How to do adventure travel on a budget
Greg Witt is an amazing adventure traveler, who has guided mountaineering expeditions in the Andes, hiked through African jungles, led archeological expeditions across Arabian deserts, dropped adventures into North American golden slot canyons, and explored Costa Rican cloud forests. So he's the perfect author for the new book Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel.
Earlier this week, we invited our readers to ask Witt questions about how to make adventure travel affordable. Here's the Q&A;:
When I think of adventure travel, I think $$$. How can adventure travel be affordable? Ideas domestically?
There are certainly some pricey high-end options that are gear-intensive (kiteboarding, heliskiing, and windsurfing come to mind) but for less than a tank of gas you can find some wonderful hiking trails wherever you live. A canoe or sea kayak can be a modest investment or an inexpensive rental, and can open up thousands of miles of nearby paddle trails to your use. I purchased both my first pair of cross-country skis and snowshoes on close-out for less than $50 and they've still given me hundreds of miles of use. Even for an extended vacation, a guided river trip or a fully outfitted backcountry experience is no more expensive than staying in a hotel, and eating meals in restaurants.
Specific ideas domestically for a week long vacation? Paddling in the Everglades or the Boundary Waters, hiking in the Colorado or Glacier National Park, canyoneering or hiking in southern Utah or the Grand Canyon. Even outside the US, a week of sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez or a river trip in Canada is accessible and affordable.I'm curious about cloud forests. What are they? Why are they worth visiting?
Cloud forests are generally tropical montane forests which exist within a narrow band of altitude. T1hey are characterized by a lingering fog or mist. In addition to many unusual plant species such as epiphytes, you're also likely to find interesting and endemic animal species. Some of the best and most accessible cloud forests in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Costa Rica (Monteverde and Santa Elena), Jamaica (Blue Mountains), and Honduras (Celaque National Park). In each of these areas you can spend the better part of the day exploring the cloud forest with a local guide and naturalist, discovering new plants and animals. It's great fun for all ages.Every year seems to have its hot trend in adventure travel. What do you expect will be the buzz in 2009?
My crystal ball says that there are some great rivers in southern China—the Mekong and others—that will come to the forefront now that the gorges of the Yangtze are out of play. Same could be said for the Sun Kosi and the Karnali in Nepal. All of them are also a good value—once you get there.
Also the recent introduction of high quality, low cost sea kayaks makes me think there are some great adventures close to home that need to be explored. Maybe Isle Royale National Park or Washington State's San Juan Islands will become hotspots.Mr. Witt, I'm a birder. But I've never gotten to see a toucan in the wild. Any advice about sea kayaking, maybe in Iceland? And how to make this within the reach of a middle-school teacher (income)?! Many thanks!
I've long enjoyed and have been mildly interested in birdwatching. Then I went to Costa Rica—BAM—I was hooked—an instant birder! It happens easily in a country with so many exciting tropical species. There are scarlet macaws, trogons, the resplendent quetzal; and with six species of toucans you're almost guaranteed to see one—I saw many in just a few days. In addition to being beautiful and easy to spot, they really have quite a personality and are fun to watch. Costa Rica really is affordable (once the airfare is paid for) and it's easy to travel independently, go to the various national parks and reserves (Carara for macaws, Monteverde for the quetzal, etc), hire a guide at the park entrance and discover an wonderful world of wildlife.
Sea kayaking in Iceland is available in Reykjavik on a self-guided rental basis and there are also some excellent guides that can take you up the western coast to Breiafjordur Bay. In addition to Viking history, you'll have some great marine life viewing, including waterbirds like terns, gulls, auks and skuas. Land costs in Iceland are more than Costa Rica, but you can still do it independently and affordably. You may also have an advantage on airfare, since Icelandair often features some attractive packages from JFK.I read Outside, I watch The Travel Channel, I want to climb, I want to paddle wild rivers, but I just don't get off my candy ass. How can I get motivated?
Start small; start local. Hook up with an outdoor club that has regular outings and different types of activities. The social component is a powerful motivator. Learning a new skill is also a great motivator. For example, just a couple hour from LA you have arguably the greatest rock climbing destination in the world at Joshua Tree, where there is a rock climbing school that offers classes and fun group instructions. The Kern River, is also nearby, and one of the best places in the world to learn whitwater kayaking. Go for it. Adventure is not a spectator sport.
I want to buy boots. What is your recommendation to a weekend warrior who'd like to do some modest hiking in stable, supportive, comfortable boots?
I walk hundreds of miles each year on local trails in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Then I take off in July and August to guide in the Alps for my company (Alpenwild.com) where I'll typically do a couple hundred miles on the Haute Route and in the Jungfrau.
I wear out my hiking shoes faster than I wear out my car tires. Still, the key is comfort—and since every foot is different, no one brand will work for everyone. I have a wide foot with a high arch and instep so I also add an arch support to my shoe. In terms of shoe components like a Vibram sole because it's sturdy and has some "gription" on rock surfaces. I also like an EVA midsole. I wear a low-cut shoe on any trail surface, but many people prefer a mid-cut boot for the added ankle support—it's a matter of personal preference and your call.
