Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Saving a Christmas Goose: Hawaii's Endangered State Bird, the Nene

Right now from December through April is nesting season for nēnē, the endangered Hawaiian goose. At Haleakala National Park on Maui, these birds are often seen hanging out along roadsides and in parking lots, where careless drivers may hit or run over them. The remarkably curious birds have little fear of humans and aren't able to fly away quickly. That's part of what makes these distant cousins of Canada geese such captivating mascots for Hawaii's volcanic wildernesses, and why you can easily meet them at national parks on Maui and the Big Island.

In 2012 there have been a greater than average number of nēnē who have died after being hit by motor vehicles. Earlier this month, a motorist rushing to catch the sunrise from Haleakala's volcanic summit fatally struck a breeding pair of nēnē. With a statewide population of fewer than 2000 birds, up from an all-time low of only a few dozen birds left in the early 1950s, every bird's life counts, not just for species reproduction but also genetic diversity.

So how can you help? It's easy: 

1. When you're visiting Hawaii, slow down and obey the posted speed limits in the park and other areas where nēnē live on Maui, the Big Island, Kauai, Lanai and MolokaiDrive even more carefully during rainy or foggy weather, when visibility is limited. Check around your parked car before backing up, to avoid hitting any birds that may be hiding underneath.

2. No matter how much the birds honk, waddle around and beg, do not give them any food or drink, even filtered water. Habituating wild nēnē to human handouts impairs their chances of survival.

3. Approaching the birds, even if they seem friendly and interested, can disturb their natural behavior. Always stand well back from nēnē. Park rangers advise that if a bird moves when you move, then you're too close!

If you want to help more, make a tax-deductible donation to the Adopt-a-Nene Program, run by the nonprofit Friends of Haleakala National Park.

Related links:
Haleakala National Park: Nēnē Fact Sheet [PDF]
Hawaii's National Parks Go Social: News for Hikers
Haleakala's Summit Wilderness: High Winds & Other Fascinatingly Dangerous Weather

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talk Travel Tonight with Me & Gogobot LA

Are you in the sprawling metro Los Angeles area? If so, head over to Culver City after work on Thursday night, December 6, for the next Gogobot Travel Salon LA. The theme is 'Travel on Any Budget,' so we'll talking about everything from how to save big bucks on tropical resorts and maximize frequent flier miles to penny pinching at hostels and food trucks.

This social travel event is happening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at NextSpace Los Angeles (9415 Culver Blvd., Culver City). The cover charge ($5) gets you food, drinks and time to ask Gogobot's panel of experts any travel question you want, then swap deal-finding tips with your fellow travel junkies. Buy tickets in advance online via Eventbrite. See you all there!

Related links:
Gogobot: Travel in the Know!
Gogobot Travel Salon LA: Travel on Any Budget
My Custom Travel Guides (Free!) on Gogobot

Friday, November 16, 2012

Secret Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards

Only four times each year, boutique wineries hidden high in the Santa Cruz Mountains open their doors to curious tasters. Some of the biggest vintners - for example, Thomas Fogarty, which has foggy hilltop vineyards and pours award-winning vintages - are open year-round. But if you're seeking smaller connoisseur labels, a quarterly Passport Day event might be your only chance to taste these award-winning pinot noir and chardonnay varietals.

The next Passport Day for Santa Cruz Mountains wineries is happening Saturday, November 17. Most tasting rooms will be open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but call ahead to check on any you're particularly eager to visit (damn, Kathryn Kennedy isn't open to the public). For $45, you'll get a printed passport that waives your tasting fee at any participating winery. That passport is valid for tastings at any time, even months after the Passport Day, because seriously, how many can you visit in six hours?

