Tour of the Canyons Part 1: Bryce!

1C2E58DC-DE03-4956-9909-4EC72F7F1939The AIR Adventures team is on the road again this summer, for our annual tour of national and state parks! This time, the theme is canyons, as we’ll be visiting the corners of Utah and Arizona where some of our country’s most popular canyon parks, including Bryce, Zion, and of course, the Big Ditch (aka Grand Canyon). Taken together, these three parks make up part of the Grand Staircase – a vast region made up of different plateaus canvassing millions of acres across Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

Our first stop was the uppermost ‘top’ step of the staircase in Southwest Utah, where Bryce Canyon is located. The park is by no means the largest – spanning just over 35,000 acres – but it certainly packs a strong visual punch in that circumscribed space. Specifically, Bryce is known for its ‘hoodoos’ – rock formations that have been shaped and twisted by erosion over time into fantastical and bizarre sculptures (insert some overused wordplay joke about ‘Hoodoo – you do, she do, we do!’ here). Bryce Canyon boasts the largest collection of hoodoos in the world.

We opted to explore this strange landscape on foot, as Bryce has over 65 miles of trails winding throughout. Our first run took us on a loop around ‘Fairyland,’ where the trail started us on a series of switchbacks that zigged and zagged over a mile down into the Bryce amphitheater, before turning into a rollercoaster of twists and turns that wound its way through some of the most eye-popping collection of wind- and sand-chiseled rocks in all manner of strange shapes and sizes. It was easy to see how this section of the park earned its name, as we could easily imagine the rocks to be some petrified remnants of magical flora and fauna. All-in-all, the run totalled about 8 miles from Sunrise Point, with just over 1600 feet of elevation gain. Check out our route here!

Adventures in Fairyland.

The next day, we ventured out into the less popular – but equally impressive – wilderness of Bryce Canyon. While most of the park’s 2 million+ annual visitors stick to the hoodoo viewpoints, fewer take the opportunity to explore the backcountry of the park. However, it’s on the less-traveled wilderness trails where one can truly appreciate the ecological splendor and value of Bryce. With the altitude of the park ranging some 2000 feet, it encompasses three distinct climate zones, each home to a wide array of plant and animal life – including mountain lions, pronghorn, and the endangered Utah prairie dog. Our trek into the backcountry took us on an out-and-back route along the Rim Trail from Sunset Point to Bryce Point, where we then took the Under the Rim Trail that descended over 2,000 feet down into the valley floor to Yellow Creek. While we’d originally planned a point-to-point rout that would end at the Whiteman Bench, at Yellow Creek the trail became difficult to find and we opted to play it safe and return the way we came. All-in-all, this route took us nearly 14 miles, with some 2500 feet of elevation gain – all on the return trek, of course! Check out our route here!

Throughout our stay, we also opted for a few shorter, 1-3 mile hikes that also afforded beautiful – and more easily accessible – views. These included the popular hike through the Queen’s Garden, as well as the Bristlecone Loop bear Rainbow Point – one of the highest points in the park.

Interested in going? Definitely take a moment to check out the park’s website and plan your hiking or running routes here. Be aware that especially when hiking the backcountry, the trail conditions and signage are variable, and (as we discovered) the trail may not be as well-maintained as it is near the hoodoos and in the more popular areas of the park. We definitely recommend downloading a GPS map that allows you to track your location, to avoid getting lost in the backcountry. Just as important: be aware that during the summer months, it gets *hot* – and quick! Start your hikes or runs early in the day, and bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

 

Exploring the Martian landscape of Craters of the Moon!

Following an all-too-brief stay in Tahoe, the AIR Adventures team headed east, to Idaho, and a pit stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Located just north of the Snake River Plain in Central Idaho, the wonderfully bizarre landscape of this park seems to bubble up from the surrounding plains like some strange brew from an underground cauldron. Indeed, this descriptor is not far from the truth, as the park’s myriad of craters, fissures, and fossilized lava flows that comprise some 750,000 acres owe their existence to the region’s intense seismic activity and violent volcanic past. The most recent eruption occurred only 2,000 (!) years ago.