And don't forget the socks. I find a good wool sock with a bit of synthetic in the blend add a lot to the cushioning, breathability, and comfort of any shoe.What are the misconceptions about ice climbing, in terms of how fit you have to be to safely try it?
Perhaps the greatest misconception is that it is impossibly difficult. In fact, I find it easier and less physically challenging than climbing a similarly pitched rock face. Go initially with an expert teacher or someone with plenty of experience who can instruct you in the elements of balance, pick placement and anchors. Rent your equipment and try some different types. But once on the ice, I think you'll get the hang of it and be able to decide if it's for you. The other misconception? That your hands will stay warm. My fingers always seem to get cold—even numb. I still need to work on that.I'd like to learn canyoneering. What is the best way to master the basics (recommended schools, tour organizations, outfitters, videos, etc.)?
You can have a great 4-7 days (or more) of canyoneering in Southern Utah. Zion National Park has some spectacular wet and dry canyons to explore. And off-the-beaten-path Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has literally hundreds of hidden slot canyons. I'd recommend going with an experienced guide, one certified by the American Canyoneering Association (Excursions of Escalante is an excellent choice). They can tailor an itinerary based on you skill, interests, and time.
Slot canyons offer some exciting challenges and fun adventures, but they are filled with hidden dangers, and lives have been lost (2 people died just 6 weeks ago south of Escalante in a flash flood in Egypt 3 Canyon) so go with experience and safety on your side. My husband and I are planning a trip to Antartica, December 2009-January 2010. We were hoping for a cruise from Argentina for about 16 days with as much time on the continental as possible. The choices seem really overwhelming. Is there a way to compare? We want a ice hardening boat that holds about 100 passengers, excellent nature guides and lots of time on shore. The accommodations need to be comfortable but not fancy. We are looking for a good value. Suggestions?
Wow. I envy you. Antarctica is the ultimate frontier. And yes, make sure you go for one that offers sufficient land experiences with a focus on wildlife encounters. In such a pristine environment, keep environmental protection and safety in mind. Check with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (iaato.org). Their members are committed to high standards and professional practices. And while the choice is still yours, they can help clarify some of the options and connect you with some experienced and reputable operators. You're virtually guaranteed of having a great experience.I'm trying to organize a Kilimanjaro climb for Sept. 2009 for a small group of 10 or less. The American companies are overcharging for the actual climb. Is it safe to go with an African company such as DAT? Also, I'm having trouble finding reasonable flight fairs. Any way to book less expensive international flights, or is there a company that will do a package deal at a reasonable rate?
For Kilimanjaro, permits, ground transportation, guides and porter can all be arranged on your own in Arusha, but I wouldn't recommend it. Working with a reputable safari company (either US or African-based) that has a solid reputation on Kili is recommended. They will be focused on your safety and well-being and they will be supported by dedicated on-site staff who are treated fairly. This eliminates the logistical headaches and risks. Choosing a less congested route like the Machame or Umbwe also can allow for better acclimatization, better scenery, and increase your chances of summit success.
I know one leading US operator, and while their prices are higher than African companies, they have their own operations in Arusha, they have their own local staff of dedicated guides, porters, and cooks who have been with them for many years, and are well paid and fairly treated. As a result, they offer a high level of service, an exceptional experience on the trail, and have one of the highest summit success rates on the mountain.
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12 Most Beautiful Paths—No Car Required
With all due respect to road trips, some of the world's most breathtaking routes aren't fit for four-wheel drives. And they're better off for it. After all, aren't the world's most beautiful views best absorbed at your own pace? These 12 gorgeous trails, paths, and passageways let you do just that—from the saddle of a bicycle, a pair of skis, or your own two feet—without any impatient drivers looming in your rearview mirror. You don't even have to worry about planning the trip—outfitters run road-tested tours through all of these gorgeous spots. SEE THE GORGEOUS SCENERY ALONG THESE TRAILS 1. HIKE INCA TRAIL, PERU High in the Andes, this 26-mile journey follows in the footsteps of fifteenth-century Incans, leading past a series of ruins to the mystical royal retreat of Machu Picchu. Hundreds of species of exotic flowers (including nearly 200 types of orchids) and tropical birds (giant hummingbirds, tanagers, and Peru's national bird, the bright-red-headed cock-of-the-rock) can be seen along the way. Ancient stone stairs line the path as it leads up through cloud forests and alpine tundra, until the clouds part and the massive Puerta del Sol—Sun Gate—reveals the stunningly preserved granite city of Machu Picchu.Book a Trip: Access to the trail is limited (for preservation purposes), so it's best to reserve your trek well in advance (4-6 months in the high season of May-October). SAS Travel Peru's four-night trek includes bus transport from Cusco, all meals, tent accommodations, and porter service throughout (sastravelperu.com, four-night treks from $610/person). 