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.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina, the barrier islands that run along Rt 12 on the coast of North Carolina, are home to a number of beach towns and a popular vacation destination. Although the beaches are beautiful, there are many other things to do and explore while you are there. There are of course, many restaurants and shops, as well as activities, such as mini golf and climbing structures, but there are also a number of historic sites to explore.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the location of the first English settlement in America, which tragically ended in mystery. All 117 people in the colony vanished without a trace. At a ranger-led talk at our visit, we explored the possibilities and most popular theories. A live performance, The Lost Colony is held during the summer months by the non-profit Roanoke Island Historical Association. The nearby Roanoke Island Festival Park, a North Carolina Historic Site offers a peek into history as costumed interpreters demonstrate life in the 1585 settlement or onboard the Elizabeth II, which represents one of the seven ships bringing colonists to America in 1585.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills celebrates the birthplace of aviation. While there, one can visit the Flight Line where history took place, peek into 1903 camp buildings and explore the Visitor’s Center.
As is common with coastal land, nature has shifted the coast and created and moved dunes and inlets. Numerous hurricanes have changed the structure of the Outer Banks, which have effectively served as a protector to mainland North Carolina.
Between Corolla and Cape Hatteras. there are 5 lighthouses. Just south of Nags Head, the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body”) stands 150 feet tall and is open to climb subject to weather conditions. On the day of our visit, thunderstorms threatened so admission was limited to the ground floor. The other lighthouses are the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, the Okracoke Lighthouse (which is the nation’s oldest operating), the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (the tallest brick lighthouse in the country), and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras delves into maritime history. The coast of North Carolina is known for its density of shipwrecks, which is one of the highest in the world. The waters are known for their tales of pirates and Civil War battles, as well as engaging with submarines during the World Wars.
We only had a week on the Outer Banks, so we still have much to see. I look forward to future visits and to further exploring the historic sites.
Kauai’s Garden Paradise in Hawaii is the only place I have visited that I could honestly say I could permanently relocate to. With a year round temperature of about 78 and terrain ranging from powdery sand beaches to mountains and cliffs, it the perfect environment for me. (If only it weren’t so far away from everywhere else!)
Known as the garden island, Kauai is also the rainiest place on earth, with an annual average of 350 to 400 inches measured at Mt. Wai’ale’ale. We happened to visit during the rainy season, in mid November, but this didn’t dampen my appreciation of all the natural wonder the island has to offer. Even though it rained every day we were there, it was not raining everywhere, and since the main road encircling the island can be traversed in under an hour,
it is easy to just go for a ride to find someplace sunny. We stayed in Lihue, which is fairly central, and over the course of a week traveled pretty much the entire island. (There is plenty more to see, hiking or boating farther inland, plus some areas accessible only via 4-wheel drive. We hope to do more exploring on a future trip.)
It would be impossible to detail everything to do (or even everything we did) in one post, so I will focus here on just a few places: Kilauea Point Lighthouse, Hanalei , Opaekaa Falls, and Hanapepe.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is well worth the admission fee and the 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot. The views are amazing, especially on the south side of the lighthouse, where a U shaped crater is all that remains of the volcanic vent that formed this area
15,000 years ago. (The banner photo on the main website page features this spot.) The area is home to a number of birds, including the Laysan Albatross, which nest on the refuge, and the Red Footed Booby as well as a number of native plant species (signs help
identify these). A number of young Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were roaming about, peeking from under the fence protecting them from visitors (there are many notices warning that the birds are protected, and that touching or harassing them is an offense). The 1913 Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse is the northernmost point of Kauai and is on the National Register of Historic Places; tours are offered on select days, pending staff availability.
We spent one afternoon wandering the shops in Kapaa Town and headed north, up the coast to Hanalei Town. We stopped to take a look in one of the caves (didn’t see Puff the dragon) and continued on to where the road ends at the shoreline.
Though we didn’t go explore it, there is a trail from here that goes along the Napali Coast. There is a bridge on the main road that frequently floods, cutting off access to the rest of the island. It was raining that day,
so we didn’t want to take our chances and stay too long. We chose a restaurant for dinner and had one of many wonderful seafood dinners.
Though people say that Hawaii is very expensive, it seems to me that if you eat food grown and harvested on the island, it is no more so than back home.
Also on the east side of the island is Opaekaa Falls, which can be viewed from the road, but can be accessed via a reasonable hike. Although we questioned whether we were still on the trail a couple times, as it went around several large boulders, we enjoyed the walk. Nearby, overlooking the Wailua River, is Poli’ahu, where we explored the sacred temple ruins of Hawaii’s past. I found the informational placards interesting and the environment as a whole was peaceful.
Another day we traveled southwest and found ourselves at the home of Lilo and Stitch, Hanapepe Town. The town is small but considered Kauai’s art
capital, with more art galleries than any other place on the island. It was once a busy town and has been the “location” for films such as “The Thornbirds,” and “Flight of the Intruder” as well as the aforementioned Disney film. We picked up some gifts for family back home and made a trip across the famous Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.
There are many beaches with varying coarseness of sand. We tested out the water at Poipu Beach Park, and I sat watching the birds run into the surf, then back as it chased them up the beach. Not far from here, on Route 50 (which is the only main road on Kauai) we stopped at The Shrimp Station, a roadside stand, for what they advertised as “The Best Coconut Shrimp on the Planet.” After trying it, I would have to say I agree.
There is much more to see on Kauai and I will share more at a later date. I also hope to return and explore the Napali Coast, more of the beaches and maybe even try ziplining or go on a helicopter tour.
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!