National parks tips from the 'Dark Ranger'
Including advice on why some loop trails should be hiked counter-clockwise, and why, even though it seems more exhausting, if you've got a choice you really should hike uphill on the steepest sections of trails.
Kevin Poe is a park ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park. Known as "The Dark Ranger"—not for nefarious reasons, but because he's in charge of some of the night sky programs at Bryce, where 7,500 stars are visible on clear nights—Poe was kind enough to give me loads of insights and tips for this summer's Trip Coach on National Parks. Check out Poe's solid insider advice:
Are there any easy ways to avoid crowds in the summer?
KP: If you decide to visit during the busy season, the best way to avoid the crowds is to simply get out on the trails. This does not necessarily mean you have to go backpacking. While it's generally true that the best stuff is their backcountry, some parks like Bryce Canyon and Arches have the greatest scenery within day-hiking distance. Besides, even the most busy parks become increasingly backcountry-like with each mile you distance yourself from the roads. Plan your hiking so that you're on the most popular trails in the early morning or in the early evening (dinner hours). This will help you avoid the crowds.
(Also: Check out 5 ways to beat the crowds at Yosemite.)
What's your take on visiting parks in the off-season?
KP: Visiting during the off season (usually winter) allows you to have the park to yourself, but realize that there are trade-offs, including extreme weather, needing to bring the extra clothes and gear like snowshoes or skis, fewer ranger programs being offered, and some road closures. But all things considered, off-season visits are great. For one thing, you'll get bragging rights at your next cocktail party. Yes, everybody's waited in air-conditioned vehicles for their turn to see the grizzly in the middle of a "bear-jam" at Yellowstone, but how many have snowshoed under a full moon?
Any good hiking tips you care to pass along?
KP: When considering a loop trail ask the rangers at the visitor center which is the best way to hike the loop: clockwise? counter-clockwise? Most of us rangers will have a preferred direction, based on scenery and difficulty, for hiking every loop trail. When you hike a loop in the same direction as everybody else (the ranger recommendation), the trail will seem a lot less crowded than if you are going against the flow.
Another consideration for loop trails is the age-old debate about whether it is easier to go uphill or downhill. While everybody (especially guide book authors) has a fiercely guarded opinion on this issue, consider that medical doctors who mend injured hikers and park rangers who "carry out" injured hikers are in complete agreement: It's better to hike uphill on steep sections of trail and downhill on the more gradual slopes because lungs heal faster than ankles, knees, and heads. If you take the opposite approach because it's easier on your heart, you probably shouldn't be hiking that trail in the first place.
What about footwear? Are sneakers or a good pair of sandals OK?
KP: Hiking without hiking boots is like SCUBA diving without a SCUBA tank. Not smart. So if you plan on hiking, bring your hiking boots. Hiking shoes with boot-like "lug" traction are better than nothing but don't provide critical ankle support. Tennis shoes/sneakers are not hiking shoes because they lack "lug" traction! Even though hiking sandals are more comfortable than boots (I own a pair with aggressive "lug" traction that I sometimes day-hike with), realize that sandals offer zero ankle support. Seriously, bring the boots! If your boots won't fit in the suitcase, then wear them on to the airplane.
Finally, what's the best easily doable hiking trail in the U.S., in your humble opinion?
KP: YES it is true, just like everybody says, the Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop trail at Bryce Canyon National Park IS the best three-mile hike in the world. In spite of what my ranger friends at Yosemite National Park might tell you, their Vernal Falls Loop only rates as a close second.
For more info on national parks, go to the parks homepage, nps.gov, and check out coverage from Budget Travel. We have an entire section of BudgetTravel.com devoted to the topic we hold near and dear to our hearts.
The National Parks for free!
With only 43 days left until the summer officially ends, it's time to really start prioritizing these warm, sunny afternoons while they last. This weekend provides the perfect opportunity: On August 14 and 15, you can visit the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or the Everglades without paying a dime, when the National Parks Service waives entrances fees to 146 of its iconic sites across the country. (You can find a full list of freebie parks at the N.P.S. site.) That's a pretty good deal considering some of these spots typically charge up to $25 for admittance. You may also be able to save on food, tours, and even lodging at some parks. Certain outfitters and concessionaires are offering deals and discounts to coincide with the N.P.S.'s free weekend. In Grand Teton, for instance, you can get 25 percent off a room in three of its lodges. In Yosemite and Yellowstone, $5 coupons good for food, drinks, and tours will be handed out upon arrival. More deals are listed on parkpartners.org. If you already had plans to visit a National Park this summer, you may want to bump up your travel plans to this weekend and save a few bucks, and if a Parks jaunt was not already on your calendar, this should be the perfect excuse to add one. We would love to hear from you: What are your National Parks vacation plans for the rest of this summer?
