What I learned from my 5 Back-road Trips to America's National Parks in Last 1 Year...12/02/2014 10:18:00 AM
I am out in 2 days and I thought It'd be a good idea to summarize the experience and leave you with little read, so here you go...
Since 2006 when I first came to United States ( for a -3 months business trip ) on my maiden international trip, I have traveled to many popular as well as remote places in this country. Most of these trips were group road trips to nearby cities and wilderness-state parks, and I was mostly on the back seat, i.e. all I am doing is going where others would take me, see what others wanted to me to see, seek what others were seeking, and even sometime eat what others were craving for. I still do that though, don't really prefer to interfere in hungry people's palatal desires. These trips in all except a few weren't as fulfilling as I feel now these could've been, But they paved the path for me to discover what sort of experience I was looking for, and thats apart from taking in to account the kind of travel I was doing.
When I moved base to united states again, earlier last year, I had this desire to explore national parks on my own. So I began my adventure with the 49th State, Alaska, and then explored the South west, Pacific west, Southern and bits of Mid-atlantic and North-east and in different seasons. 12 months later, I feel I am wiser, more confident and actually do understand this country and its landscape, much better than I ever did. And this I say about both, one, planning the adventure part and two, cultural part. In this article, I would jot down a few points focussing mainly on the planning part because as easy as it may sound, that all you need is a credit card to travel in this country, there is way lot more to it and knowing those tit-bits can save you a lot of time and make your experience in back country area much better. ( City travel plan I may cover somewhere else and later )
1- Book your flights in advance.
I am not going to spend much ink and emphasize a lot about Air-booking here, because accept it, You have to book your domestic flights way ahead of time, and at least 2 months ahead of your travel, or the rates are as high as you're lifted up in the sky. Train travel is more expensive than flying. So unless you're traveling with-in the same region where you live, you rather do the bookings.
"Mt Rainier - Paradise Inn trail"
Having said that I know not, why traveling in-and-out of New York to any place has to be so expensive. But I care not, I am still sticking around here. I love NYC even in polar vortex and real bad skin days.
2 - Your entire trip and overall experience depends on the season you're planning to travel in.
Here is when things get interesting. Planning Alaska's roadmap was I believe the easiest to research. I wanted to see northern lights. So Fairbanks for the center point. Since Anchorage had more flying options when I booked, I thought I'd land in Anchorage and may be take a bus to Fairbanks like a true backpacker. But Since I was going there off-season, almost all the public transport services were closed. The Train which goes via Denali National Park, is again what you have to book well before just like flights.
"On the way to Mt Rainier"
Off-season comes with many pros and cons :
2.1 National Parks and even state parks for that matter, are crowded, and when I say crowded, its real crowded like any other tourist spot, and So if you imagine you'd have some quiet time and nature all for yourself, you can find yourself in a big rut. public holidays get even more crazier.
2.2 But if you're okay being surrounded by many, there are services in the park you can enjoy, specially on government holidays, just for example sequoia national park has shuttles over thanksgiving and xmas weekends.
2.3 When I say crowd, its not just hiking trails, peaks, popular photography locations etc, its campgrounds too. and camping here, I am not sure how different, but quite contrasting and if I compare to my earlier experience in india, totally on the other side of compass. dedicated camping spot with firepit, tables, electricity, water, wood, toilets, and of course parking spot sometime right next to where you pitch your camps, of course all come with a fee but my point, it may or may not look like you are in pure wilderness, specially if there are colorful lights blinking in the next camp, kids running around and well, loud music. feels more like a village fair.
2.4 Did I mention you can absolutely not get a reasonable flight ticket on long weekends unless you book like 6 months in advance. Atleast I haven't had the pleasure yet.
2.5 Last but not the least, Weather conditions. landscape looks drastically different each season. The flora and fauna. so if you're interested in photography, you may consider picking the right time, but hey can you really predict the fall, when leaves will turn red, orange, and yellow?
2.6 season will of course affect your itinerary, as to what activity you're planning to do. same park can offer you many activities and different each season. for example I planned a hike in Mt, Rainier in eary june, though snow will reside by then, but well it didn't, and I had to be satisfied with a small snow trek, which I didn't even come prepared for. I also din't get to see the wild flowers which I wanted to shoot. why? because the trail was no where to be seen.
3- Car Rental & Driving
A major part of your trip is driving. its practically impossible to travel here in US with out a car, so you should have at least two, designated drivers for a any trip and to any sort of landscape.
