Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The 50 States Club

I'm the kind of traveler who cringes at checklists. I don't feel the need, as a maniacal girl I met once did, to visit all 393 units of the National Park System. (Nor do I have the means, so American Samoa and the Virgin Islands' national parks will have to wait until after I win the lottery.)

But somehow over the past two decades, I've ended up visiting all 50 U.S. states. Alaska truly was my 'Last Frontier,' which I finally knocked off last month. Illinois, where I was born, was my first, followed by a trail of Western states zipped through during one summer vacation in a grand loop to Yellowstone National Park and back. Weekend trips to the lakeshores of Indiana and Michigan, the farmlands of Wisconsin and Iowa, and St. Louis for baseball, barbecue and rides high inside the rickety Gateway Arch made up my childhood travels.

It wasn't until after I graduated from college that I really got motoring. As I traipsed back and forth across the country, some moments stand out. Like gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles as I drove the Seven-Mile Bridge out to the Florida Keys. My car being searched for hours at a tiny border-crossing outpost in Maine. Sweating out a night in a stuffy hotel room in Janis Joplin's hometown in Texas. Cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway until the sun sank behind the Appalachian hills. I've driven around each of the Hawaiian Islands, too, getting stuck in Kauai's traffic jams and Lanai's 4WD jeep tracks and rattling around Maui's Haleakala volcano.

So, what's next? Like I said, I'm not a checklist traveler. But I need a new travel goal, to inspire my wanderlust. Any ideas?

Have you joined the 50 States Club yet? What are your favorite road-tripping states? Most miserable stops? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Photo: Four Corners Region (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Itty-Bitty Book Review: Shadow of the Bear by Brian Payton

I recently suffered by reading what may be the most cowardly travel book written by a contemporary American woman. With the nauseating aftertaste of that insipid story in my mouth, I've decided to take time to blog about more satisfying travel books, focused on the outdoors.

Published in 2006, Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness by Brian Payton is a thoughtful travelogue. As he travels to Asia, South America, Europe and arctic Canada, Payton introduces bear ecology and rare endangered bear populations to everyday readers. While some chapter narratives tend to wander, ending up more like travel journal entries, overall the book will keep wildlife watchers with wanderlust hooked from start to finish.

Want to know why polar bears end up in "jail" in Churchill, Manitoba? How moon bears are rescued from cruel bile farms in China? What's being done to save the spectacled bear in Peru? This author found out first-hand. It's an inspiring read, both as a traveler (have you faced down any human-killing sloth bears in India lately?) and as an animal lover (I was so moved by the book that I donated to Animals Asia, a small nonprofit group that works to rescue and rehabilitate moon and sun bears in China and Vietnam).

What are your favorite travel books about nature, wildlife and adventures outdoors? Tell me what to read next by leaving a comment below. If you'd like a free copy of this book, leave your email address.

Image courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Travels in Alaska: South to Seward's Glaciers

We briefly boomerang back through Anchorage (consciously avoiding the Beck-Palin rally), then head off down the Kenai Peninsula. The road south of Anchorage snakes beside Cook Inlet and around poetically named Turnagain Arm, where a roadside BBQ shack smokes the best brisket I've gnawed on outside of Texas. Sunlight flashes on the waves and the permanent snow fields and glaciers that coat nearby peaks like dirty cake frosting.

On Hwy 9, the Sunday traffic dies out before Moose Pass, where the liquor store reminds passersby that it's 27 miles until the next chance to buy booze (apparently in either directio
n, because the sign faces both ways). Both the road and the railroad peter out at the water's edge in Seward, a fishing port named for the man who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia (assumedly, with love) in 1867. Quickly nicknamed Seward's Folly and Seward's Icebox by political wags, the territory cost the USA just over $7 million, or about 2.3 cents per acre. Today, with our human population booming and wilderness shrinking at a precipitous rate, that seems like a bargain.