2. HIKE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, U.S.A. Cutting through 14 states on the Eastern seaboard, the 2,180-mile "A.T." is one of the longest continuously marked trails in the world, taking in a greater variety of scenery than any other path on the continent. The route starts in Georgia's rugged green Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, winds up through the vast valleys and peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, then crawls through bucolic New England towns before ending in Maine's incredibly isolated Hundred-Mile Wilderness, one of the most likely spots in the country for moose sightings.Book a Trip: The Appalachian Mountain Club arranges three- and four-day hikes across New Hampshire's White Mountain segment of the trail, a swath of Alpine tundra best experienced when its high-altitude wildflowers are in full bloom (mid-June through September). Trips are led by staff naturalists and include meals, seasonal activities like bird-watching, skiing, or snowshoeing, and accommodation in rustic mountain huts (outdoors.org, three-day hikes from $316). 3. HIKE ZION NARROWS, UTAH This dramatic gorge cutting through Zion National Park claims a close second place behind the Grand Canyon for sheer, jaw-dropping canyon beauty, yet draws just over half of the more famous park's annual crowds. The path through the gorge—home to some of the world's deepest slot canyons—alternates between gaping, quarter-mile-wide stretches and narrow, 20-foot passageways, and runs directly through the Virgin River's bed—which means hikers who want to go the distance will have to ford waist-deep water from time to time. Still, Zion's fans believe it's worth the wade to stare up between the 2,000-foot-high sandstone walls, lined with lush hanging gardens, streaming with flutes of water, and bouncing with beams of red-orange light.Book a Trip: If you're not the type to wander through canyons on your own—or all that keen on waist-deep wading—the pros at Zion Rock Guides lead beginner-level full-day (dry) hikes that include a stop for lunch and ice cream at the in-park Zion Lodge (zionrockguides.com, from $90). 4. CYCLE HIAWATHA BIKE TRAIL, IDAHO AND MONTANA The pine-forested Bitterroot Mountains (part of the Northern Rockies) supply the deep-green backdrop for one of the country's most exhilarating rails-to-trails bike-path conversions (completed in 2001). This former stretch of mountain railroad straddling the Idaho-Montana border incorporates 10 covered tunnels (including one, the Taft Tunnel, that's more than a mile and a half long), seven dizzying, canyon-spanning trestles (some as high as 230 feet), and panoramic views across both states. Bonus: The 15-mile gravel trail is mostly flat or slightly downhill, so the smooth ride is doable for most kids and families. (Just be sure that your bike has a headlight for those dark tunnels! It's not only recommended—it's required.)Book a Trip: If you prefer to go it alone, day passes cost $10 through Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area (skilookout.com); less-experienced cyclists might opt for a guided tour from Row Adventure Center, which includes a picnic lunch and transportation from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (rowadventurecenter.com, from $179). 5. HIKE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, U.S.A. Consider it the other great American backpacking path: The 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail spans the entire West Coast, from the Mexico border to British Columbia. Along the way, hikers pass through 25 national forests and seven national parks, taking in everything from the vivid red Vasquez Rocks near Los Angeles to the deep blue waters and snowcapped peaks of Crater Lake in Oregon. Not to mention Yosemite, Sequoia National Park and the Sierra Nevadas in between. The parallel Sierra Cascades Bicycle Route provides a path for two-wheelers.Book a Trip: Newbies can hook up with the hardcore hikers who are tackling the full trail on Next Adventure's four-day, 32-mile hike along the Oregon Section of the Pacific Crest Trail (nextadventure.net, $400). Guides lead small groups through Mt. Hood National Forest, and all gear, meals, and snacks are included. 6. HIKE TORRES DEL PAINE CIRCUIT, CHILE This 52-mile trail loops through a section of southern Patagonian wilderness that contains some of the most otherworldly scenery on the planet. Giant blue glaciers and craggy mountain peaks are in abundance here, but the most spectacular formations in this national park are the namesake paines—10,000-foot pillars of granite that spiral up from the glacial-carved valley. The challenging hiking circuit also traverses past green lagoons and expansive ice fields—and if the landscape itself weren't enough, eagle-eyed hikers can spot exotic wildlife (llama-like guanacos, ostrich-esque rheas) roaming the grassy pampas.Book a Trip: Cascada Expediciones offers a five-day, four-night highlights trek; most nights, hikers stay in geodesic eco-domes equipped with sheepskin throws and windowed ceilings for midnight star-gazing (ecocamp.travel, from $1,313). 