3.2 Distance usually is not a big problem here. You can easily cover 4-500miles in half the day time and with adequate breaks in between. I remember driving from Tucson in Arizona to Utah Border and we of course stopped multiple times both for sightseeing and coffee-breaks.
3.3 However, you should be we aware of road conditions ahead or if not, well prepared and with some buffer, because unlike in the big cities where you have multiple routes to pick from and at shorter distance, in smaller towns and wilderness areas there might not be another road to re-route for 30-40 miles. so incase you hit a road block even before 10 miles from the next city, you may have no option but to return. We got in to this issue last year while reaching Page. Hwy 89 was closed for months, due to landslide just miles before page and we had absolutely no idea. GPS may or may not tell you and in our case it dint. there was a diversion 89T 30 miles before the closure, but vehicles were going on both directions so we couldn't gauge the roadblock and drove all the way to the end.
3.4 Already dark, with gas needle sliding toward E and wild animals crossing the path, we had no option but to keep driving and keep praying, we get a gas station and some information. because hey did I mention there was no connectivity. Oh, you dint think its america so it's 100% internet zone or did you? we were using satellite gps and saved maps. you must know where you're going literally.
"Canaan Valley State Park"
3.5 Another example about how important it is to anticipate how much gas you need and if you'd need to carry extra gas cans and how many, is, our Dalton Highway Alaska trip.while we had our tankful and 2 extra gas cans before heading out towards Arctic circle, My guess about the gas station in Bettles was totally useless, that road was not even accessible apart from the fact there was no guarantee if there was any gas station at all. thankfully we had enough gas to reach coldfoot. where we could get both hot-coffee and gas. nothing in the middle nope.
3.6 Coming to Insurance and road conditions, if you're getting car rented for the first time, do a good check on what all you're getting insured for. car rental percentage is very low, but there are plenty of options when it comes what's insured and what not. for example, car, passenger, and belonging. which must be same as anywhere else i guess, but you can carefully read through, and decide. if you don't have expensive belongings or have otherwise insured your gears such as camera and stuff, you may opt-out of double insurance and save some $$.
3.7 Dalton Highway is famous as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. What makes it dangerous? well, the road condition plus the jumbo trucks that transfer oil are famous for driving recklessly. while I may not agree to the second point, ( good experience and wise driving - I always kept myself out of the way, i know who cat and who mouse wese so no problem there. ) But road was so scary at night, that I had to really stop and wait for a little light to shine through before I could continue. of course the road that I thought I should have no issue on, i.e. the Denali highway surprised me big time, when we hit the ice at 3AM all of a sudden and the car went in to skidding.
3.8 For the above reason alone, its a good idea to avoid driving in the night if possible, second and major one of course is fauna. its very common for animal - small or big - to cross the road in the dark, and trust me they do.. even as small as squirrel and rabbits. I still remember how horrified I was to drive the 85 miles in Utah. it literally took me 4 hours to reach the hotel in Page. So unless its a 4- lane highway thats blocked from side land for fauna to roam around freely, avoid driving in the night, even though you can not guarantee the safety of both those inside and outside the car.
"On the way to Arctic Circle Alaska"
3.9 This tip may come in your driving manual itself, but just incase, there are zones, other than usual sign about steepy roads, slope and usual school, hospital and speed. there are deer zones, respect that, though in this country hitting a deer is so common and thousands are killed in road accidents and culling every year, doesn't mean you'd want one to come in front of your car. there are deer bell which you can put on your car, which may alert the animal that some vehicle is coming. it make a certain sound. I heard it yes.
3.10 And in all this, getting insurance and using in with in the city zone is easy, you wouldn't trust AAA when your in the wild. even if you have signals and you can call, it may take ages for them to come help you. be prepared to not get stranded.
3:11 In all this and more situations that I come across, I learned the locals are really helpful and friendly in contrast to what general opinion is about big cities, whether thats really true or not. We were offered help with both our broken vehicle, food and stay. the mechanic in Page, even fixed our bumper and refused any money.
"Pacific West from Air"
3:12 Last point that i missed out on rental part, choose the vehicle type wisely. An SUV a good choice for bad roads and cold weather, the local city cars i.e. sedan aren't great for backroad trips. they wont last 4-5 days of continuous driving. Totally made for city comfort and are allergic to any sort of abuse.
3:13 another tip or rather warning I'd give is, not to overspeed in any case. the state highways don't have much traffic, and yes vehicles are faster than the speed limits most of the time, and little is fine but if you go really high, and you may think no one is watching you, you're bound to get caught by the radar, and it doesn't look good on your record. A reckless one, did get a ticket in Virginia. So I know.