It's wildness that we're here to see, after all. In the luxuriously long
daylight hours of Alaska's late summer, we take a sunset walk to the base of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. The mosquitoes are out for blood, but the breezes pick up as we clamber up the rocky trail to the base of the blue ice. Never before have I been so near a glacier, almost close enough to touch -- that is, if I didn't know the cracking ice might swallow me up if I stepped beyond the roped-off lookout. Two hikers with bear bells tinkling come loping down the trail from the Harding Ice Field atop the glacier, where nunataks -- solitary mountains peeking above the glacial ice like islands -- are lonely landmarks.

Early the next
morning, we fill up on eggs benedict topped with snow crab from a diner inside a train car by the harbor. With zoom lenses around our necks, we board a boat to sail through the Kenai Peninsula's wind-whipped fjords, past rock outcroppings where Steller sea lions bask in the sun, every king of the mountain barking and pushing off lower-rung juveniles. Porpoises swim in the boat's wake. Although no whales are spotted, sea otters splash near shore and a bald eagle alights on an evergreen treetop in the distance.

Hours later, the boat's engines hum as the captain negotiates thr
ough a frosty bay filled with icebergs at the foot of mile-wide Aialik Glacier. The tidewater
lacier audibly groans, snaps and cracks as it calves ever more icebergs. It's hard to know where to look to catch the next falling blue ice, which you hear only after the dramatic drop of another icy chunk into the sea. Everyone on board is silent with awe, like John Muir was when he first paddled into Glacier Bay. Here, too, the giant glacier moves of its own will, utterly ignorant of ant-like humans floating beneath its seductively dangerous face. It's impossible to look away.

Related links:
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
Travels in Alaska: The Road North to Denali
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Travels in Alaska: The Road North to Denali

We leave Anchorage in a light rain, driving on blacktop with our little rental Nissan wedged between SUVs and big rigs worthy of Ice Road Truckers. The suburbs don't linger, but stoplights do slow us down in Wasilla, where the banner outside a coffeeshop proclaims "Palin Fever!". We hit the liquor store inside the Fred Meyer early in the morning to pick up a bottle of whiskey for our relatives. You don't show up empty-handed in rural Alaska, where the nearest Costco may be over 100 miles away.

Getting off the highway, we snake around back roads and climb slowly toward Hatcher Pass. At Independence Mine State Historic Park, we're almost the only visitors walking along the wind-whipped trails through a ghostly settlement once gripped by gold fever. The road turns to crunchy gravel before summiting the pass, then sails down into the valley. Hunters in their pick-ups and RVs chew the fat by the roadside. A moose rockets across the road going 30mph, maybe sensing that hunting dogs might soon be hot on its hooves. That quick flash of wildlife is all we'll see of Alaska's megafauna for days.

Grizzlies? Forget about seeing 'em, though signposts in Chugatch State Park warn us off certain barricaded hiking trails along the Eagle River, where bears are chowing down on late salmon runs. Same thing goes for moose in Denali National Park: signs along the main park road tell us to stay out of certain areas of the wilderness, because the beasts are rutting now. (Apparently, they value their privacy.) Almost a week in Alaska, and our wildlife count is still laughably low: 4 fat squirrels, 2 bald eagles, 1 shy snowshoe hare, 1 moose on the run, and zero caribou, bears or Dall sheep.

But in no way is Denali disappointing, even if we can only drive the first 15 miles of the park's winding road into the wilderness. We tumble along the Savage Canyon Trail through a valley cloaked in a rustic palette of autumn colors. Summer has lasted longer than expected, with blue skies and strong sunshine that made putting on the Capilene base layer this morning pointless. None of the dozen straggling hikers on the trail talks very much. We all beam with beatific, even idiotic smiles.

It's mind-boggling how
many millions of acres in Alaska are even more remote, remaining almost perfectly in their natural state, than this small river canyon. One human life is not enough to even get to know the Last Frontier. Even John Muir only explored a tiny corner of it, in an obsessive quest to finally prove that glaciers carved the Sierra Nevada. To see those blue-ice glaciers calve into the sea is where we're headed next.