7. WALK CINQUE TERRE, ITALY Five colorful villages carved into the cliffs of the Italian Riviera are connected by a series of fifteenth-century footpaths winding directly above the Mediterranean. With autos on these ancient roads still few and far between, this is one of the few places where hikers can still travel car-free through the heart of Old Europe. The scenic vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards lining the steep cliffs along the trail are bested only by the historic towns themselves, each one filled with centuries-old churches, postcard-perfect homes and high stone walls that cling to the rocks above the sea.Book a Trip: Seven-day treks from UTracks make the central town of Corniglia your base—travelers stay, local-style, in rental apartments—with daily excursions to the surrounding villages and breaks for vineyard tours and swimming (utracks.com, from $860). 8. CROSS-COUNTRY SKI OR HIKE THE KING'S TRAIL, SWEDEN One of Europe's last swaths of genuinely pristine wilderness lies more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Here, the narrow hiking and skiing path known as the Kungsleden, or King's Trail, is the singular sign of civilization along much of the route. For wintertime skiers the 270-mile route is a snow-swept wonderland; for summer hikers the untouched birch forests come alive with multi-colored flowers blooming under the midnight sun. Either way, you're likely to encounter herds of wild reindeer—and have an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights.Book a Trip: The eight-day trip led by Nature Travels is rife with extra-special experiences—sauna stops, a boat ride across Lake Ladtjojaure, and the option to add an excursion up 6,906-foot Mt. Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest peak (naturetravels.co.uk, eight-day trips from $1,100). 9. CYCLE ROUTE DES GRANDS CRUS, FRANCE For folks who take equal pleasure in viticulture and vélo-culture, there's no better bike path than "the road of great wines," a 40-mile route through the heart of Burgundy's famed Côte d'Or (golden slope). The road is lined by a procession of intimate, family-run wineries set along a southeast-facing limestone slope, which is the reason these vines get so much sun (and produce such great wines). The occasional castle punctuates the surrounding landscape. What's more, it's virtually impossible to get lost, thanks to the no-French-necessary road signs stamped with pictures of grapes that are planted all along the route.Book a Trip: The four-night trip offered by Detours in France includes bike rental, luggage transfers, hotel accommodations, breakfasts, two dinners, a wine-tasting meal and private tour of the Gothic Hospices de Beaune, built in 1443 (detours-in-france.com, from $857). 10. HIKE THE WHALE TRAIL, SOUTH AFRICA If you like long walks on the beach—and we mean really long walks—South Africa's 34-mile Whale Trail is sure to float your boat. The first half, which starts in the Potberg mountains of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, winds east down the verdant green hillsides toward the water; all along the way, trekkers gaze down on the turquoise rock pools and craggy cliff formations that make up this stretch of Indian Ocean coast. Once you hit the ocean, the trail doubles back west, with 17 more miles of secluded, sandy beaches, tide pools, and sea caves. Both segments of the trail have excellent vantage points for the star attraction—abundant southern right whales that populate these waters between June and December. During those months, hikers routinely report seeing 50 or more whales at a time, and some tour operators (like Karoo, below) have a money-back guarantee if you don't spot at least one.Book a Trip: Karoo Tours' six-day hikes include transportation from Cape Town, accommodation in rustic cabins, and all meals (www.karoospirit.co.za, from $555). 11. HIKE MILFORD TRACK, NEW ZEALAND To many folks—including, presumably, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who filmed his trilogy there—New Zealand is the ultimate destination for dreamy, fantastic landscapes. The ecologically-diverse Milford Track, which cuts through Fiordland National Park, on the westernmost section of the South Island, is like a sampler platter of the country's most outstanding outdoor offerings. The 35-mile route swings through temperate rainforest, alongside rushing rivers and waterfalls, across wetlands vivid with ferns and moss, and over a narrow alpine pass. But the trail's primary attractions are its magnificent fjords—dramatic, V-shaped valleys carved out of the mountains by glaciers roughly 20,000 years ago.Book a Trip: Guided hikes on the Milford Track don't come cheap: Ultimate Hikes' five-day option includes all meals and snacks, accommodations in cushy lodges, and a cruise on Milford Sound, and starts at $1,488 per person (ultimatehikes.co.nz). If you'd rather strike out on your own, Hike South's self-guided option might fit the bill, with three nights' accommodation in unheated conservation huts for $276 (hikesouth.com). Just be sure to reserve your spot in advance—by several months, if possible—as access to the trail is limited to 90 new hikers per day. 12. MOTORBIKE HO CHI MINH TRAIL, VIETNAM An elaborate network of mountain and jungle roads built by the North Vietnamese to provide support to troops down south during the Vietnam War, this legendary trail runs the length of the country, winding more than 1,000 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. While segments of the road have since been reclaimed by jungle, the entire route is navigable by motorbike via secluded dirt paths that wind around vertigo-inducing mountain passes where stilted wooden houses are perched on the green mountainsides; through isolated ancient villages; and down to sandy stretches of uninhabited coastline.Book a Trip: Vietnam Adventure Tours has an 18-day, full-trail option, as well as a 3-day, all-inclusive "Taste of Ho Chi Minh" itinerary that offers homestays in Thai stilt houses and in a Muong village (activetravelvietnam.com, 3-day trips from $363).
