America's National Parks and Forests offer a rich variety of wild habitats and challenging terrains, with some of the world's most stunning and inspiring surroundings. World-renowned alpinist Conrad Anker is an ambassador for a new campaign entitled "Return to the Outdoors" which is encouraging travelers to forgo fuel-guzzling, high-cost, and high environmental-impact vacations and instead visit one of the nation's National Parks or Forests for an outdoor getaway that will appeal to your adventurous side. Return to the Outdoors (www.returntotheoutdoors.com) is a joint endeavor of the Conservation Alliance, Timex Expedition, and Conrad Anker aimed at inspiring Americans to reconnect with nature. The campaign's website hosts content, forums and tools designed to make the outdoors more accessible. There is a series of short films profiling outdoor icons in a habitat special to them (like Conrad Anker hiking Teton Crest in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park and adventurer Steph Davis base-jumping in Utah's Canyonlands National Park), plus competitions where viewers are encouraged to share their own outdoor experiences and are rewarded with adventure-themed prizes.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Anker, he is perhaps the country's best known mountain climber. From the icefalls of Alaska and Antarctica to the big walls of Patagonia and the massive peaks of the Himalayas, not only has he scaled Mount Everest twice, but he also found the remains of George Mallory, the famed pioneer who died while trying to reach the summit of Everest in 1924. Return to the Outdoors certainly doesn't suggest that you try to climb Everest, but it does encourage its visitors to get out and experience what this country has to offer. When asked to list his top National Parks and Forests for returning to the outdoors, Anker came up with five of his favorite National Park locations for hikes and trails. Although all are accessible to the public, some are quite challenging and demanding, while others are suitable for day-trippers and amateur hikers looking for a great day of exercise, fresh air and scenic beauty.
1. Half Dome Cable Route at Yosemite National Park, CA (tel. 209/372-0200; www.yosemitepark.com) is open year round and entry is $20 per car or $10 per person on foot or bike. With steel cables on the steep east face, Half Dome Cable Route has been described as North America's premier via ferrata (named after hiking routes in Italy that are supplemented with cables when the terrain gets steep and exposed). You need to be in pretty good physical condition to undertake this hike (between 14 and 23 miles depending on the route you take) as it will take you a minimum of ten to twelve hours to get to an elevation of over 8,800 feet and down again. You can't climb Half Dome unless the cables are up, which is generally from early June through Columbus Day weekend in October. The closest place to park is the trailhead parking lot, just past Curry Village on a road that is signed "Service Vehicles Only" (but you are actually allowed to use it). There can be waits of an hour or more at the base of the cables on summer weekends so weekdays are your best bet if you can, or beat the crowds by spending the night camping at Little Yosemite Valley (www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/lyv.htm) to get a head start on day-trippers. To camp there, you will need a wilderness permit (tel. 209/372-0740; www.yosemitesecure.org/wildpermit) which requires at least two days notice and costs $5 per person to process. For more up-market and comfortable lodging, there are various accommodation packages available online. The view from the summit of Half Dome of the Sierra Crest to the east and El Capitan and the foothills to the west is magnificent, plus you will pass a 900 foot waterfall en route (via the Mist Trail - the shortest and most scenic). Looking over the Diving Board and the immense northwest face, a 2,000-foot cliff, is an exhilarating experience.