But not before we stop by the park's sled dog kennels to give the canines a scritch (most prefer to just bark at us from atop their little log-cabin doghouses). Then we detour for a late-afternoon hike alongside the railroad tracks down to Horseshoe Lake to see the beaver dam. Oh yes, and grab microbrews at the hilltop Salmon Bake bar. Luckily, we still catch the alpenglow over Denali, the mighty mountain itself, before heading back to bed in Talkeetna, where the howling of a pack of Iditarod dogs rings out as regularly as church bells all night long.

Related links:
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?
National Parks in 2010: Looking Forward

Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage

After navigating the tight corkscrews of Anchorage's airport parking garage, we ease into traffic drifting toward downtown. The first thing we notice are the ancient Subarus turned into all-weather taxis. This is Alaska, and you need a road warrior's car to make it through the winter.

But we're here at the tail end of summer. Good-bye, cruise ship tourists, RV-driving retirees and Asian package tour groups. Hello, shaking yellow aspen trees, arctic winds and riled-up moose in rutting season. Anchorage is draped in a cloud blanket of fog and mist, bracing and salty as any other fishing town up or down the West Coast.

Reminders of w
inter are scattered about. A sign on the stairway leading down to the train tracks warns pedestrians not to wear high heels because, "You could be injured or, God forbid, die." Alaskans tell it like it us, without mercy. Nobody is sitting on the brewpub deck overlooking Cook Inlet. A rainbow arcs over the tidal flats at sunset, while skater teens trade money for drugs in Resolution Park below the monument to Captain Cook, who anchored here in the late 18th century.

First Nations were already o
n the scene for centuries before Europe stumbled across Alaska's chilly coastline. Inside the Anchorage Museum, Native Alaskans and the Smithsonian (the USA's benevolently imperialist cultural curator) put birdskin parkas, spirit masks and weapons on display. TV screens roll endless loops of oral history and sneak peeks of the landscapes in Alaska's wildest places, where most outsiders can't, won't or don't go.

In Alaska's biggest shopping mall, there's a post office so folks can mail back essential supplies to the bush. The cheerful postal clerk says he can't wait for his upcoming trip to Maui. Like most Alaskans, he makes an escape to Alaska's doppelganger, Hawaii, every winter. America's 49th and 50th states are bound together as tightly as siblings, though one proudly calls itself the Last Frontier -- a motto meant to drive folks away, especially "city sissies," as my uncle-in-law calls 'em -- while the other's nickname is the Aloha State, meaning they'll welcome just about anyone.

Anchorage (or, "Los Anchorage," as that same uncle disparagingly calls it, probably for its urban grit reminiscent of LA, my husband theorizes) is a frontier city. Don't believe that? Drive around Lake Hood seaplane base, the world's largest floatplane lake, and watch the planes with pontoons (or in winter, skis) come in for a landing or take off to soar back to the wild places their pilots call home. We stare wide-eyed at the crazy, but brave feats chronicled in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, then scarf down a reindeer hot dog as we watch the short take-offs and landings on the lake. All the while day-dreaming of Denali, our next stop on the road north.

What are your fave spots in Alaska? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Photos: Anchorage (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Last-Minute Summer Road Trips in Your Hand

Summer is drawing to a close, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for one last weekend (or week-long) getaway. You won't need a guidebook to do it. Digital travel apps are less expensive, often more up-to-date and ideal for spur-of-the-moment road trips when you just want the facts, ma'am, and not a lot of heavy reading.

If you've got an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, check out these travel apps hand-picked by Road Trips for Girlfriends. I was psyched to have my travel app, Viva Las Vegas, Baby!, featured in their round-up of top travel apps. Also check out the huge variety of apps written by my colleagues, from legendary watering holes in Chicago to discovering the flip side of Kansas City.

Speaking of road trips, I'm off to Alaska soon. Stay tuned!

Have a favorite digital travel app you can't live without? Tell us your recommendations by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Travel Unplugged: How TripAdvisor, Yelp, Etc., Just Might Ruin Your Next Vacation

User reviews are inescapable these days, whether you're buying a book on Amazon, an app on iTunes or stocking movies in your Netflix queue. Everything, it seems, can be judged and summed up on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. And that's part of what is ruining independent travel these days, at least for me. Here are some reasons why you should consider planning (or just spontaneously taking) your next vacation without consulting TripAdvisor, Yelp or other online ranking sites for hotels, restaurants, etc.

