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)