Yosemite National Park, best known for its waterfalls, rock climbing and Giant Sequoias, is a place I have yet to visit. The park covers more than 1100 square acres and its terrain varies throughout the park, with lakes and rivers, meadows and wetlands and towering rock formations. With sections of the park more than 10,000 feet above sea level, weather conditions sometimes make some areas inaccessible.
With over 750 miles of trails, hikers of all abilities have many options to chose from. Those wanting to overnight on the trails must apply for a free permit (there is however a charge for those hiking to the top of Half Dome). This is done to limit the number of people present at any one
time in order to protect and preserve the park’s resources and to maintain the atmosphere of solitude that draws so many to visit. 60 percent of these permits can be reserved in advance. The park has descriptions of the trails including distance and difficulty on its website. It also has a “Things to remember when hiking” section to help minimize the chance that the park’s Search and Rescue Team will need to be sent out for you.
Bikes can be rented in Yosemite Valley and can be used on 12 miles of paved bike paths as well as park roads. Though bicycles are not permitted on the trails, horses are and a local stable offers guided mule and horse rides in the park.
Rock climbing is a popular activity; Yosemite is known as one of the best locations in the world. The park also provides boaters with a number of opportunities. Canoes, kayaks and white water rafts are permitted on many of the park’s rivers and lakes. The website lists regulations and ratings, which range from easy Class I water to advanced Class IV.
Bus tours ranging from 2 hours to all day are available, conditions permitting. If you prefer a self-guided tour, the 39-mile Tioga Road is a scenic drive through the park; park stores have several maps and guidebooks available to purchase that provide information on what to see and do as well as history and stories of the park. Yosemite has over 60 properties on the National Historic Register, including some of the oldest on the list, dating back to the mid 1800s.
Like many National Parks, there is an entrance fee, at Yosemite the fee is determined by your method of entry (car,motorcycle, bike, horse, foot or commercial vehicle) and the basic pass is good for seven days.
Camping is available in the park, but campsites not reserved in advance tend to fill up by early afternoon. There are also a number of hotels, private campgrounds and bed and breakfasts outside of the park.
While in Kauai, our adventures included hiking the Waimea Canyon and kayaking the Wailua River. Both were highlights of our trip and things I hope to do again.
Thankfully I had done my research and knew about Waimea Canyon before leaving home. This is the reason I packed hiking boots for a Hawaiian vacation, causing some to laugh at me. The boots were a must.
Waimea Canyon is breathtakingly beautiful, with each roadside vistas more impressive than the last. Waimea Canyon State park is the largest canyon in the Pacific.
Ten miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep, it is on the western side of the island and is only accessible from the 18 mile long Rt 550. The hiking is rugged. At times we questioned whether we had gone off trail; unlike many other state parks I have hiked, there are no guardrails.
The geography of the Wailua River, on the east side of the island was completely different. We chose Wailua Kayak Adventures to guide us down the river and on a very muddy hike
through the rain forest to the Secret Falls, where we took a break and snacked on mangoes and chocolate! Our knowledgeable guide pointed out flowers and seeds and told us that the hibiscus flower can forecast the weather. The flowers apparently bloom yellow and turn
red within 24 hours. If bad weather is approaching (also known as “big water”), the color changes much faster. A light rain started while we were heading back and the river had many red hibiscus blossoms floating.
Valley Forge National Historic Park is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Unlike other historic military sites, the Valley Forge Encampment was not the location of any battles. It has a peaceful beauty any time of year. The place where the Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78, there are rolling hills and fields, hiking and biking trails and an assortment of buildings to explore and see what life was like during that grueling winter.
The Visitor’s Center offers a look at the history of the area and has artifacts on display. The 3500-acre park offers a 10-mile driving Encampment Tour with nine stops. The tour comes on a CD that provides information about the park and what you are seeing as you drive the (mostly one-way) route and can be purchased at the park store or online. (We purchased the cassette version years ago and found it interesting and worth the money.) The drive can be completed in 20 minutes, more if you make multiple stops. There is also a cell phone tour which allows you to hear stories about the park after entering the code provided throughout the park. Trolley tours are another option; these leave from the Visitor Center.
Some original 18th century structures remain and many others have been rebuilt to show the living conditions the army endured. Some, such as Washington’s Headquarters and Varnum’s Quarters, are open for tours. Muhlenberg Brigade, a collection of nine log huts and a reproduction of a Bake Oven is the center of the park’s Living History program. Throughout the year, there are special events with costumed interpreters giving
demonstrations and sharing information here as well as at the Storytelling Benches at the Visitor Center and Train Station. Another program, Secrets and Spies, allows visitors to unravel a mystery while exploring the park (dates and times are listed on the park website).
There are a number of hiking trails in the park, which range from an easy walk along a creek to the more strenuous trek up Mount Misery. The park is the start of the 120-mile
Horseshoe Trail, which begins near Washington’s Headquarters and connects with the Appalachian Trail at Sharp Mountain. There are also 21 miles of biking trails to bike or walk.
