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)