If you miss tomorrow's event, you'll have to wait until 2013 for another chance: Passport Day typically takes place on the third Saturday of January, April, July and November. If you'd rather not drive up into the mountains, chic Vinocruz wine shop in downtown Santa Cruz pours five different Santa Cruz Mountains wines every week at its mod stainless-steel tasting bar. In recent years, a handful of wineries have also opened tasting rooms in central Santa Cruz, including such major players as Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Bonny Doon Vineyard. They're clustered in industrial warehouses off Ingalls St., west of downtown and the UCSC campus via Hwy 1.

Related links:
Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers
Fall Travel: Sunshine on California's Coast
Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List

Photo credit: Sara J. Benson

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Freebie Alert! US National Parks Free This Weekend & All Day Monday

In honor of Veterans Day, US national parks are waiving entry fees this weekend and during the holiday on Monday. That's right: you can visit any national park for free. So, whether you're dreaming of heading to California's Yosemite Valley or Hawaii's Haleakala volcano, you won't pay a cent. (Of course, some parks are free year-round, like Nevada's epic Great Basin out in the desert, but that's another story.)

And since the national parks are letting you in for free, why not give back by helping them out with a volunteer project? Even if you miss the public programs this weekend, you can still find an opportunity to help out near you, wherever you live, just by searching the volunteer database anytime.

What's your all-time favorite national park in the US or abroad? Tell us where we should travel next by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related posts:
Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite Valley
Wild Weather High on Hawaii's Haleakala Volcano
Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo: Rocky Mountain National Park (Sara J. Benson) 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Risks and Rewards in the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys

In six months of living on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, I learned to do things that even growing up in a Midwestern farm town hadn't taught me. I hauled my own trash to the dump in the back of a sputtering 1980s Volvo. I paid for water delivery when our rainwater catchment system bottomed out. I stole eggs from the backyard chickens and picked ripe, soft papaya fruit right off the plant. The Big Island brought me about as close to the pie-eyed hippie dream of living off the land as I'm likely to get.

Kilauea Iki Overlook

But what I remember most about the Big Island is its raw, lunar-looking lava landscapes. I hiked across sun-baked lava fields in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park - and almost succumbed to heat exhaustion after my water ran out, frantically finding some last-ditch relief in the shadow of an ancient Hawaiian rock wall. After dark, I scampered across ropy pahoehoe lava to a viewpoint of fiery molten lava glowing hellishly red while it oozed downhill into the ocean, sending up billowing clouds of steam. As dawn broke, I drove partway up Mauna Kea's summit road, then continued to climb steeply uphill on foot, curving around rainbow-colored cinder cones and a prehistoric, frosty green lake at eye level with the clouds. Out of breath, I reached the top of Hawaii's highest volcano, dusted with snow and marked with a cold metal USGS elevation marker and a traditional Hawaiian altar humbly made of stone and wood.

After all of that fire and ice, the Big Island's lush amphitheater valleys were a refreshingly wet and temperate escape, where waterfalls leapt over cliffs and swollen streams ran headstrong into the Pacific. I tramped from Waipiʻo Valley up the Z-shaped switchbacks of the Muliwai Trail, then rock-hopped over streams, strode past emergency helipads and slipped over kukui nuts for the final mile downhill with nothing to hold onto but tangled hau trees. The rough trail ended in abandoned Waimanu Valley, where under the light of a full moon by a rising tide, I camped alone on an eerily deserted beach. It was too easy to hallucinate the sounds of Hawaii's night marchers - the ghosts of ancient warriors - pounding their feet on dirt and making tree branches creak and rocks crash as they slipped through the forest.

View from Mauna Kea's Summit Road

Getting to know the Big Island's volcanic landscapes and timeless valleys in depth requires taking serious risks, but it pays off with huge rewards. If this sounds like your kind of adventure, check out my guide to "Exploring the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys," published by Lonely Planet. It was just reprinted by CNN with a bewitching gallery of images, so you can see for yourself the drama that unfolds on Hawaii's youngest - and most wildly unpredictable - island.