We opted to explore this strange and somewhat unsettling landscape by foot, as mountain bikes are not permitted on the trails. Additionally, there are a few areas where you have the option to explore caves formed by ancient lava tubes, and which are only accessible by foot (hint: bring a headlamp!).

 

Our day hike took us from the very top of the Inferno Cone – which at 6181 ft afforded beautiful panoramic views of the entire valley – to the caldera of the immense North Crater, and finally down to the subterranean maze of the Buffalo Caves. Along the way we encountered people of all ages and walks of life enjoying the wonders of the park, including the largest group of Boy Scouts we’ve ever seen. We have no idea how the Scout Masters kept them all accounted for.

Check out our route here!

Apart from being an ideal destination for losing a Boy Scout, Craters of the Moon also is an important ecological site that sustains a diversity of plant and animal life – including six species of bats that make their home in the lava tubes.

 Interested in going? Check out the park’s website here for information on hikes and other activities inside the park. One important note: With the dark volcanic rock and ash, it can get particularly hot during summer months, so try to plan your visit early in the day.

Fee? Yes – $15 per vehicle. National Park Annual Pass also accepted. Pets? In the campground, park lot, and on paved roads. Not on trails. MTB? No.

Next stop: Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons!

Kicking off our tour of parks, with a visit to Tahoe!

 

This week, the AIR Adventures team kicked off our tour of national and state parks, which will take us through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the American West!

We started things off with a trip to Lake Tahoe, which some have heralded as “the best lake in America.”

Situated on the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and the second deepest after Crater Lake in Oregon. The majority of the lake’s watershed is protected land, with several state parks including Sand Harbor; Sugar Pine Point; Spooner Lake; and of course the eponymous Lake Tahoe State Park.

The area is popular year-round – offering a myriad of lakeside activities in the summer, and skiing or snowboarding in the winter. Apart from being an Instagram-perfect vacation destination, though, Lake Tahoe also provides important ecological benefits as a watershed. Additionally, it’s home to numerous protected or endangered species, including the bald eagle and kokanee salmon, as well as rare plant species like the Lake Tahoe watercress.

On our visit, we took advantage of the beautiful blue-sky July weather to explore the region by bike and by foot. Our first venture took us on a 70+ mile bike ride around the entire lake, which included 4,000+ feet of climbing over a mix of long, gradual mountain inclines  and gentle rollers.

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The area has several miles of bike trails, taking you along the outskirts of the lake and through rolling countryside.

Throughout the ride, we were afforded panoramic vistas of the lake and surrounding mountains, which were surprisingly still snow-capped in late July owing to the record snowfall the region received this past winter. The views were only somewhat marred by the seemingly endless traffic in both directions (FYI, if you’re not already aware, you could say that Lake Tahoe is *somewhat* of a popular tourist destination. On the weekend we were there, it seemed like everyone within a 2,000 mile radius also had the same idea to visit. It was crowded). However, even with the bumper-to-bumper traffic, cars were generally respectful, and gave us plenty of room to pass.

Check out our ride here!

The next day, we opted to avoid dealing with traffic and  ventured out for a run along the trails of Spooner Lake State Park. This Nevada park is about 8 miles to the east of Lake Tahoe, and is home to two  equally picturesque lakes of its own: Spooner and Marlette. Our run took us point-to-point from one lake to the other, and back along the Marlette Lake Trail. The route climbed over 1,600 feet through rustling alpine groves and  high mountain meadows – with epic mountain views the entire way.

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Exploring the Marlene Lake trail, on a brilliant late summer afternoon.

Check out our route here!

Interested in going? Be advised that Lake Tahoe and surrounding areas are popular year-round, and can be particularly crowded on weekends and holidays. Plan in advance and make your reservations early. If you’re looking to do a hike or trip to the beach, you should also arrive early in the morning, as parking fills up quickly. (On our bike ride, we observed no less than 4 rather heated arguments over parking. Don’t be one of those guys – plan in advance.)

As for the state parks in the area: they will likely require a fee of $6 – $10. Most are dog and mountain-bike friendly, but be sure to check signs beforehand.

