Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Planning your first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Or maybe you just want to make the most of your time in Colorado's most-visited parkland? Here's what you need to know first, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you frustratingly dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO)

Why go? Rocky Mountains scenery doesn't get much more classic than this, from alpine tundra spackled with wildflowers to skyscraping peaks and gem-like lakes. Megafauna including moose, elk and bear all inhabit the park, which sits atop the spine of the Continental Divide. The park encompasses Longs Peak, one of Colorado's vaunted 14ers (summits over 14,000ft high).

Easiest access? The park's most popular eastern entrances are just over a 2-hour drive northwest of Denver, Colorado; Estes Park is the nearest gateway town. Far fewer people approach the park from the west, just over a 2-hour drive from the Winter Park ski resort area; the nearest gateway town is Grand Lake. The two sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Rd (peak elevation 12,183ft), which is only open from late May until mid-October, weather permitting.

How to beat the crowds? ROMO gets over 3 million visitors per year, ranking right behind the USA's three most popular national parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite). Most people visit ROMO during July and August, so plan your trip for the shoulder months of June or September. Check to be sure that Trail Ridge Road will be open - don't miss those dizzying alpine panoramas!

Best day hikes? If you've got limited time, short leg-stretcher hikes you won't regret taking include the Coyote Valley Trail alongside the Colorado River; the Tundra Communities Trailhead, near the Alpine Visitor Center; and the chain-of-lakes hike, connecting poetically named Dream, Nymph and Emerald Lakes. Tip: Trailhead parking for these lakes is extremely tight, so save yourself the trouble and instead hop on the free, ecofriendly park shuttle, which runs from late spring through early fall.

Best wildlife-watching spots? On the park's west side along the Colorado River, look out for moose. Marmots and pikas are common in the alpine tundra off Trail Ridge Rd, where you may also spot herds of elk in high-altitude meadows during summer (the elk move to lower elevations from autumn through spring). Bighorn sheep graze around Sheep Lakes (duh) on the park's east side.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait in line for a parking space, stopping at the seasonal Alpine Visitor Center is memorable, if not just to take photos then at least to catch your breath and acclimate to the 11,800ft elevation. If you're driving back and forth across the park and the Old Falls River Rd is open, take the 11-mile backcountry ride over Falls Pass, navigating hairpin curves with no guardrails. The dirt road is so narrow that one-way traffic sometimes backs up for 20 minutes while gawkers take roadside photos.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? NPS campgrounds on the park's east side fill up fast, and reservations are essential for most in summer. If you show up early in the day, you may find first-come, first-served sites still available at Glacier Basin Campground or tent-only Longs Peak Campground. Otherwise, head over to the park's west side and pitch your tent by the Colorado River at Timber Creek Campground, which is open year-round and doesn't take reservations. Otherwise, take a look at USFS campgrounds and free dispersed camping in nearby national forest areas.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? Estes Park is an overcrowded gateway town with traffic headaches and non-stop crowds in summer (and a very disappointing brewpub). You could day trip to the park from Denver or Boulder, but it'd be a really loooong day to drive over Trail Ridge Rd and back again. Although Grand Lake is the closest gateway town to the park's west entrance, save big bucks in summer by renting a ski condo in Granby instead. Bonus: staying on the park's west side puts you near Hot Sulphur Springs Resort for a long, very hot soak after a hard day's hiking in the mountains.

Any hazards? For safety tips on everything from lightning to black bears, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Photos: Rocky Mountains National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tahoe Trails Without the Crowds, but with Dogs

Last month I road tripped up to Lake Tahoe. I sat in the traffic jams on I-80 and idled bumper-to-bumper through South Lake Tahoe. I elbowed the crowds guzzling schooners of microbrewed beer on those irresistible lake-view decks at sunset. Then the next morning, all of those howling masses just disappeared.