Related links:
Volcanoes and Valleys on the Big Island [CNN]
Exploring the Big Island's Volcanoes and Valleys [Lonely Planet]
Kauaiʻs Coast & Mountains: A Hiker's Dream [Lonely Planet]

Photo credits: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Waipiʻo Valley & Mauna Kea (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

US National Parks: The 4 Biggest Advantages of Autumn Travel

Along the Skyline Trail in Mt Rainier National Park, WA
Having worked for the National Park Service (NPS), one of the best ranger travel secrets I learned is that the best time to visit many US national parks is fall, not summer. The deserts of the Southwest are more temperate during autumn. Fall foliage is blazing with reds, golds and oranges across the country, from Appalachia's Blue Ridge Parkway to Yellowstone National Park way out West. Summer crowds have drifted out of California's lofty Sierra Nevada Mountains and the volcanic Cascades Range just inland from the West Coast. Even some of Alaska's spectacular national parks - including Denali and Kenai Fjords - are easy to access during early autumn, at least before the first snow falls.

The sweet spot for maximizing good weather but avoiding summer vacation crowds is usually right after Labor Day through the end of September or even October. Still not convinced that fall is a perfect time to visit many national parks? Here are four good reasons to time your trip after summer. 

Save more money. Rates at lodgings both inside the parks and in nearby gateway towns often drop steeply after Labor Day. Ask about off-season discounts when making reservations. Beware that some park lodges shut down in mid-September or early October, like the North Rim's Grand Canyon Lodge, Crater Lake Lodge in Oregon or Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park. But a few stay open year-round, like those in Yosemite Valley.

View of Mt Rainier and Nisqually Glacier in autumn

Enjoy some solitude. On a recent backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park during mid-September, I only saw about 10 people each day - and this was on the park's most popular backcountry loop around Rae Lakes! In early October in Mt Rainier National Park, I was one of only four people sitting on the front porch of the National Park Inn catching sunset from the old-fashioned wicker chairs. When I've driven Yosemite's high country Tioga Rd (Hwy 120) in late October before snow closes it for the year, I've had viewpoints and day-hiking trails almost all to myself. 

Warm days, cool nights. Have you ever sweated out a national park trip during the dog days of August? Unless you're one of those wild and crazy ones who wants to experience what 120 degrees Fahrenheit feels like in Death Valley, the balmy weather of fall at at many can be a relief. Days are usually still sunny, with temperatures becoming crisper and cooler ovenight - cue your excuse to put that campfire or cabin fireplace to good use. Dress in layers, and you'll stay warm and comfy enough.
Alpenglow after sunset over Mt Rainier from Longmire, WA

Wildlife on the move. Last, fall is a great time for wildlife spotting in many national parks. Watch bears hungrily prowl before denning for the winter, elk and moose dramatically clash over mates, and a field guide's worth of birds migrating south for the winter.

Do you have a helpful travel tip for visiting US national parks during fall? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links:
Fall Travel: Sunshine on California's Coast
Ghost Towns: Escaping Crowds at US National Parks
Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Photo credits: Mt Rainier National Park (Sara J. Benson)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fall Travel: Sunshine on California's Coast

Morro Bay State Park in coastal California
Yesterday as I was pedaling around my California beach town, I saw lodging signs for discount off-season rates going up on Labor Day afternoon. Summer may be over, but now is actually a better time for coastal California travel. During fall, you can save money and avoid the huge crowds of summer while still reveling in golden sunshine.  

September is often the sunniest month along California's coast from Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles, all the way up to Oregon. The marine layer of coastal fog that sometimes lingers from 'May grey' and 'June gloom' into July and August rolls away. Ocean waters cool down even in Southern California as autumn arrives, but the beaches are usually balmy enough for lazing on the sand into late October.

Punta Gorda Lighthouse on California's Lost Coast

Autumn is great for food and wine lovers too, with coastal California even more bountiful than in spring. A short hop inland from the coast, fat clusters of grapes almost bursting with juice swell the vineyards, while apples are ripe enough to pick from valley orchards. Plan your trip around a harvest festival at biodynamic wineries and family farms.