>> MAINSTREAMING. Ever notice how user reviews tend to even out at an average of 3 stars? Sure, there are some that rise above and some that fall below. But overall, what sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp give you is a lot of random data (lotsa noise, little signal) about mostly average places. Places that do a good job of sort of pleasing everyone (ahem, hotel chains) rise to the top, while eclectic and idiosyncratic places get lost in the shuffle. Do you want every trip you take to be as predictably bland as a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn?

>> PROVINCIALISM. I always remind myself that the ranking of any hotel or restaurant online reflects the average American opinion about a place. Would I take the advice of the random assortment on people living on my own block at home about where I should stay or eat on vacation? No. When I travel, I'd like it to be as different from home as possible. Else, where's the surprising joy (and challenge) of being on the road?

Provincialism also gets to the heart of why reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp are too often unreliable. I've noticed that small-town opinions about global food (let's say, Indian restaurants in Fresno, CA) can be notoriously inaccurate and over-hyped, while big-city travelers (e.g., LA denizens road-tripping up the California coast) believe no sushi bar can compare to back home. Either way, online users rate places based on their own experiences. Who's to say I'll agree?

>> CORRUPTIBILITY. I'm not only talking about the Yelp controversy and allegations about search results being doctored for advertisers. I'm talking about the sheer ease and frequency with which fake reviews are posted by businesses on TripAdvisor and Yelp, easily manipulating their star ratings to be more positive. TripAdvisor is noticeably full of reviews written by online users who have only made 1 contribution to the site, and often those reviews are gushing, 5-star self-promotional marketing ploys. You're not always getting honest traveler's experiences on these sites, obviously.

>> TIME WASTING. TripAdvisor and Yelp can be a colossal waste of time, especially when you're on the road. Many travelers let these online tools become a crutch, for example, if you won't try out a new restaurant without checking Yelp or hesitate to book a hotel without consulting dozens of TripAdvisor reviews. Sure, sometimes you'll end up somewhere not good that these sites could've pointed you away from. But by not sifting through hundreds of online reviews before or during your vacation, you'll experience more of the place you're visiting, first-hand and in the moment.

>> GIVING AWAY OUR POWER. Remember the days when travel agents planned our trips, and had all the power? Most people would understandably rather book their own travel these days. But if you blindly follow whatever TripAdvisor and Yelp recommend, then you're just following the digital crowds, making them your travel agent. The more people use these online rating sites, the more power they have to make or break a business, especially since small, local places often feel the brunt of having no reviews or unfairly poor ratings.

SO WHAT? Am I saying I'll never use TripAdvisor or Yelp again? No. My point is we should use these ratings sites more judiciously. It's time to untether ourselves from our electronic concierges. Spend less time browsing online and more time enjoying travel. Read reviews with a dose of skepticism, and don't be afraid to try a place that hasn't been recommended online. Use online rankings sites to be a voice in support of independent travel by reviewing local businesses, instead of just supporting the Starbucks status quo. Most of all, let yourself rediscover the serendipity of being on the road, with just a map (and not an iPhone) in hand.

What do you think about online ratings sites? Are they always a useful tool when you travel, or not? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