4. Food Stock & lodging
Easiest of all part, this, the first thing we did before starting any trip go visit the nearest walmart, get enough water, tissue paper, fresh/dry fruit items and garbage bags etc. if you're camping, most of the campgrounds have barbeque stations, fire pit etc so you can cook. some campground require reservations others are first come first served basis. so based on where and when you're going you can plan. lot of parks are situated near a small town or vice versa, and there is always a go-to store where you can buy drinks/food and almost all things you need. could be difficult for vegetarians & vegans though and in most part.
"Campground Lake Moomaw"
And now about the activities, Its ok if you're there to just explore the park overall. its okay to not foresee and not be much prepared and miss out things for the first time. you can visit and explore what you possibly can. National Parks here are big and much spread over than what you may imagine. so you can not cover it all in just one trip, sometime it may take weeks for one to fully explore just one location.
5.1 Based on how much time you have you may plan to know one more many parks. I remember while places like San Juan and Mt Rainier were much easier, even after reading a lot, I couldn't figure out How I am going to traverse through Zion until I got in and kept driving and finally stopped after a long tunnel and decided to come back, because I may have reached vegas if I continued in the same direction. entering this side of US-9 it was hard for me to figure out where all those famous spots were. Same thing with Bryce, I anticipated it be rather coverable or I wouldn't have driven there in the night, but all the view points were spread over a good distance from each other, and after taking may left and rights, finally we had to satisfy ourself with just one location and return.
"Saguaro National Park"
5.2 Trails are marked and watched over by Park rangers too, so you are safer than you think, in certain time and part of the regions. Gates of the Arctic area well had no body in october. so no help there. carry the maps you get at the entrance of the park and understand it through. keep them for reference in current and for future trips as well.
5.3 Its advisable to read out nps.gov site because everything is well documented here, compare to rest of the world I believe, and also local hikers/ adventure enthusiasts bogs because they' have documented fine details which you might not find in consolidated documents on government websites. I actually never look at national geographic or lonely planet, last i remember if I took lonely planet seriously I would have never set my foot on Dalton Monstrous Highway. Thats right, thats why they called it. Nat Geo is good to refer for photographs thats all, atleast they have good images for wilderness, their cultural and city shots sucks big time. But having said that, go to sites like flickr to search for image and how a place looks like, and look at both good and bad images.. studying the range with the two extreme ends, will give you a very good idea what you can expect and how things may turn out. keep your expectations at good level.
Falling Spring, Virginia
5.4 Too much information & Exaggerated yes : not only the above example alone, but remember while there is lot of info available, there is actually way lot of information and sometime way exaggerated. for example the hike to Horse Shoe bend is hardly a hike, its probably over a mile walk in the sand. and both start and end points are visible from the other end. and if you read about it, it'll be, well, you get it. so is true with many hikes. so however categorized, easy, medium or difficult hikes, and actually true to all the activities and adventure sports, may not be as tough as they sound. I remember my first ski trip to Tahoe, was actually pretty easy, although I lost one of my toe-nails after the end of the trip because ski shoe i rented was really small, and i obviously din't have any saying there.
5.5 Group Size : Even if you planned in group as small as 2, Don't be afraid, its Safe to travel, unlike well, most of the place. ( Don't venture in to private areas though, they might just shoot you) I encountered many situations where I thought I was foolish and way to adventurous to venture out alone, and this is both in terms of getting stuck at nowhere in nomansland in snowstorm, heavy rains, and what not. But it worked out just about fine.
Overall cost of the trip will depend on all above, off season, renting car may be cheap, but lodge reservations and fee can be high. 4 people in a car may reduce your total cost to 1/4 th. flights I already mentioned. activities, may or may not available and varies in prices too depending on the season so think about all this. I for one am happy to spend extra bucks and go with the kind of trip I want to experience. find someone you gel with perfectly, and that 1 is good enough.
Update : 5.6 If you frequent the national parks, do get Interagency Annual Pass: $80. Valid for 12 months from from purchase date and recognized by most of the federal recreation sites. it'll be much cheaper for you to pay for entrance fee this way. I have been to about 15 National Parks and historical sites/monuments so far, and I should have got one long time ago, but I was lazy and since I was going as frequently, I dint realize. now I am getting one. you can get the details from nps.gov I will post more details later.
Photography notes : these are jpeg right out of 450D Canon camera and iPhone4S. no processing / editing, except Saguaro image.
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