations seeking to create new economic opportunities. Take, for example, the new View Hotel at Monument Valley, a Navajo tribal park. On a hilltop overlooking the valley's famous sandstone buttes and pinnacles, this low-lying structure blends harmoniously with the colors of the landscape. Ecoconscious practices that have been put into place include xeriscaping and low-flow water fixtures to conserve water, biodegradable cleaning solutions, and energy-efficient appliances, lighting, heating and cooling technology. Simple hotel rooms start at $149 per night, plus tax.

So, what's next for Native American tribal tourism in the region? More or less attractions that imitate the Strip? Don't get me wrong: I love Las Vegas, but do we need more of it all across the Southwest? Let's hope that more Native American nations find ways to preserve the natural beauty of their tribal lands while making sure that much-needed tourism dollars keep flowing into their rural communities.

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park (Michael Connolly Jr. & Sara Benson)

Friday, August 14, 2009

National & California State Parks: Save Money, Show Your Support

Have you heard the hoopla about the Obamas visiting Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon this weekend? Admittedly, this may not be the best time to visit those national parks. But it's still an excellent weekend to visit the USA's other 56 national parks, because August 15-16 is the summer's last free-entry weekend to NPS sites. You can save up to $25 if you visit a top-tier park.

Monday isn't looking so good for California State Parks, though, which announced in a
press release that day-use parking and campground fees will increase on August 17. Day-use parking will now cost a minimum of $5 (up from $2) and overnight fees at campgrounds will range as high as $65, for example, for a prime oceanfront site at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County. That's more than a Motel 6 room! (Note: If you have a pre-existing state park campground reservation, the rate quoted when you made the reservation will still be honored.)

Now, I fully support California State Parks. But raising fees is not a catch-all solution for preventing the closure of 100 state parks following Governor Schwarzenegger's line-item veto budget cuts of an extra $8 million. You know who else is to blame, suggests the L.A. Times? Everyone who regularly cheats by parking their cars just outside the entrance station and walking into the park, instead of paying the day-use parking fee. Next time you visit our state parks, why not do your part and pay?

Here are three more ways that you can support California State Parks during the current fiscal crisis:
  • Buy an annual day-use parking pass ($125). The price of the pass has not gone up since last year, and it still gets you free admission to all state parks that charge a day-use parking fee for one year from the date of purchase. Buy it online here.
  • Join the California State Parks Foundation. If you become a member at the 'Parks Sampler' level ($25), you'll get 7 free day-use parking passes. Join as a 'Frequent Visitor' ($125), and you'll not only get an annual day-use parking pass, but also a day hiker's guidebook to state parks.
  • Buy Knudsen's cottage cheese and sour cream. No, seriously. For every Knudsen's product sold between now and September 6, the company is donating a portion of the proceeds (up to $100,000) to California State Parks.
Photo: William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach (Mike Connolly Jr.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Standin' on the Four Corners, Really

If you think you've been to the Four Corners, you may want to think again. Then again, maybe that vacation snapshot of yourself standing with one limb in each of four states -- Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado -- really is legit.

Since April there has been a lot of media hubbub about the Four Corners Monument being in the wrong place. The idea continues to float through the blogosphere (much like Birther conspiracies). Specifically, it keeps being 'reported' that the actual Four Corners intersection point is 2.5 miles east of where the Navajo Nation's tribal park is located. An article published by Salt Lake City's Deseret News got picked up by MSNBC and Backpacker, among other major media outlets, and so the rumors spread.

Well, if you've now been thinking that the Four Corners Monument is in the wrong place, you're wrong. For the most part, that is. Confused? While it's true that the 1875 survey of the Four Corners didn't have the technical equipment to place the monument exactly where it was intended to go, the surveyor was only off by 1800 feet (quite a technical feat, considering the terrain and the time period) and in the opposite direction, west of where the current monument sits.

But all that doesn't matter, according to not only the Navajo Nation and the Colorado Bureau of Land Management, but also NOAA's National Geodetic Survey (NGS). That's because once a monument is accepted by the federal government and all parties involved, that's the end of the story, at least legally speaking. If you want to delve into the science behind the surveying, read this in-depth NGS article or better yet, listen to their 12-minute podcast (click here for the MP3).

So, hold your horses. The Four Corners Monument really is where the Navajo National says it is. Now you can keep those digital photos of yourself standing on the Four Corners on your virtual bookshelf. Relax, you've really been there.

Photo: Sunset near Lake Powell (Sara Benson)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

California State Parks Budget Slashed, Again

Just when Californians thought they could breathe easy again, Governor Schwarzenegger decided to cut another whopping $6.2 million from the annual budget that funds California State Parks. That's on top of the $8 million that state legislators had already agreed to take away.

As reported by San Luis Obispo's Tribune, California State Parks won't announce its list of closures until after Labor Day. But the California State Parks Foundation speculates that as many as 100 state parks will close -- that's over one third of the entire system. So, what's the good news? Absolutely nothing. In fact, state park budget cuts could be even bigger next year.

To sign the petition to stop the closures, click here. For updates, click to Save Our State Parks. And of course, get out and visit those parks -- while you still can.

Photo: Hearst San Simeon State Park (Michael Connolly Jr.)