Make lodging reservations in advance for fall travel. Even though it's off-peak season and sometimes polite bargaining is allowed for walk-in guests, you'll need to book ahead to take advantage of online promotional discounts. Getting a room reservation also ensures that you'll have a place to stay in wine regions near the coast, where harvest festivals can easily book out every room for 50 miles around. 

Bewitching coastal California towns to make your fall vacation base camp include Santa Barbara, Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County, Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula near Big Sur, and Trinidad just south of Redwood National & State Parks. For hidden coastal lodgings that are one-of-a-kind, check out my anti-hotel top 10 list for coastal California.

Related links:
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur
Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List
Edible Travels: Farmers Market Finds (Even in Winter!)

Photo credits: Sara J. Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ghost Towns: Escaping Crowds at US National Parks

August is the most crowded time to visit most western US national parks, which overflow with families taking last-ditch summer vacations before school starts. How do you escape the crush? Scattered around many iconic western national parks (or even right inside the park's boundaries) are deserted ghost towns to explore. Left over from the pioneer mining rushes of the 19th and 20th centuries, these abandoned settlements with their dusty streets and propped-up landmarks have Old West atmosphere in spades, which kids will love. 

Although you'll need a GPS and possibly a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to visit the remotest ghost towns, many are surprisingly easy to get to (paved roads! signposts!) from national parks that regularly top family summer vacation itineraries, including Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon. Check out my top 5 picks for Old West ghost town hunting over on Lonely Planet

What are your favorite Western ghost towns? Tell us by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links:

Photo credits: Grafton, Utah (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Following Footsteps into Oahu's History

Want to dig deeper into Hawaiian culture and history during your island vacation? There's no better place to start on than Oahu, home to ancient temples and battlegrounds, WWII historical sites, and the wild scenery of the Windward Coast and North Shore.

Over at LonelyPlanet.com, you can check out my list of five of the most worthwhile day hikes across Oahu, from the easy ascent of Diamond Head near Waikiki to the Maunawaili Trail that snakes below the jagged pali (cliffs). Visit WWII pillboxes or a Hawaiian temple of traditional medicine and healing, all within a surprisingly short drive of Honolulu and Waikiki.

Here's a bonus for blog readers like you! What I didn't have room to include in my Lonely Planet article are da best locals' places to chow down after your hike:

1. Diamond Head - Back in Waikiki, drop by Waiola Shave Ice for icy treats or 1950s-era Leonard's Bakery for malasadas (Portuguese-style doughnuts).

2. Maunawili Trail Network - Drive from any trailhead to Sweet Home Waimanalo market-fresh cafe, pouring veggie smoothies and mint lemonade.

3. Lanikai Pillboxes - Line up at Lanikai Juice for tropical fruit smoothies, often made with produce from organic farms, and heaping fruit bowls.

4. Kaena Point State Park - Backtrack to Haleiwa for sweet Matsumoto Shave Ice from a roadside shack.

5. Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area - Gorge on an island plate lunch or poke rice bowl with spicy eggplant fries on the side at chef Elmer's Poke Stop.

Got another favorite hike on Oahu? Let us know where it is by leaving a comment below!

Related links:
Big Island Trekking: From Coast to Volcanic Peaks
Hawaii: Go Green, Live Local & Save Money
Hidden Hiking Trails in West Maui

Photo credit: Sara Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome [Photo Essay]

Often reading about a hiking trail doesn't give you enough information. Honestly, how difficult is it to hike up Half Dome inside Yosemite National Park? Take a look at our trek and decide for yourself.

View of Half Dome from Clouds Rest peak in Yosemite National Park

Heading up to Clouds Rest from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead off Tioga Road, you get panoramic views of this glacially polished granite dome. Its rear profile resembles a hawk perched above Yosemite Valley.