Turns out that choosing to hike while everyone else is baking in the sun at the beach -- or alternatively, just setting off on foot somewhere other than the vaunted Rubicon Trail between Emerald Bay and DL Bliss State Parks -- will give you that Sierra Nevada meditation you crave.

Framed by wildflowers and jagged peaks, the Tahoe Meadows Trails border the Mt Rose Hwy, about 8 miles from Lake Tahoe's eastern shore and Incline Village, Nevada. Starting just a mile down the highway from Mt Rose Summit, these gentle boardwalk and dirt paths wind around a subalpine meadow and over a burbling stream. Even better: free parking, and leashed dogs allowed.

You won't pass many other folks besides shoreline fishers and a few picnicking families on the short nature loop around Spooner Lake, just north of the Hwy 89/50 intersection, south of Incline Village. To access this quiet trail, the $10 entry fee to Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park is a bargain, because it includes same-day admission to Sand Harbor beach up the road for a cool post-hike dip. (No swimming at Spooner Lake, sorry -- too many leeches!)

Finally, if you're ready to flee from the plague of happy-hour crowds by the lake, Stateline Lookout is the hike you want to take. Full disclosure: there's actually no fire lookout here anymore. But the stone-walled observation platform at the top, which lets you survey the sparkling waves and watch the sun sink into the Desolation Wilderness over by the lake's western shore, is prize enough. The hike follows paved Forest Service Rd 1601, starting just east of the old-school casinos in Crystal Bay, a short drive west of Incline Village. 

Have another favorite uncrowded trail in Tahoe? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Related posts:
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur
Welcome to Top Trails: Hiking on Maui!

Photos: Lake Tahoe (Jonathan Hayes) 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hiking & Backpacking in Hawaii: Free Eco-Travel Author Slideshow Talks at REI Stores

Have you been dreaming of finally taking that Hawaii vacation, but are afraid it's too expensive? Or maybe you're worried about your carbon footprint and the eco-impact of yet another tourist at Hawaii's crowded beach resorts? Here's the ticket to planning a more sustainable and affordable Hawaii vacation: go camping.

The very first time I visited the Hawaiian Islands, I was a broke 20-year-old backpacker who could barely afford the round-trip plane ticket from California. With my travel buddy, I camped my way around Maui, spending my days hiking in cloud forests, atop volcanoes and along deserted beaches on ancient Hawaiian footpaths. We ate guava straight from the tree, and though we had ambitions to do our own spearfishing, we settled for plate lunches and poi from island markets.

Not only was this one of the best trips I ever took, it was also one of the cheapest and most eco-conscious. That's what keeps drawing me back to the islands time and again, to live, work, volunteer and most of all, hike.

If you want to learn more about hiking, backpacking and camping all across the Hawaiian Islands, join me when I take my eco-travel slideshow talk on the road in the San Francisco Bay Area at REI stores in June and July. All events are free, open to the public (advance sign-ups online recommended; just click the links below) and start at 7:00 p.m. Hope to see everyone there!

June 28: REI Berkeley
July 25: REI Saratoga
July 26: REI Marina

Photo: Haleakala National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Las Vegas' Burlesque Hall of Fame

Once upon a time, you had to drive Route 66 out into the Mojave Desert and find a ranch run by retired burlesque dancer Dixie Evans just to see this collection of historical memorabilia. Now you just have to take yourself to downtown Las Vegas and the Emergency Arts Collective, one long block east of the Fremont Street Experience.

The Burlesque Hall of Fame is full of black-and-white vintage photos from the mid-20th century heyday of burlesque club dancing, both in Vegas and around the world. If you're lucky, a retired dancer might even give you a tour. Definitely check Facebook or call ahead before making a trip here, because the exhibit may move in the near future and its hours are subject to change. Until then, viva Las Vegas, baby!

Related posts:
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! iPhone & iPad Travel App
7 Things to Do in Vegas Besides Gamble
Top 5 Free Seats on the Las Vegas Strip
CityCenter Now Open in Las Vegas