10 Natural Phenomena You Need to See to Believe
From the spectacle of thousands of fireflies flashing in unison in a forest in Papua New Guinea to the wonder of a night sky painted blue, green and purple over a lonely fjord in northern Norway, the planet brims with natural-made miracles. Pack your sense of adventure, an appreciation for the unpredictable, and follow our lead around the world to spots where light, coral, ice, butterflies—even worms—create some of the world's prettiest drama. SEE THE PHENOMENA 1. AURORA BOREALIS, NORWAY When energetic particles from the magnetosphere hit the earth's atmosphere, the skies in the planet's northernmost regions turn into an artist's palette of green and blue swathes and swirls—and, more rarely, red and purple—in the spectacle known as the Northern Lights. The winter of 2012 brought the most intense illuminations in the past 50 years thanks to the Solar Maximum. But the lights make predictable appearances every winter in places like the Lofoten Islands and Tromso, where you can maximize your chances of seeing them during a six-day cruise with Hurtigruten through Norway's northernmost locales. A delivery ship transporting goods and passengers along the coast, the cruise line offers well-priced packages in a notoriously expensive destination (hurtigruten.us, from $1,203 per person for a five-night "Classic Voyage South" cruise from Kirkenes to Bergen, includes full board). 2. MONARCH MIGRATION, VALLE DE BRAVO, MEXICO The butterfly effect is in full effect every autumn when monarchs from the Rocky Mountains make like snowbirds, flying between 1,200 and 2,800 miles south for the more moderate climes of forested regions high in Mexico's mountains. Guided by the sun's orbit, the butterflies reach Mexico by late October and early November, where they spend the winter hibernating. The trees they converge upon pulse with the movement of their delicate wings. Angangueo in Michoacán is the most popular place to see them. But for less of a tourist crush, head to the high forests two hours outside of Mexico City near the town of Valle de Bravo. See them on your own or book a tour through Tours by Locals (toursbylocals.com, $180 for two people for a tour from Mexico City). 3. CORAL SPAWNING, BONAIRE Who knew coral had such flamboyant sex lives? Every year—most often in the months of September and October, in the days following the full moon—the coral-clad walls fringing the scuba diving-crazed island of Bonaire become awash with tiny white, orange, and pink spheres (yep, eggs and sperm) that erupt, volcano-like, from the corals and float on the currents to continue the cycle life. In addition to the divers there to ogle the nighttime scene, the reef comes alive with thousands of fishy mouths anticipating an annual feast like no other. Captain Don's Habitat gives you the option to pay one price for accommodations, diving equipment, and guided diving excursions (habitatbonaire.com, $666 per person for 7 nights in an ocean view room; includes 6 single-tank boat dives and unlimited shore diving). 4. FIREFLY TREES, PAPUA NEW GUINEA Nothing makes you feel like a kid again like chasing fireflies. But it's one thing to see a few flitting in your suburban backyard and quite another entirely to witness several massive trees illuminated with fireflies, like so many strands of Christmas lights strung through their branches. At locations across Southeast Asia—from India and Malaysia to Papua New Guinea—fireflies congregate in trees and bushes along mangrove-lined rivers where they breed, synchronizing their flashes for all to see. Walindi Resortin Papua New Guinea offers nightly tours to take in the spectacle in the surrounding forest (walindi.com, tours from $8 per person). 5. GEOTHERMAL POOLS, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, USA That the planet is broiling with molten rock and unfathomable heat beneath our feet is no secret. Nowhere on earth is that more obvious than in Yellowstone National Park, which contains the world's most diverse display of heat-inspired drama. Old Faithful draws the masses, but a more interesting and varied foray into the geothermal wonders awaits along the boardwalk trail of West Thumb Geyser Basin. The landscape is always in flux, but you can see more than 15 geysers, boiling springs, cones, and deep, scalding pools colored emerald, sapphire, and black pocketing the earth's crust (nps.gov, $25 per vehicle or $12 per person on foot, kids under 16 enter free). 6. JELLYFISH LAKE, PALAU Swimming in a lake full of jellyfish might sound like a form of medieval torture. But in a freshwater lake of Palau's Rock Islands, the predator-less jellyfish have lost their ability to sting. Sam's Tours runs daily snorkel trips to Jellyfish Lake, reached by a short but steep hike over the limestone island's crest and a quick swim to the other side of the lake. Come sunscreen- and lotion-free so you won't pollute the lake, then gently stroke your way to where the jellyfish are clustering (they follow the sun around the lake throughout the day, soaking up energy). Through your mask or goggles (fins are not allowed), you'll see thousands of the orange-colored polyps pulsing through the green water. Moving amongst them and diving down to feel their soft bodies brush against your own is like something from a dream (Samstours.com, $115 per person for a day tour; park permit is an additional $35 per person). 7. GLOWWORM CABES, WAITOMO, NEW ZEALAND The limestone caves in the Waitomo region of New Zealand's North Island are home to a fascinating phenomenon—the presence of Arachnocampa luminosa, a unique-to-New Zealand glow worm that manifests itself like an entire galaxy of light on the ceilings and walls of the dark caves here. Boats bring visitors into the dark netherworld of Waitomo Glowworm Cave to see the worms emit light. For more adrenaline, sign up for a blackwater rafting trip to travel deeper into the grottoes via ziplines and tubes (Waitomo.com, from $39 per person to visit the caves, $181 ($163 if you book online) per person for a 5-hour "Black Abyss" blackwater rafting trip). 8. BIOLUMINESCENT BAY, VIEQUES, PUETRO RICO Imagine the Northern Lights underwater—that's what a boat tour through a bioluminescent bay is like. The brightest such body of water in the world can be found in Mosquito Bay off the coast of Vieques, Puerto Rico. The billions of dinoflagellates (microscopic plankton) that live here give off a blue and green glow when anything agitates the water around them—creating the appearance of swirls of fairy dust as boat engines ply the lake (and swimmers glide across the water). Island Adventures Biobay Tours offers year round trips to Mosquito Bay where you can see the phenomenon for yourself. Set your camera to an ISO of 1200 for the best shot at capturing the scene (Biobay.com, $40 per person). 9. CALVING GLACIER (SERMEQ KUJALLEQ), ILULISSAT ICEFJORD, GREENLAND The thunder of an iceberg being born is like no sound on earth. Want to see the most active calving glacier in the Northern Hemisphere? Make the trek 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Ilulissat, Greenland (you can get there by flying from Copenhagen). Some 20 million tons of ice break away from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier on a daily basis, bombing into the sea and beginning new lives as drifting icebergs. Ask for a room on the top floor of the Hotel Hvide Falkand you'll be able to watch (and hear!) the groaning ice cap from your balcony (Hotelhvidefalk.gl, doubles from $250). 10. VOLCAN PACAYA, GUATEMALA You'll likely melt the rubber on your sneakers' soles at some point during the 1.5 hour hike to this active, lava-producing volcano about 15 miles outside of Guatemala City. Consistently active since 1965, Pacaya has erupted more than 20 times in the last 500 years. Be sure to heed local advice on the current safety of hiking Pacaya during your visit. If the volcano is deemed safe for a tour on the day of your visit, enjoy an experience like no other—toasting a marshmallow on a stick over a simmering, bright orange lava flow. Tours can be arranged in the popular tourist town of Antigua, about 90 minutes by shuttle bus from Pacaya (Turansa.com, $15 per person from Antigua).