Lightning strikes, falling from the cables and other risks

Warning signs at the base of Half Dome are ignored by hikers too intent on making it to the summit despite inclement weather. Fatalities from lightning strikes or slipping off the cables have happened.

Half Dome cables, which are put up seasonally each summer

To safely ascend the cables bolted into the rock, leather gloves and climbing shoes or hiking boots with good traction help. So does upper body strength, as you'll be pulling yourself up to the top of the cables, not pushing off the rock with your legs.

Walking on the top of Half Dome on a summer weekday before 10 a.m.

Is it worth the effort of getting up early enough to beat the crowds to the top? Yes. Fewer people on the cables before 9 a.m. makes it quicker, easier and safer for you to ascend and descend the cables. You'll need to get a hiking permit in advance.

View of Yosemite Valley from the summit of Half Dome

At the summit, stop to catch your breath, let your cramped arm muscles loosen, and gaze down at evergreen trees and meadows beside the Merced River, which meanders through Yosemite Valley

Safely back down the cables, thanks to climbing rope and clips

We finished our 20-mile overnight hike in Yosemite Valley, descending from Half Dome and over the wooden bridge above Nevada Fall. Take the John Muir Trail if you're already knock-kneed, or drop down the steeper Mist Trail beside Vernal Fall.

Have you climbed Yosemite's Half Dome? Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Have any other tips for novices? Leave us a comment below!

Related links:
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Photos: Yosemite National Park (Michael Connolly Jr. & Sara Benson)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

5 Big Las Vegas Mistakes You Can Avoid

In 2012, Las Vegas has become one of top two most-searched travel destinations online, behind only Disney. What's everyone trying to find out? Why is this city so hard for first-time visitors and even repeaters to figure out? I'm going to save you a lot of Googling, and even more wasted time and money, and tell you about the five biggest lessons I've learned from a decade of hanging out in Sin City.

1. Let your taxi drive 'long-haul' you through the tunnel. Once you arrive at McCarran Airport and wait in the annoyingly long taxi queue, you're probably not going to pay attention to how your taxi driver gets you to your hotel. But be sure to stay awake and conscious long enough to tell your driver not to take the I-15 connector tunnel if you're staying on or near the Strip. It'll add significantly to your taxi fare and surface streets are faster. (Tip: If you don't want to wait in the airport taxi line, tweet @Hacking Vegas in advance for a stealth pick-up at McCarran.)

2. Not take advantage of valet parking. I'm a diehard self-parker, even on the streets of Los Angeles, where valet parking is treated like a civic duty. But in Las Vegas, valet parking is free at almost every casino hotel and shopping mall. All you need to do is tip when the valet hands you back the car keys (a few bucks is fine, unless they leave your Maserati out front, in which case give 'em a $20). That tip costs less than what you're going to drop in the slot machines, and it saves you having to walk for 15 minutes to and from the self-parking garage. For quick, easy in/out valet parking on the Strip and downtown, I like the Tropicana, Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, Bally's, Main Street Station, the Golden Gate and the Golden Nugget's Rush Tower. 

3. Fail to find a deal on your hotel room. There are so many ways to save money on where you stay, whether that's on the Strip, downtown or anywhere else. Most casino hotels announce their deals on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter (the Tropicana is especially savvy with social media offers) and also make promo packages available on their websites. But the best deals are usually reserved for visitors who sign up in advance for email lists (MGM Grand, Bellagio, Wynn & Encore) or register with the casino hotel websites (ex. TI (Treasure Island), Venetian & Palazzo). To get an idea of baseline hotel rates for your travel dates, start your search at Travelworm and compare air/hotel packages on travel booking sites like Expedia. But don't stop your comparison shopping there. Often booking your flights independently and your hotel room directly with the casino nets the biggest savings.