On purpose, I didn't title this blog post "10 Steps to the Perfect Day in Big Sur." I'm suspicious of travel writers (or Yelp! reviewers, for that matter) who claim to know what the best of anything is, whether it's fish tacos or Asian art museums. So consider this just one idea among many of how to spend a soul-nourishing summer's day in Big Sur, that remote chunk of California coast that lies south of Monterey and north of well, my house.
  • Start off with a big ol' breakfast at First Awakenings, a little cafe with a big outdoor patio and a fire pit. It's around the corner from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but tucked away from the dazed crowds wandering Cannery Row, wondering what John Steinbeck ever saw in the place.
  • Roll down to Carmel-by-the-Sea and stop into Bruno's Market. Head directly to the deli at the back and order a tri-tip sandwich and picnic salads to go. Why? You'll thank me later. Big Sur has notoriously overpriced, often underwhelming food. Besides, eating at the beach is more fun.
  • Swing by Point Lobos State Reserve (admission $10; open from 8 a.m. until 30 minutes after sunset daily). Stretch your legs on the coastal trails, or at least say hello to the barking sea lions (they're the ones with ears) and spotted harbor seals (no ears).
  • Where everyone else stops to take a photo of Big Sur's iconic Bixby Bridge, you can head inland to explore the original coast highway, now called the Old Coast Road, 11 ocean-view miles of satisfying 4WD and mountain-biking terrain.
  • Or just keep driving south with everyone else, past Point Sur's historic lighthouse (guided tours occasionally available), down to Andrew Molera State Park (near where the Old Coast Road also dumps you back out onto Hwy 1). Give $10 to California State Parks (they need the money!) and park in the lot, near gentle trails that lead to a windy, rocky beach and a grassy campground.
  • Save your parking receipt, because it'll also get you in free to Big Sur's other state parks on the same day. Drive south to Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park (open 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset daily). Hop out of the car and hug some redwood trees, then reward yourself with some ice cream from the store at the rustic Big Sur Lodge.
  • About a half-mile south of the Big Sur ranger station, look for a small turn-off on your right, labeled as 'Narrow Road.' And that's an understatement: be prepared to wind downhill for over 2 twisting miles to reach Pfeiffer Beach (admission $5; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily). It's famous for two things: a cinematic sea arch battered by pounding surf; and sand that's tinged with purple by manganese garnet that washes down from the hillsides.
  • If you didn't bring along a picnic lunch, then your next pit stop is Nepenthe, a restaurant hanging in the treetops by the sea. Otherwise, you can double back here later to sip wine and nibble appys as you huddle around the outdoor terrace fire pit and watch the sun get swallowed up by the sea.
  • Wondering where Big Sur's beatnik spirit has gone? Reconnect with it in the real bohemian grove (of redwoods, that is) at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I never know what to expect when dropping by: outdoor movies, a musician's jam, or once, an impromptu wedding! Even when nothing special is happening, you can just chill, browse the books and have a cup o' community joe.
  • Still got your state parks entry receipt? Good, because you'll need it once more for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (open 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset daily). Get out of the car and walk through the tunnel underneath the highway, then hang a right. Keep looking off toward the ocean. You may literally gasp when you glimpse McWay Falls, coastal California's only waterfall that drops into the ocean (well, either that or onto the beach, depending on the tide).
There's a lot more I could tell you about Big Sur, from moonlight hot-springs soaks and beachcombing for jade to visiting the California condor bird-banding lab, but I'll have to save that for another day (and another blog post).

What are your fave spots in Big Sur? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Photo: McWay Falls (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Doh! Don't Miss the LA Donut Summit on Sunday

What's better for Sunday brunch than a box of classic glazed donuts? How about apple fritters? Or old-fashioned bear claws? The mind boggles with the panoply of choices.

Still can't decide? Well, get yourself to the LA Donut Summit in Griffith Park this Sunday, June 13. It's like a Christmas cookie swap party, except it's ginormous and held outdoors in the sunshine. All you have to do is show up by 1PM at the park's Vermont Avenue picnic area with a box of a dozen donuts from a local shop (for suggestions, click here). Public tasting and judging begins around 1:30PM, with Donut Marshalls (hey, how do I get that job?) supervising the cutting up of donuts so that everyone gets a taste of more than just 12 flavors.

Confused about exactly how all this deliciousness works? Check out the 2010 Donut Summit FAQ or follow 'em on Twitter to get all the late-breaking news.

Photo credit: Michael Connolly, Jr.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Get Outside! National Parks Free This Weekend (& Later This Summer, Too)

Recently, I've been outside, hiking all over southern Utah and making the most of that glorious weather window between spring and summer. You know, when it's not too unbearably hot in the desert badlands, yet the mountainous high country is just starting to open after snow melt. Now here's your excuse to get out there and do the same.

