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.)