4. Buy full-price tickets for a bad show. When you're on the Strip, you may feel like you have to see a show, as if leaving Vegas without having done so means you'll have missed out. Not true! If you're not a fan of stage shows to begin with, nothing in Vegas is likely to change your mind. If you do want to see a show and you don't have your heart set on Celine Dion or Garth Brooks, head over to the nearest branch of Tix 4 Tonight and get a same-day, steeply discounted ticket for anything that sounds like fun, whether that's Absinthe comedy burlesque, Penn & Teller's magic show or Legends in Concert celebrity impersonators. Even if you don't love the show, at least you won't have spent too much money on it. Bonus tip: If you do want to see Cirque du Soleil, line up before the Tix 4 Tonight booth opens for the day or sign up online for the Cirque Club to buy discount tickets in advance. Also check for promo ticket deals on the Cirque website and the websites of the casinos hotels where the shows are playing.

5. Pay too much or too little for dinner. Are you excited by the idea of a $10 steak or buffet? Know that you get what you pay for in Vegas, which means bad food for cheapskates (Ellis Island off-Strip is a shining exception to this rule). If you're going to pay for a buffet, pick one of the best, like The Buffet at Wynn, Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan or Studio B at the M Resort south of the Strip. It's also worth paying more for top-tier steakhouses, like SW Steakhouse at Wynn, Cut at the Palazzo or N9NE at the Palms. Under-the-radar steakhouse deals include Envy near the city's convention center, Vic & Anthony's at the Golden Nugget, Flame at the El Cortez or the 1950s Golden Steer, where the Rat Pack used to hang out, just west of the Strip. And just because you're splurging, doesn't mean you can't also save yourself money and time. Buy discount dining certificates from Restaurants.com and make free reservations for in-demand restaurants with OpenTable

Looking for more expert insider Vegas travel info? Download our Viva Las Vegas, Baby! mobile app or Amazon Kindle ebook. Got your own tips for avoiding tourist traps in Las Vegas? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links: 
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! mobile app (iTunes / Android)
Viva Las Vegas, Baby! Amazon Kindle ebook
Stacking Up the Strip's Best Burgers

Photo credits: Michael Connolly, Jr. & Sara Benson 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Good News, Bad News for Endangered California Condors in 2012

Condor mother and chick in cave nest.
Living near the Big Sur coast and Pinnacles National Monument, I'm lucky enough to have glimpsed California condors soaring in the wild while I hike along windy beaches and rocky cliffs. Given that there were only about two dozen birds left in the world in the 1980s, their species recovery to over 400 birds counted earlier this year in 2012 is nothing short of amazing. Captive breeding programs and wild bird banding and tracking studies have kept these ancient ones from flying off into extinction.

Now here's the bad news. Just like in the late 20th-century, lead poisoning is again striking down these majestic hunters, whose future survival is still fragile. The culprit is lead ammunition being used by hunters, whose bullets become embedded in abandoned carcasses that then become food for condors. As discussed in a recent Los Angeles Times  article, unless a broader legal ban is instituted on lead ammunition within condor habitats, birds will likely continue to be poisoned, sickened and die.

You can learn more about these scrappy scavengers on the Big Sur coast at Andrew Molera State Park, where the Ventana Wildlife Society staffs the Discovery Center, now open Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Once the weather cools down, head inland to Pinnacles National Monument, a condor feeding and release site that hosts special birdwatching events, usually in fall, winter and spring (summer is just too hot!).

Can't travel to California? You can follow the condors' dramatic story online with Audubon California and the Ventana Wildlife Society blog and Facebook page, where condor sighting photos are posted. Find out how these birds narrowly came back from the brink of extinction in John Moir's moving and well-researched book, Return of the Condor.

Related links:
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur
Marine Life Cameos at Monterey Bay Aquarium
Itty-Bitty Book Review: Shadow of the Bear

Photo credit:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/ / CC BY 2.0

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Planning your first trip to Kings Canyon National Park? Or maybe you just want to find how to make the most of your time at the Sierra Nevada's least-visited park? Here's what you need to know, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Why go? Kings Canyon gives you classic Sierra Nevada mountain scenery without the crowds of Yosemite Valley, plus giant sequoia trees without the traffic jams of Sequoia National Park next door. You can drive down into the canyon itself, one of North America's deepest, and find swimming holes alongside the frothy Kings River, go wildlife watching or lace up your hiking boots and trek to waterfall cascades and alpine lakes.