Confessions of a National Park Ranger
ALL THAT FRESH AIR COMES AT A PRICE There's a saying about park rangers: "You get paid in sunrises and sunsets." That's really true. You don't do this job for the pay. Sometimes you have to wonder why we work so hard to get these federal positions. The people who are attracted to the job are outsiders—they enjoy solitude, they enjoy nature. It's the most unlikely group of people you'd expect to want to work with the federal government. And you have to give up a lot. It's extremely difficult to have a family or meet someone. You work seasonal positions for years until you finally get a permanent spot, only to realize you like a seasonal girl who's not going to be around in six months. TWO PARTS ACTION-ADVENTURE FLICK, ONE PART OFFICE SPACE I've had moments where the job is as exciting as anything you can imagine. You're fighting wildfires, getting lowered from helicopters on a rescue, chasing someone down with a gun on your side, going out on a manhunt. Then sometimes you're directing traffic or dealing with the bureaucracy of the federal government. LOST FROM THE GET-GO It doesn't matter which park you're working, people are like deer in the headlights. They're totally out of their element, they don't know where anything is, and half the time they haven't done any research before their trip. At the Grand Canyon, people will show up on the North Rim only to find out they're on the wrong side—and then they're shocked that they have to drive all the way around the canyon to get to the South Rim. I had one lady bawling when I told her it was a five-and-a-half-hour drive to the other side. She was like, "There's no bridge?!" NO COMMON SENSE There's no shortage of stupidity when it comes to what people will do. They'll sit right at the edge of the canyon, where there are no guardrails and it's a 1,000-foot drop. And people forget that they're at 8,500 feet. They wonder why they're having chest pains. They think they're having a heart attack, and we have to remind them it's the altitude. Then there are always people who hike down into the canyon and are totally unprepared—no water, no idea how long it will take. They don't realize there's a big change in temperature and conditions when you drop from 8,500 feet to 2,200 feet. That's one of our most common rescues. They always say they were so in awe of the beauty that they didn't realize how far they'd gone. PEOPLE WILL DO ANYTHING FOR A PICTURE It's absolutely astounding what people will do just to prove they saw something. They'll jump from rock pillar to rock pillar—nothing below—just to get the right angle for a shot of the canyon. Sometimes someone's camera falls over the edge and they're crawling over to try to get it. Or they'll stop in the middle of the road, with cars behind them, just to get a picture of a deer (you know, we've all seen deer, but these are deer with the Grand Canyon in the background). AMERICANS ARE THE WORST I've seen far more interest from foreigners in our national parks than by Americans. You'll be talking to someone from New Zealand and they're asking you about the geography, the culture, the history. And then an American asks you where the burger stand is. I'll LET YOU IN ON A SECRET—MAYBE People are always asking where the best place in the park is, or where they should go to watch the sunset. If I can tell someone is really interested, I'll probably tell him. But if it's some entitled jackass who rushes up to me like, "Hey, man, I got 20 minutes in the park. What's the absolutebestspot?"—no way. And then sometimes you do share, and it backfires. Someone once told me I ruined his vacation because I gave him the wrong place to watch the sunset. BEING A MEMBER HAS ITS PRIVILEGES In any profession, you're going to get certain privileges, but I try not to take advantage of my position. But yeah, there have been times when I've gotten pulled over, and I made sure my badge was right next to my driver's license so the cop sees it. There's kind of an understanding. WHEN THE MOMENT IS RIGHT... There's something about national parks. You're in an unbelievably romantic place. It gets your juices flowing, creates a spark. Things happen. There are definitely times when a ranger has to approach a car because the windows are a bit steamy. But sometimes we turn a blind eye to it. We're all human. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 15 More Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 10 Most Sacred Spots on Earth Secret Hotels of Florida's Gulf Coast 12 Elevators You Have to See to Believe Tax Refund = Vacation! 7 Amazing Trips That You Can Afford Right Now
10 Most Beautiful Waterfalls
