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.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SoCal Desert Blooms: Poppies, Cacti & More

Somtimes back luck can turn good. After having to give up our Coachella tickets (it's a long story), we wandered down to the Mojave Desert this past weekend anyway. Things couldn't have turned out better if we'd planned the trip months ago.

By accident, we hit the peak Califo
rnia poppy bloom in the Antelope Valley. If you're wondering if it's worth heading up to the Palmdale-Lancaster area, about two hour's drive from LA, to see the spectacular display, the answer is yes. I've seen some impressive SoCal desert wildflower blooms this decade (e.g., in 2005, when prehistoric Lake Manly reappeared in Death Valley), and this year is superb.

There were so many people out tra
mping about the poppy fields this weekend, we couldn't even get into the official California Poppy State Natural Reserve. So we just pulled off on a 4WD side road and went ambling beside the fields, which always reminds me of that scene in the Wizard of Oz. Just imagine when hundreds of hillsides across California were covered in these bright orange poppies. Early Spanish explorers were so gobsmacked that they nicknamed 'em montaƱa de oro, or mountains of gold.

Thanks to National Parks Week, our visit to Joshua Tree National Park was totally free, too. We hiked he Mastodon Peak Trail, starting from Cottonwood Spring. The beavertail cactus, yucca plants and creosote bushes were all alive with color. On the drive down through the park, we passed through the Ocotillo Patch, where those strange octopus-like succulents were sending forth their showy red flowers. Even a few of the Joshua trees were still blooming, with their creamy white blossoms.

If you've got time this week or next weekend, head to the desert. The wildflowers are putting on an amazing show!

Related posts:
Freebies! National Park Week, April 17-25
Free Online Coastal California Trip Planner
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?

Photo credits: Michael Connolly, Jr. & Sara Benson

Friday, April 16, 2010

Freebies! National Park Week, April 17-25

I know, I know. Everyone is going to the Coachella music festival today. But if you're not one of those lucky ticket holders, why not take some time off this weekend or next week to get outdoors and visit a national park?

From April 17 through April 25, national parks are waiving entry fees. That's right: every single national park will be free. So, whether you're dreaming of heading to California's Yosemite or Arizona's Grand Canyon, you won't pay a cent. (Of course, some parks are free year-round, like Nevada's epic Great Basin, but that's another story.)

Visit this National Park Week companion site, and you'll find out about special events happening at parks across the country. Courtesy of the National Parks Foundation, parents can download a PDF activity guide with 35 national parks vacation ideas to keep you going all summer long. April 24 is National Junior Ranger Day, too. (Kids can earn their badges at almost any national park year-round, or even online at home).

And since the national parks are letting you in for free, why not give back by helping them out with a volunteer project, either on Earth Day (April 22) or anytime during the week? To find an opportunity near you, just search the database.

Photo credit: Kings Canyon National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

DIY Sunset Tours of Hearst Castle

It's spring, and everything's blooming. Now's the perfect time to visit Hearst Castle, with its decadent gardens, on California's Central Coast. (Unless you have pollen allergies like I do, in which case not even Claritin will stop you from sneezing your head off once you get up on the hilltop.) Like the elaborate mansion itself, these gardens were designed in collaboration between William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan.

No time or patience for taking a guided tour, or maybe you just want to peek at the gardens without going inside the castle? No problem. Hearst Castle is now offering self-guided tours of the castle's grounds and gardens on most Friday and Saturday afternoons until mid-June, then almost daily through Labor Day. Tours, which include a documentary movie screening at the visitor center's theater, cost $24 per adult ($12 for each child aged 6-17, kids 5 & under are free).

You'll still need a reservation for these self-guided Gardens & Vistas Tours, available online or by calling (800) 444-4445. But once you check in, pick up your tickets and take the bus ride up to the hilltop, you'll be able to wander around by yourself. Self-guided tour map in hand, you can amble the garden's pathways as you admire the Neptune Pool and the historical buildings (from the outside, at least). Luckily, you'll be able to stay until just after sunset for the most memorable views.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Free Online Coastal California Trip Planner

Spring is here, which means its road trip time. If you're heading out to coastal California, which is my neck of the woods, consider picking up Lonely Planet's brand-new Coastal California guidebook, which I co-wrote.

Want a free sneak peek before you buy? Start dreaming about your coastal California road trip by downloading the free "Getting Started" chapter PDF here. Peruse our top 8 expert itineraries, including coastal California for kids, kitsch lovers, outdoor enthusiasts and yes, freaks & weirdos (we love 'em here!).

You'll also get top 10 lists for California's best parties and parades and hidden beaches, a round-up of the best travel literature about the Golden State and tips for greener, more sustainable eco-travel, plus our recommendations for the best months to go (hint: it's not June through August).

Eager to take a cross-country road trip or itching for a tropical island getaway ? Check out these free trip-planning guides to the USA, Hawaii and Oahu, excerpted from other Lonely Planet guides I co-wrote.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Top 5 Free Seats on the Las Vegas Strip

When you're walking along the Las Vegas Strip, your feet will hurt. That's just a rule. And it's doubly true when you're researching a travel guide, clocking in over 6 miles in one day. Suddenly, finding a free place to sit seems like a miracle when it's not in front of a ding-ding-dinging slot machine. Here are my top 5 fave places to escape and kick up my heels on the Strip:
  1. Planet Hollywood's mezzanine (aka 'The Mezz') hovering above the casino floor, at the top of the escalators in front of Koi and Strip House restaurants. Mod black seating, but no wi-fi.
  2. The Venetian's chaise longues next to the poolside windows just down the hall from Bouchon restaurant. Free wi-fi, and classy Italianate art all around you.
  3. Caesars Palace on the 2nd floor of the spa tower, just down the hall from Restaurant Guy Savoy. Richly upholstered French empire-style seating, plus free wi-fi.
  4. The faux Brooklyn Bridge at NYNY casino hotel. The NYC-style park benches just outside the ESPN Zone let you sniff out free wi-fi and enjoy some fresh(ish) air.
  5. Imperial Palace's La-Z-Boy-style leather recliner massage chairs (yup, they're coin-op) upstairs from the casino floor, just below Ginseng 3 restaurant.
But my very favorite new place to sit (and sip) on the Strip is the 23rd-floor tea lounge next to the Mandarin Oriental's sky lobby at CityCenter. Technically, it's not a free seat, since you'll have to pay for a drink to enjoy the divinely comfy couches. Anyone can come gawk at the Strip view for free, as long as you don't sit down (the management is politely firm about this). But to really soak up the nighttime panoramas, the $20 champagne cocktail seemed worth its weight in gold.

Related posts:
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! New iPhone Travel App
CityCenter Now Open in Las Vegas
Las Vegas: Escape from the Strip!

Photo credit: Las Vegas Strip after dark (Sara J. Benson)