Access? There's only one way into Kings Canyon National Park and that's via Hwy 180 to the park's Big Stump Entrance outside Grant Grove Village, starting either from Fresno in California's Central Valley or Sequoia National Park via the Generals Hwy. Kings Canyon National Park's two main areas, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, are geographically separated by the Sequoia National Forest and its Giant Sequoia National Monument. But they're connected by the twisting, narrow Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180), which edges along the face of dizzyingly sheer cliffs for 30 miles down the canyon. This byway is open to Hume Lake year-round, but closed to Cedar Grove by snowfall, usually from mid-November through mid-April.

When to beat the crowds? Like elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada, summer is peak tourist season, especially from July 4th through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Right now, the slower period between Memorial Day and late June is an optimal time to visit, as is September immediately after Labor Day. In winter you can still visit the Grant Grove area of the park to go snowshoeing among the giant sequoia trees.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait for a parking space, don't miss seeing Grant Grove, where many of the park's biggest trees live. The nature trail is kid-friendly, and you can walk right through the Fallen Monarch, a giant sequoia stump that once served as a hotel, a bar and a horse stable for US Cavalry who were the Sierra Nevada's first park rangers. Near the end of Hwy 180 past Cedar Grove Village, pull over at Zumwalt Meadow. Across a scenic bridge, a short nature trail loops around the grassy meadows where mule deer graze, black bears forage with their cubs and bird song echoes off canyon walls.

Best day hikes? In addition to the nature trails at Grant Grove and Zumwalt Meadow, the most popular day hike is from Road's End in Cedar Grove to Mist Falls, over 8 miles round-trip but worth every step for the canyon views and waterfall cascading over granite. Extend this hike another 2 miles each way to reach Paradise Valley. A day hike most visitors miss is the peaceful 8-mile Hotel Creek-Lewis Creek Loop, which tops out near the Cedar Grove Overlook and is especially great for birders in the early morning.

Best swimming holes? Cedar Grove has 'em all, but most aren't safe enough to swim in until the Kings River flow slows down later in summer. When in doubt, ask a ranger first before taking a dip. At Road's End, hit the river beach near Muir Rock, where conservationist John Muir once gave inspiring outdoor talks and kids today jump screaming into the river. Or follow the path west from Road's End along the riverside, curving left and south to find the Red Bridge, usually a less crowded swimming hole. Off Hwy 180, Hume Lake is another popular place to swim and paddle around in summer, with USFS recreational areas and beaches by a Christian camp that rents boats.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? Unlike in Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Campgrounds in Grant Grove usually fill up before those in Cedar Grove, although on summer holiday weekends, it's not unheard of for all campsites in the park to be taken by early Friday afternoon. Check at the Grant Grove visitor center about campground availability in Cedar Grove before making the drive all the way down canyon.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? You can find primitive campgrounds and free dispersed camping in the Sequoia National Forest just outside the park, including near Hume Lake and along Big Meadows Rd off the Generals Hwy between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. 

Any hazards? Drowning is the number-one cause of fatalities in the park, usually in rivers and streams that are flowing too fast and too furiously to be safe to swim in, as well as from fatal slips off boulders by the top of waterfalls. Kings Canyon is also black bear country: all food and scented items (e.g., sunscreen, soap, toiletries, gum, soda, beer, empty coolers and recyclable containers) should be within arm's reach at all times, or else properly stored in a bearproof storage locker and never left visible in your vehicle. When camping, treat the bearproof storage locker at your campsite like a refrigerator: always keep the door closed. For more tips on bear safety, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Kings Canyon National Park or neighboring Sequoia National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Related posts:
Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Free Online Mini-Guides to Offbeat National Parks
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley

Photo credits: Kings Canyon National Park (Sara J. Benson), Sequoia National Forest (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Freebie Alert! National Parks Week Is Now

From April 21 through April 29, US 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 Hawaii's Haleakala, you won't pay a cent. (Of course, some parks are free year-round, like Nevada's epic Great Basin, but that's a story for another blog post.)