Just across from the Grand Parade, where Washington trained his army, sits the Washington Memorial Chapel. Just outside the park, the chapel was built as a memorial to George Washington in the early 1900s. An Episcopal church separate from the park, it welcomes visitors to the church and grounds, as well as the National Patriots Bell Tower and Carillon (played entirely by hand), which houses the Veterans Wall of Honor. The Cabin Shop behind the chapel offers souvenirs, gifts and snacks and provides a place for lunch, which can be followed by a peaceful stroll through the grounds.
Ricketts Glen State Park, in the Endless Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, is a popular recreation spot year round. Home to 22 named waterfalls, as well as numerous other trails and Lake Jean, the park has something to offer for the adventurous and beach lovers alike.
The park is named for Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts, a Civil War veteran who at one time owned much of the park land and the surrounding Game Lands. Fishermen exploring his land found the waterfalls, and Colonel Ricketts built trails to the falls, which became known as the Glens Natural Area. He named the waterfalls after American Indian Tribes and his friends and family. In 1969, the area became a National Natural Landmark.
A 600-foot sandy beach on Lake Jean provides a place to relax and swim, with a food concession stand and paddle boat, rowboat, canoe and kayak rentals nearby. There are ample grills and picnic spots throughout the park and 26 miles of trails for hikers of all levels. Fishing is another popular pastime.
The 7.2 mile Falls Trail is the most difficult in the park, but also has the most rewarding views. Proper footwear is essential as the trail can be slippery in spots. (The trail is closed in the winter.) An easier 3.2 mile loop at the bottom allows you to see most of the falls.
Cabins and campsites are both available and fill up quickly in the summer months. Ten of these cabins are available year round. In the winter, cross country skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing are popular activities.
Portland, Maine was for us a stop to break up the ride to Bar Harbour which was to be our home base as we explored Acadia National Park. Though we had only a short time in the city, we discovered that it is worthy of being a destination itself.
Home to not one, but SIX lighthouses, Portland’s history (surprise, given the city’s name) is in shipping. Established in 1632 as a British fishing and trading community, Portland has suffered setbacks, such as fire and loss of industry, but remains a thriving metropolitan center with the current focus on art, shopping and food. Named by the National Historic Trust one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2003, the city demonstrates the resilience of its natives.
The city’s cobblestone streets contribute to its historical vibe as do its forts and the historically significant architecture found throughout the city. The Portland Museum of Art, in the center of downtown, is home to over 17,000 pieces of art. The childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is also in Portland, next to the Maine Historical Society. Paddling enthusiasts can rent kayaks or paddle boards or choose a guided tour and bicycle rentals and tours are also offered.
Since my son was prepping for a hike, we Spent a half a day completing a 10k “year-round” hike organized by the Southern Maine Volkssport Association which took us past the Spring Point Ledge Light. Built to warn ships of a dangerous ledge in Portland Harbor, the lighthouse took almost ten years from approval to completion and was first lit in May of 1897. Originally it stood out in the harbor at the end of the ledge; a
950 -foot granite breakwater connecting it to the shore at Fort Preble was completed in 1951. The breakwater is open to the public (solid shoes are recommended as the footing can be slippery) and admittance to the lighthouse is by ticket at select times. Since we were hungry after our walk, we stopped at Joe’s Boathouse for lunch and enjoyed both the food and atmosphere.
Before heading up to Acadia, my family knew it was inevitable that we visit the lighthouse we were able to see in the distance from the Spring Point Ledge Light. The Portland Head Light, the nation’s first lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and built in 1791
and was even more impressive up close. It is adjacent to Fort Williams Park and is owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. The 90-acre park offers hiking, picnicking and other outdoor recreation as well as the option to explore the historic fort structures.
We stopped again in Portland on our way home later that week. It was an even shorter stop this time, just for dinner and an overnight, but we did have another wonderful meal at a place we found nearby. Now, I readily admit to being a pizza snob. When asked my favorite food, yep, it’s pizza, and although I like many varieties (regarding crust and toppings), I have to admit I am a bit judgemental when it comes to quality. I am happy to say that the Portland Pie Company met all expectations. We each ordered a personal size, which was a rare treat for me as I could have thin crust (the rest of the family prefers the thicker stuff). Of course being in Maine, I went with the option of putting lobster on mine. It sounds a bit strange, but was delicious! (Unlike everyone else, I had no leftovers for lunch the next day.) If pizza is not your thing (gasp!) they do have other items on the menu as well.
This was our first trip to Maine and we saw several things that make us want to return. Portland (and the Pie Company) are definitely on the list!
Our first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was as a couple. The kids were spending time with their grandparents and we decided to take a few days camping on our way home. We had the necessary items: a tent, sleeping bags and some basic cooking gear (we planned to eat out for the most part). On the way, our van got a flat tire, so we had to stop to replace it. We stopped at a warehouse store and while we waited, we of course shopped. One of our purchases was a screened tent with a set of four chairs and a table that all conveniently folded into about a 4x2x1 case. This tent quickly proved its worth and has served us well over the years, both in our yard and in multiple campsites.