All US national parks are free-free this weekend. About 75% of NPS sites usually don't charge admission anyway. But for the 100 or so that do (including top-tier parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or Zion), you'll be saving yourself $20 to $25 a carload. Who can resist the call of the wild when it's free?

If you miss this fee-free weekend, don't worry. Just plan your national parks trip for August 14 & 15, the next weekend when admission fees will be waived. (Or September 25, National Public Lands Day, by which time the crushing summer crowds will have left.)

Photo credit: Bryce Canyon NP (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Do Travel Writers Have 9 Lives? I've Used Mine

On the Coconut Radio blog from Tahiti, I was reading another Lonely Planet author's stories about bad, bad border crossings and getting kidnapped (or not) in Costa Rica. It made me think about the close brushes with death that all travel writers and photographers I know have had, including myself. There's something about searching out the next off-the-beaten path destination, or going to that way-out place that maybe no other travelers ever visit just to update a guidebook, that always seems to lead to trouble.

I've been writing travel guides on and off for 10 years. So far, I've had a few close calls with the afterlife:
  • Missing the bus when I got off the ferry in Indonesia. Doesn't sound fatal, does it? Well, I dallied too long getting my backpack off the boat, the next onward bus filled up and I couldn't push my way onto it -- you know how it goes in Southeast Asia. So, I sat down and waited an hour for the next bus. Funny thing is, as we trundled our way across the island, I saw the bus I'd tried to catch earlier overturned and smashed up on the side of the road, with dozens of people hurt. One of those dead bodies could have easily have been me. I resolved right there to get more medical training.
  • (Almost not) landing at Lukla airport in Nepal. The Gear Junkie recently did a great write-up of why this airport really isn't one of the world's most dangerous, although it certainly feels like it when you find out your pilot has never really logged any serious hours in a STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft before. Did I mention we were attempting to land in the middle of a snowstorm, too? It took us 3 fly-bys before wheels touched down on tarmac. I resolved to get back to Kathmandu overland, the old-fashioned hippie way, even if I had to walk all the way from Everest Base Camp.
  • Somewhere on the China-Vietnam border. It's a gimme that this might be a dicey place to be, but I didn't expect to get woken up in the middle of the night and marched off the bus at gunpoint by Chinese soldiers. It did not help being the only obvious foreigner on the bus. But once I agreed to let my backpack, passport and money go, everything was copacetic. (And this in no way compares as a hair-raising experience with a documentary filmmaker friend who was held at gunpoint by Burmese border guards, and saved her own life by flashing a medal of a Buddhist monk.)
And this doesn't begin to cover the taxi drivers worldwide who have tried to trick me into going to out-of-the-way places, hoping that American girls really were that easy. Or getting groped by drunk businessmen on trains in Japan (I always shoved back, ill-mannered gaijin that I am). Or that Malaysian scooter driver who somehow copped a feel while I was riding a bicycle (I drove him off by pelting him with stones.)

Travel is risky, and sometimes the Venn diagram intersection of being a woman and a travel writer makes that risk triple. But I don't regret most of the travel misadventures I've had, because I couldn't have foreseen the majority of them. And at the end of the day, they're the price you sometimes have to pay for the privilege of epic travel experiences, like trekking high into the Himalayas or visiting ancient ruins in Sicily.

There's only one travel accident that I wish I had a do-over for. Patagonia, you and I have a major score to settle. But that's a travel noir story for another day.

Had your own near-miss travel escapade? Tell us all about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: Lukla Airport, Nepal

Friday, May 7, 2010

Do You Still Love Riding the Rails? Then All Aboard Amtrak's National Train Day

About 2 weeks ago, the Washington Post came out with a scathing in-depth look at Amtrak. The article asserted that although ridership is up, "the romance went out of it a long time ago" and that our national rail system is "freighted with problems," most notoriously delays. While the Post's staff writers make some valid points, I have to disagree that our nation's love affair with trains is over, at least not for me and not in California.