Visit this National Park Week site to find out about special events happening at parks across the country. April 28 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? Even if you missed the public programs on Earth Day (April 21), you can still find an opportunity to help out near you, wherever you live, just by searching the volunteer database.

What's your all-time favorite national park, here in the US or abroad? Inspire us about where we should travel next by leaving a comment below!

Related posts:
Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite Valley
Wild Weather High on Hawaii's Haleakala Volcano
Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo: Haleakala National Park (Michael Connolly Jr.) 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hawaii: Go Green, Live Local & Save Money, Too

Ever dream of vacationing in Hawaii, only to have your surf-driven fantasies come crashing down on dry land once you find out how much a hotel or condominium and a rental car are going to cost? The budget-saving solution: travel more like local Hawaii residents live, shrink your carbon footprint on the islands, and you can save big bucks, too.

Over on Gogobot, a social travel network that's a real resource for independent DIY travelers, I've been doing a series of columns that tell many of my secrets for green, local and budget travel in Hawaii. Years of living, working and traveling all around the islands has taught me that the most unforgettable trips are often the cheapest.

Camping, hiking, hanging out at beaches, and learning about Hawaiian culture and history all cost less than one night squeezed in a tiny beachfront resort hotel room with mai tai cocktails. Plus you'll get better acquainted with a more authentic side of Hawaii, both its traditions and its multicultural, hang-loose contemporary lifestyle.

Check out my guest post with travel tips for Oahu on Gogobot. If you've got your own money-saving, eco-travel ideas to share, leave a comment here or over there. Next up: Maui on April 10. Aloha!

Related posts:
My NPR Interview: Hiking and Ecotourism in Hawaii
Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List
Saving Hawaiian Monk Seals: 4 Ways You Can Help

Photos: Lanikai Beach (Michael Connolly Jr.) & Likeke Falls (Sara J. Benson) 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Winter's Last Lucky Call in Yosemite Valley

Sometimes travel is all about (un)lucky timing. You can plot your trip out months in advance, reserve your favorite hotel or campground, pack all the gear you'll think you need, and then wham! Nature decides it has other ideas for your trip: how about a massive Sierra Nevada snowstorm in spring? 

This last weekend in Yosemite National Park, so much snow hit that wet clumps falling off spindly pine trees in the valley actually hurt as they thumped my head. Even with AWD and snow tires, driving up into the mountains to Big Oak Flat from Groveland felt like Mission Impossible. Trekking to the bathroom and shower house from my tent cabin at Curry Village was more like a mini hike, post-holing through a heavy blanket of snow.

But who cares once the storm clouds floated away, piercingly blue skies were revealed, and the powder dusting on Half Dome looked as ethereal as a fairlyand? Even when grey skies fleetingly returned, snowshoeing across the meadow by the Merced River still felt like a movie set, with us as the pioneer explorers heading for unknown parts. Frazil ice in the stream below Yosemite Falls was a bonus.

It even snowed along Hwy. 49 in California's Gold Country, which made me imagine mid-19th-century gold miners shivering in their tents by Sutter's Creek, praying they'd make it through another winter on hardtack biscuits and rancid bacon, until they could pan for gold again next spring. Just like a few of them did, I got lucky, too. Adventuring in Yosemite during a snowstorm turned out not to be bad luck at all.

Have you had a memorable trip that got messed up by weather, only to turn out spectacularly? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below!

Related posts:
Skiing & Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley
Tahoe Trails Without the Crowds, But with Dogs

Photo credits: Yosemite National Park (Sara J. Benson)