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.)