Few things in nature are as mesmerizing as a waterfall—the thunderous roar as water spills over cliffs, the light glistening off the spray, the sheer force of it all. We found the 10 most enticing cascades on the planet. Some are obvious choices (who could resist the honeymooners' classic Niagara?), others are more obscure (ever heard of Langfoss?), but they all share an important quality: One look, and you're bound to be transfixed for hours. 1. NIAGARA FALLS New York and Canada The most powerful waterfall in North America, Niagara straddles the international border between Canada and the U.S., near Buffalo, New York. It is divided into three distinct cascades: The 167-foot-high American Falls and the 181-foot-high Bridal Veil Falls sit on the U.S. side; the 158-foot-high Horseshoe Falls drops on the Canadian. People debate which country holds the better view, but the truth of it is, the best vantage point isn't from either shoreline. It's from the water. The Maid of the Mist ventures to both sides along the Niagara River. The 600-passenger vessel gets so close to the action, in fact, that guests are outfitted with rain ponchos to keep them dry from the torrential spray. If you do take the half-hour ride, you'll join the company of former passengers Theodore Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe (open April through late October, $13.50 per person). Closest major city: Niagara sits 17 miles north of Buffalo; from there, the falls are an easy 25-minute drive along I-190. Best time to go: Summer crowds can overwhelm, so visit during the shoulder seasons instead. You can't go wrong in May, June, and September. 2. HANAKAPI'AI FALLS Kauai, Hawaii Hanakapi'ai calls to mind the prehistoric, untouched beauty of the landscapes in the Jurassic Park films (minus the dinosaurs, of course). The thin veil of water plunges 300 feet from volcanic-rock cliffs cloaked in tropical rain forest. Better still, to get there, you follow the famously scenic Kalalau Trail, which traces the lush, green Na Pali Coast for 11 miles along the northern coast of the island. You can access the trail from Ke'e Beach. You don't need a guide for the hike—the trail is clearly marked and well trod—but remember to pack water because the sun can get pretty hot here and the hike is strenuous in a few sections. En route, you'll pass through bamboo forests and cross a freshwater stream; two miles in, you'll reach a quiet inlet of Ke'e Beach, where it's not unusual to spot pods of dolphins playing in the surf. Closest major city: The trailhead at Ke'e Beach is a quick 15-minute drive north from the town of Hanalei, Kauai. From there, the hike takes two to four hours round-trip, depending on your fitness level and how long you linger at the beach and the waterfall. Best time to go: You'll find the best deals on flights and hotels from mid-September through December, and from January through May. Avoid hiking the trail in August, when temperatures can climb into the 90s. Be sure to get an early start; the parking lot at Ke'e Beach fills up by mid-morning. Related: World's Most Beautiful Lakes 3. PLITVICE LAKES Croatia If the Grand Canyon were covered in Technicolor green moss, spotted with 16 lakes across its base, and laced with thousands of falls along its walls, it would look a little something like Plitvice Lakes National Park in southwestern Croatia ($15 entrance fee, per person). The color of the water is intensely turquoise, thanks to the unique mix of minerals and organisms in runoff from the Dinaric Alps. The Plitvice National Park Service offers three-hour tours, starting at $130 for groups, but it's more fun to explore at your own pace, stopping to duck under waterfalls when you need to cool off. Allow a solid two to three hours to poke around, and be sure to take in the view from the first entrance to the park. The perch, high above a series of caves, overlooks all the lakes. Maps for sale ($4 each) at the tourist information booths, located at each of the park's two entrances, will help you navigate the park's labyrinth of trails and boardwalks. Closest major city: The park is 80 miles south of Zagreb and an easy two-hour drive by car. Best time to go: The weather is reliably warm and sunny from May through September. 4. IGUAZÚ FALLS Argentina A network of 275 falls that spans nearly two miles across, Iguazú is so striking in its immensity that when Eleanor Roosevelt first saw the falls, she remarked, "poor Niagara." The water plummets with such intense force that the spray almost looks as if it's shooting up from the pools below. One of the most popular sections is Devil's Throat, a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that's 269 feet wide and 2,300 feet long. You could visit Iguazú on your own, but you'll see more with an experienced guide. The full-day excursion with Viator takes you by bus to Devil's Throat and the falls' Upper and Lower Circuits and also grants you access to the Train of the Forest, a railway system that travels through the park and to the footbridges overlooking the falls ($35 per person). Closest major city: Iguazú is 670 miles (and a 90-minute flight) north of Buenos Aires. Best time to go: For the best prices and warm temperatures (75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit), go in October. Avoid January, February, and Easter vacation, when Argentines and Brazilians flock to the falls. And stay away during May and July, the two rainiest months. Related: World's Most Beautiful Castles 5. YOSEMITE FALLS California A poster child for the American West, this three-tiered fall stretches 2,425 feet from top to bottom. The waterfall itself is gorgeous, but it is the surroundings-granite cliffs and Giant Sequoia trees-that make it one of the most striking sights in the country. The falls are visible from many places around Yosemite Valley, particularly near Yosemite Lodge. From the lodge's parking lot, you can get even closer by taking one of the National Park Service's free, 20-minute shuttle bus rides to stop no. 6, where a one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Closest major city: Yosemite National Park is 195 miles (and a four-hour drive) east of San Francisco. Best time to go: The falls are at their most spectacular when the winter ice