2. Angels Landing at Zion National Park, UT (tel. 888/518-7070; www.nps.gov/zion). Zion is most rewarding when experienced from the bottom (valley) up. Throughout the park, iron oxide has forged colorful layers in the sandstone in red, white and ochre hues. Water flow from rain and river has etched through the rock to forge deep chasms of brilliantly complex mass. Elevations in the park range from 4,000 feet in the valley floors to nearly 9,000 feet. Rock climbers, hikers and adventure-seekers come from across the globe to experience the vertical climbs and zigzagging trails which ascend to natural pinnacles, domes, arches and spires. Like Yosemite's Half Dome, Angels Landing is a steep trail up a stand-alone peak. Located in the heart of Zion Canyon, it is accessed from the Grotto picnic area, is five miles long (the first two miles are paved) and takes approximately five hours to complete. The last half mile is across a narrow sandstone ridge with anchored support chains along some sections of the sheer fin. It offers an inspiring view of this red rock wonder. From the top many landmarks of Zion National Park can be seen including the Great White Throne, Virgin River, Big Bend, the Organ, Cathedral Mountain, Observation Point and Cable Mountain. The trail is open throughout the year but best attempted from March to October. Park entry is $25 per vehicle for a seven day pass. There are over two dozen accommodation options in the immediate area around Springdale and the park entry, including motels, lodges and bed and breakfasts. See the Zion National Park website (www.zionnationalpark.com/lodging.html) for property details.www.yellowstone.net) is open throughout the year and costs $25 per private vehicle, $20 per motorcycle and $12 per individual entering by foot or bike. Located in the Northeast section of the park, just east of Tower-Roosevelt, Lamar Valley offers perhaps the park's greatest opportunity to see wildlife -- especially in the early morning or late evening. Situated on the northern Yellowstone plateau, this wide valley is home to bison, elk, bears, bald eagles and wolves, among other wildlife. There are five trails in this area ranging from two to six hours in length. Yellowstone River Picnic Area trail along the east rim of the Yellowstone River is a moderately strenuous 3.7 mile trek up to an elevation of 6100 feet, offering views of the Narrows of the Yellowstone, the Overhanging Cliff area, the towers of Tower Fall, basalt columns and the historic Bannock Indian Ford. The Mount Washburn trail starts at the Chittenden Road parking area (northern trail) or the Dunraven Pass parking area (southern trail) and is six miles round-trip. It is one of the most popular hikes in Yellowstone, and provides expansive views of the eastern side of the park on clear summer days. An enclosed observation area lets you shelter from the wind and enjoy magnificent views for many miles. Bighorn sheep are known to frequent the upper sections of both these trails.
4. Seven Lakes Basin High Divide at Olympic National Park, WA (tel. 360/565-3130; www.nps.gov/olym). The park is open year-round but summer provides the best hiking opportunities, especially in the inland mountainous region. Entry into the park is $15 per vehicle or $5 per individual on foot, bicycle or motorcycle. The park divides into three major areas -- the glaciered mountains and high country of the interior; the lush rain forest of the west-facing valleys; and the wild coastline. Towering waterfalls, rich alpine meadows, eerie forests bathed in moss and fog and cliff-lined beaches await visiting adventurers with over 600 miles of established trails. The Seven Lakes Basin High Divide trail is roughly a 19-mile loop providing access to old growth forests, exceptional views of interior mountains, plus as the name suggests, the lakes (actually there are eight in the Basin, not seven). Access is via Sol Duc Hot Springs Road, 14 miles from US 101 and two miles from the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. The trail starts off quite flat towards Sol Duc Falls and becomes a gentle to moderate gradient along the Sol Duc River Trail to Appleton Pass Junction. From there to High Divide, the ascent is moderate with a few steep sections, ups, downs and switchbacks from Bogachiel Peak to Lunch Lake Trail Junction. Whilst hiking, you may encounter elk, especially in the headwaters of the Bogachiel, bears are commonly sited in the Seven Lakes Basin area and deer are plentiful around the appropriately named Deer Lake. Views of Mount Olympus and neighboring peaks are breathtaking and best appreciated from July to September, as are fields of wildflowers and blueberries. Camping is permitted during the summer with a permit, available from the Wilderness Information Center (tel. 360/565-3100; www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wic.htm). For a more comfy option, stay at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort (tel. 888/896-3828; www.visitsolduc.com) or at least take a dip in the hot springs to relieve your weary bones after a day of hiking.
5. Red River Gorge at Daniel Boone National Forest, KY (tel. 859/745-3100; www.fs.fed.us/r8/boone). Located a little over an hour's drive from Louisville International Airport, the Forest is open daily and costs $3 for a one-day permit and $5 for three-day permit. Located along the Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky, the forest is made up of 700,000 acres of mostly rugged terrain and boasts steep forested ridges that give way to slender ravines and over 3,000 miles of sandstone cliffs. With 500 plus miles of developed trails, including nearly 300 miles of National Recreation Trails, many are beginner level and fun for families with small children. The wilderness trails are the most primitive and should be used only by seasoned hikers who enjoy a challenge. The gorge is known for its abundant natural stone arches (over 100), unusual rock formations and spectacular sandstone cliffs. Archaeological excavations have also uncovered a number of 3,000 year old rock shelters and the National Park Service named 37,000 acres in and around the Red River Gorge a National Archaeological District and listed it on the National Register of Historic Places. Apart from hiking, the Red River Gorge is well known for its climbing, with dozens of rock faces to scale, with names like The Pulpit, Wall of Dial and Coffin Ridge. The Natural Bridge at Red River Gorge, a 65 foot high sandstone bridge and forest landmark is a good starting point for overnight hikes and camping trips. If camping isn't your thing, you can rent cabins. See the Red River Gorge website (www.redrivergorge.com/cabins.html) for listings.
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