15 Last-Minute Spring Break Deals You Can Book on Your Phone
Everyone knows that procrastination typically doesn’t pay off. But it does if you’re still looking to book a spring break vacation this year. Down to the wire and still hunting for a bargain? Check out these destinations first! For spring break, they have some of the lowest average hotel rates, according to new data from Priceline.com, whether you want to hit the beach, ski some fresh powder, or take advantage of sunny outdoor activities. SUN • Phoenix, AZ ($127.14) • Charleston, SC ($131.89) • Austin, TX ($135.70) • Nashville, TN ($138.68) • Palm Springs, CA ($143.08) SAND • Myrtle Beach, SC ($69.48) • Jacksonville, FL ($105.87) • Costa Rica ($106.61) • Daytona Beach, FL ($137.09) • Long Beach, CA ($146.01) SNOW • Salt Lake City, UT ($96.68) • Toronto, ON ($98.49) • St. Paul, MN ($111.01) • Chicago, IL ($113.33) • Denver, CO ($136.46) And we have even more intel on how to save big: The new way to find deals is bypassing your computer and relying solely on your mobile device. Priceline.com travel analyst Brian Ek says some of the site’s best deals on hotels, flights, and car rentals are available exclusively through its app, particularly for last-minute bookers. (If you don't have the app, download it here for iPhone/iPad and here for Android.) “For example, exclusive to the Priceline.com app are Tonight-Only deals,” Ek says. “Priceline.com adds hotel deals at up to 40 percent off daily at 11 a.m. that are available for same-day check in. When in the app, simply tap on the filter button and sort by ‘deals’ to bring all Tonight-Only deals up to the top of your search. You can book your stay up to four nights at the discounted rate.” To maximize savings, Ek recommends bundling your hotel and flight together. However, the strategy to saving on hotels is the opposite of nabbing cheap airfare. While flights are cheaper more than 21 days in advance and rates typically increase as the travel day gets closer, hotels are the opposite, with rates dropping as check-in day approaches. Ek explains: “Booking more last-minute can score you extra savings since at the end of the day, many hotels have unsold rooms, and to offer those rooms up at a discount benefits both the hotel and the consumer.” Procrastination has never felt so good!
FREE Admission to Every National Park!
National Park Week celebrates “America’s best idea” each April with a variety of events, activities for families, and, maybe best of all, FREE admission to every park. This year, April 16 through 24 (yep, nine whole days!) will see an exciting array of ways to say “we love our parks.” FREE admission: Throughout National Park Week (April 16 through 24), every national park offers free admission. Junior Ranger Day: Saturday April 16 is a day for kids to participate in fun Junior Ranger programs (learning to “explore, learn, protect”), earn a Junior Ranger badge (my kids each have one from our last trip to Glacier!), and become a Centennial Junior Ranger in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System this year. Earth Day: Friday April 22 provides a chance for every American to VOLUNTEER to pitch in and help with an eco-minded national park project. National Park InstaMeet: Saturday April 23 will see thousands of Americans gather in the national parks to take photos and shoot videos, then post them on Instagram and other social platforms tagged #FindYourParkInstaMeet and #FindYourPark. FIND A NATIONAL PARK INSTAMEET NEAR YOU. Park Rx Day: Sunday April 24 is set aside for recreational activities aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles and well-being. LEARN MORE. Happy National Park Week, and, as always, we heartily recommend that you make this the year you Find Your Park!
Want to escape to Alaska without leaving home? We've been having a blast checking out the live BearCam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. THE COOLEST WEBCAM IN THE NPS? Each fall, Katmai's live web camera sends streaming video of Alaska brown bears (gigantic relatives of the grizzly) as they visit Brooks Falls to catch salmon. An ever-growing body of fans are apparently as ravenous for up-close views of the bears as the bears themselves are for the fresh fish they catch at the falls. OTHER GREAT NPS WEBCAMS We heartily recommend that you check out the BearCam at Explore.org, but we also want to pass on some links to webcams at other national parks that we've come to love. More than any reading material, the images available from these national parks may make you want to fill a backpack and hit the trails. Here's a starter kit for anyone interested in diving into as many parks in the shortest possible amount of time.Glacier National Park provides views of Apgar Lookout, an overview from Apgar Mountain of the North Fork area of the park; Apgar Village, with its visitor center, shops, and restaurants; and Lake McDonald, allowing you to stand at the pebbled shore and look out at the park's highest peaks, which are sometimes reflected in the lake and sometimes shrouded in clouds. (nps.gov/glac)Yellowstone National Park links to a collection of webcams offering a view of Old Faithful Geyser from the spectacular visitor education center, which opened in 2010; a view of the Upper Geyser Basin, including the geyser itself; and Mount Washburn, a view that is used to track fires (this camera is typically turned to a default view at the end of fire season). (nps.gov/yell)Yosemite National Park provides images of a number of the park's most popular sites, including Yosemite Falls, which is actually a combination of three falls (Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall); Half Dome, including a view of the Yosemite Valley from nearby Yosemite Village; and Half Dome from 8,000 feet, taking in the High Sierra as well. (nps.gov/yose)Grand Canyon National Park links to just one webcam of the park, which is currently undergoing maintenance, but it's worth checking back for the amazing view when the camera is back online. The camera is meant to provide weather and air quality information, but also serves to whet the appetite of future visitors and to remind former visitors of what makes this place like no other on earth. In addition, the site provides links to live webcams of the San Francisco Peaks and other vistas in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. (nps.gov/grca)Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides images of iconic spots in this popular park, including a view from Purchase Knob to the northeast; and Look Rock, at the western edge of the park. (nps.gov/grsm)