and snow are melting, from March to June. Peak flow is in May. 6. VICTORIA FALLS Zimbabwe and Zambia More than twice as high as Niagara Falls and about a mile across, the absolute mass of this gusher is mind-boggling. The force of the water falling into the pool below is so great, in fact, that on clear days you can see the spray from as far as 30 miles away. The local populace is equally impressive: Baboons, elephants, and hippos are often spotted along the shores of Victoria. Safari Par Excellence can set you up with everything, whether you're looking for a simple rafting trip on the Zambezi River leading up to Victoria (from $135 per person for a half-day) or a helicopter ride to view the white rhinos in nearby Mosi-oa Tunya National Park (from $120 per person). Closest major city: Livingstone, Zambia, is about eight miles from Victoria Falls. Most visitors fly into Livingstone International Airport and then take a shuttle to their hotel, where tour operators pick up guests and transport them to the falls. Best time to go: The perfect window is from February to May, when the rainy season has just ended but the falls are still gushing. Related: World's Newest Natural Wonders 7. SUTHERLAND FALLS New Zealand Set on the southwestern tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is perfectly calibrated to create cascades: The rugged landscape gets a steady supply of rain 300 days a year and has hundreds of falls to show for it. The true masterpiece of hte bunch is Sutherland. Its water drops 1,904 feet and shifts to the right at one point and then back to the left at another, forming three distinct sections. The best way to see the trio is by hiking a three-mile portion of the Milford Track, one of New Zealand's most popular trails. You can access the Milford near the town of Quintin, at the Quintin Hut, then follow the trail south for approximately 45 minutes to the base of the falls. Closest major city: Fiordland National Park is about 280 miles southwest of Queenstown. Most visitors rent a car to make the drive, which takes about five hours from Queenstown. Best time to go: Go during New Zealand's summer, December to February, when the days are long and the temperatures hover around a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 8. GULLFOSS FALLS Iceland Located on the southwest coast of Iceland, this is one of the most unconventional-looking waterfalls around. It's two-tiered, and even though neither drop is particularly high, together they make for an incredible sight. The first fall cascades to the right, the water churning around before hitting a sheer cliff, where it turns to the left and drops again. Viator Tours operates a half-day trip that stops at Gullfoss and two more of Iceland's biggest attractions: Geysir, which can spout water up to 230 feet high, and the Kerid volcanic crater ($88 per person). Closest major city: Viator Tours provides transportation to and from Reykjavik. The bus ride is 75 miles and takes about an hour and a half. Best time to go: Go during June, July, and August, when the ice has melted and temperatures are at their warmest (ranging from 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Related: Top U.S. Water Parks 9. ANGEL FALLS Venezuela The tallest waterfall in the world at 3,211 feet, Angel Falls is so high that some of the water evaporates before it even reaches the pool below. When you look up from the base, the waterfall seems to come from nowhere. Unlike most falls, this one isn't fed by snowmelt, a lake, or a river, but by rainfall from the tropical clouds. Getting to and from Angel Falls on your own is logistically tricky, so it's necessary to see this cascade with a guide. The three-day tour from Akanan Travel & Adventure includes airfare from Caracas, Venezuela's capitol, to Angel Falls; hammocks to sleep on; all meals; and insider access to the falls, including hikes, canoe rides, and a dip in a hidden pool at the base of the waterfall ( $450 per person). Closest major city: Angel Falls is located in Canaima National Park, which has an on-site airport that connects visitors to and from Caracas. Best time to go: Akanan's tours run from July through November, when the waterfalls flow is at its heaviest. 10. LANGFOSS WATERFALL Norway Instead of falling in a straight drop like most waterfalls, Langfoss slips down a cliff, maintaining contact with the rocks the entire way down, before spilling into Akra Fjord. Langfoss isn't the biggest waterfall in Norway, but its combined height (2,008 feet) and width (205 feet) are an impressive combination. The mountainside in the background turns bright green with new vegetation in the summer, providing a striking contrast to the whitewater of the falls and the charcoal-gray rocky outcroppings. It's one of the few waterfalls in Norway that hasn't been tapped for hydroelectric power and is still in its natural state. The Langfoss Waterfall Fjord Cruise travels past tiny farms and rugged mountains on its way to the gusher ($45). Closest major city: From Oslo, you can drive the 246 miles (about five hours) to the small town of Etne, where Langfoss falls; you can also fly from Oslo directly into Haugesund airport and then drive 43 miles to Etne. Best time to go: The weather around Langfoss is at its best from June through September. See more popular content: 10 Islands to See Before You Die Top Budget Destinations for 2011 9 Must-Visit Caribbean Islands Top 10 Most Travel-Inspiring Films of the Year