Maybe the negativity resulted from the Post's focus on the Eastern seaboard, while on the West Coast trains are less about commuting than a scenic vacation. Sure, the Coast Starlight train can run late (although last month, its on-time record was an impressive 96.7%). In fact, it once took me 16+ hours to get from Oakland to LA, a 12-hour scheduled trip! But the gorgeous coastal scenery, some of it inaccessible by road and only visible when riding the rails, made it worth it.

My partner and I still ride Amtrak whenever we can. We live near the northern terminus of the Pacific Surfliner route, which connects us to Santa Barbara, LA, Orange County and San Diego. Not only is it a greener way to travel than driving ourselves, we love not getting stuck on the I-405 for hours as we head down south. Instead, we can kick it with Wi-Fi in business-class seats, or just lazily stare out the window for hours and dream.

Which brings me to Amtrak's National Train Day tomorrow, May 8. Get out there and show your support for this eco-friendly and yes, romantic way to travel. Celebrations at LA's historic Union Station include exhibits on railroad braceros (Mexican laborers) and Amtrak's 'Trails & Rails' national parks initiative (and new online trip planner,, model trains and more fun stuff for kids. There are festivities happening at Amtrak stations all around California, and across the country, too. Check the website for details, then go have fun!

Are you a fan of railway travel? What's your favorite train trip that you've ever taken, either in the USA or abroad? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arizona Travel Boycott? Let's Not Blame the Grand Canyon, for Starters

In the wake of Arizona's legislative crackdown on illegal immigration last week, Mexico has issued a travel alert for its citizens, while some US cities, businesses and organizations are calling for an Arizona travel boycott. Meanwhile, the US Travel Association and others in the tourism industry are asking travelers not to boycott Arizona, especially since the state's tourism economy is already suffering high unemployment.

Whether you're politically for or against traveling to Arizona right now, can we agree not to take it out on US federal recreational lands, such as the Grand Canyon, or the Navajo Nation, whose sovereign tribal council has not come out in support of Arizona's recent legislation?

May is an especially great month for visiting the Grand Canyon, before massive summer vacation crowds arrive. The park's South Rim is always open, and this year you've got a more eco-friendly way to tour it. Look for brand-new Bright Angel Bicycle Rentals, open for business at Canyon Visitor Information Plaza, near Mather Point. A half-day bicycle rental costs $25/15 per adult/child.

The Grand Canyon's more remote North Rim will be opening for the 2010 season on May 15. Get there early on opening day, and you may have some of the famous viewpoints all to yourself. (If you'd rather minimize your Arizona travel, you can access the North Rim via southern Utah, passing through Zion National Park.)

How do you feel about the proposed Arizona travel boycotts? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Related links:
Arizona Travel & Adventure
Digging Up History at the Grand Canyon
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?

Photo credit: Grand Canyon NP, North Rim (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Freebies! Utah State Parks Passes and iPhone App

US National Park Week is over, which means no more free trips to the Zion or Bryce Canyon National Parks for you. The good news is, you can still get free-entry to Utah's state parks, if you're a local library card holder. Neighborhood libraries, including in the Salt Lake City metro area, will let you check out an annual Utah State Parks pass (normally $75), which gets you free entry to any state park you choose. (For a list of participating libraries in Utah, click here.)

As if that's not enough of a good deal, Utah State Parks has also released a free iPhone / iPod Touch app. True, there's not a lot of descriptive detail provided in this mobile field guide, but the photo galleries are gorgeous. The app loads quickly and it gives you contact details, addresses and basic maps of each park that you can access offline (which is helpful, given spotty cellphone coverage and non-existent Wi-Fi in Utah's wilderness). I'm crossing my fingers that future updates of this handy app will get more in-depth about what activities and features each park has, including hiking trails.

Keep up the good work, Beehive State! Find out more by following Utah State Parks on Twitter or Facebook.

Update (4/30/2010): An update for the Utah State Parks' iPhone app is now available (version 2.0), which includes videos from YouTube, Google maps interactivity for park locations and a current events/news feed.

Photo credit: Anasazi State Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)