We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and checked in at the ranger station. We knew nothing about the campsites, but there was plenty of space at the first-come sites, so we could just go pick one out. We generally pick the more natural sites, and ended up at Balsam Mountain Campground, which at a mile high, is the tallest campground in the park.
This was a good choice, except for the fact that it was a 45 minute drive down the mountain on twisty roads, so eating out would prove to be difficult. (A side note: If you are prone to motion sickness, the ride up to Balsam may cause you some discomfort.) Luckily we had picked up snacks while waiting for the tire, so we managed to put together a dinner of cheese, gourmet jarred vegetables and fruit. The next morning we had coffee and headed out to explore and get more supplies.
The drive through Pigeon Forge, TN was interesting. The road out to Dollywood is colorful and busy. Though I am sure that it has its appeal, touristy kitsch was not what we were looking for. We later headed out to Cherokee, NC and got groceries and later stopped at a couple Native American shops to pick up gifts for the kids and the dogsitter.
When we returned, we were very happy to have purchased the screened
tent as it had obviously rained while we were gone. (During the summer months, it rains somewhere in the park pretty much every day.) In the park, we did some hiking and visited Clingman’s Dome, the tallest point in the park, where you can get a 360 degree view of the Smokies. After our climb up the observation tower, we took a short walk on the Appalachian Trail.
Several years later, we made a return trip, this time with the children and the dog. My husband was traveling for work and had arranged to fly into Knoxville, where we picked him up after setting up camp. We again stayed at Balsam Mountain, and on the second day (when the other residents moved out) we moved our tents to the same campsite we had used years before. (Our hiking was somewhat limited as the park has limitations on where dogs are
welcome (only two trails are dog-friendly). This time we spent a little time at Cades Cove, where Europeans settled sometime around 1820 and walking along the Oconaluftee River Trail from the grounds of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Our neighbors at the campground told us about a great spot to watch the sunset, just a short hike down the road, so we grabbed flashlights and were not disappointed.
The park has several campgrounds as well as LeConte Lodge, which at 6,593 feet is the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. The lodge is at the top of the park’s third largest peak, Mount LeConte, and is accessible via a 5-8 mile hike (there are five trails). Advance reservations are necessary to stay at the lodge; those wanting to just spend a day need to watch the sun and conditions to ensure they have time for the return trip before dark. With an elevation from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, the weather varies throughout the park with temperatures varying up to 10-20 degrees. The rainfall is from 55 to 85 inches per year. For those wanting hotel accommodations, there are many options outside of the park. There is no fee to enter the park, as the state of Tennessee prohibited such fees when transferring ownership to the federal government.
There are 150 official trails in the park and a number of waterfalls. As conditions often change, it is a good idea to check the website for closures before you go. Bicycles are permitted on all paved roads in the park and the 11-mile Cades Cove loop is closed two mornings a week until 10 for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Horseback riding and hayrides are available through concessions in the park. The Smokies Trip Planner (which can be downloaded from the NPS website) has more useful information.
My husband learned about Elk Neck State Park in central Maryland from a co-worker shortly after we starting taking camping trips with our family. We have since been back and it is one of my favorite camping spots.
The park is on a peninsula between the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. The park is on over 2188 acres and its landscape includes beaches, wooded areas, marshes and cliffs, and a big draw for me, a lighthouse. Our first visit, we made the easy hike to the Turkey Point Lighthouse where we could walk around the grounds.
On a return visit, the lighthouse had been restored and we were able to go inside and climb to the top.
Given the location of the lighthouse, atop a 100 foot cliff, it is only 35 feet tall, so this doesn’t take very long. The 3rd tallest on the Chesapeake Bay (it is 129 feet above the water) Turkey Point is known for having had more female lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Bay.
The park has 7 trails, with distances from one to three miles, with ratings ranging from easy to difficult. Bikes are permitted on most of these and most are pet-friendly, as is most of the park. One of these
(and one of our favorites), the Beaver Marsh Loop, has to be timed just right to complete the loop. Part of the trail goes along the shore, which is underwater at high tide. The Elk Neck also has day use areas and a boat launch and offers youth programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program as well as others.
Campsite fees vary and reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. There is a per vehicle day use fee for the park, as well as a boat launch fee, with discounted rates for Maryland residents.
Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.
The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.” This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.
In 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.
There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.
Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, and today many have already begun their trek. (March 1 through April 15 are the most popular dates to start from Georgia.) There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, and most experts suggest building up to that level.
Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (then progressing to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.
Preparing for your hike
There are a number of websites and excellent books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone. Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where you can camp and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).
Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you, it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.
Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.
The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.
Enjoy the trail’s beauty
Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.
The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border). I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.
The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail (about 6). The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome,hopping in NC, then TN and back again.
Most recently, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.
The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).
While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! This is something I feel I can set as a goal. I also discovered the AT Hike100 Centennial Event, which is being run by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail this year in honor of the National Parks Service celebrating 100 years. The challenge is to hike 100 miles between Jan 1 and Dec 31 2016, with at least one hike on the AT. This too is something I may be able to complete, since April is just starting. I have only 97 miles left to go!