Finally, it’s important to note that despite being a beloved travel destination, Lake Tahoe is under threat due to development and associated pollution. Studies estimate that the clarity of the lake has decreased substantially due to pollution from stormwater runoff associated with construction. Pollution of the lake in turn affects species that depend upon it for survival, including those found in the Truckee River fed by the lake. That said, efforts by local environmental groups like Keep Tahoe Blue have made substantial gains in protecting and restoring the lake and surrounding areas.

Interested in supporting global conservation efforts? Then check out the website of our sister organization, the Alliance for International Reforestation, here!

Next stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument!

 

 

 

 

 

In celebration of national parks – honoring our cultural diversity (part 3).

In summer of 2016, the AIR Adventures team headed west – farther west than even our home base of California – to explore the rugged beauty of the island state of Hawaii. More specifically, our destination was the island of Maui and the famed national park of Haleakalā, renowned for its mysterious, otherworldly landscapes and the diverse array of plants and wildlife found nowhere else on the planet.

Beyond its value to our ecosystem, through, Haleakalā is also of great cultural significance, as it has been considered a sacred place for native Hawaiians for over 1,000 years.

In previous posts, we have reviewed the environmental and historical value of our national park system. This latest entry focuses on their cultural value – and Haleakalā, whose name literally means ‘House of the Sun’ – is a prime example of the significance of our parks in honoring our nation’s rich cultural heritage.

The summit of Haleakalā is considered a wahi para – a legendary place – with most of the legends centering around the demigod Maui. According to myth, it was at the summit of Haleakalā where Maui snared the sun – so that his mother could better dry her cloth. Apart from being a birthplace of myth and legend, the summit and crater of Haleakalā figure prominently into Hawaiian ceremony and tradition, and is a place where generations of Hawaiians have journeyed for religious ceremonies and to pay homage to the departed.

The AIR Adventures team ventured to the summit of this national treasure on two separate occasions: Our first excursion was a bike ride from the coast at Paia, up some 30+ miles to the very top at 10,000 feet. Along the way, we were humbled by breathtaking 360 degree views of the Maui coast and countryside. See our ride here!

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The AIR Adventures team at the summit – after a long climb from sea level!

Our second venture to the summit was a hike through the ‘crater’ of the volcano – which was one of the most memorable hikes we have ever done. The combination of the fog-enshrouded trails; bizarre rock formations; and barren landscape devoid of all plant life save a few patches of the alien-looking (and highly endangered) silversword made us feel like we had somehow been transported through space and time to Mars. It was both unnerving and awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, despite its seemingly unforgiving appearance, the volcanic valley is home to numerous endangered wildlife – including the endemic Hawaiian petrol or u’au’ and the Hawaiian goose or nēnē – of which we were fortunate to see several during our trek through the crater! For a hint of what our 13 mile hike looked like, check out our route here.

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Inside the otherworldly ‘crater’ of Haleakala – which is actually a large volcanic valley that formed when the headwalls of two separate erosional valleys merged at the summit.

Of course, it must be noted that Haleakalā is but one of many examples of the ways in which our National Park System protects and honors the rich cultural heritage of our nation. As described on its official website: the NPS maintains the National Register of Historic Places, which lists over 1.5 million historic sites, buildings, and structures, in almost every community – of which over 20,000 are in National Parks. Moreover, ‘the NPS joins with local, State, and private entities to promote the cultural, historical and natural assets of about 50 National Heritage Areas that provide economic stimuli to their regions and communities.’

For so many reasons, our national parks are one of our greatest assets as a nation – and yet they are under attack by our current administration. The current budget proposal would slash funding to the Department of the Interior – which includes the National Park Service – by roughly 11 percent. The NPS estimates that this – combined with the continual record-breaking numbers the parks see in annual attendance – would be unsustainable, and could lead to the closure of several parks.

We need everyday citizens to take action now, to protect our national treasures. Call your state representative and ask them to oppose these cuts today.

Interested in supporting global conservation efforts? Then visit the website of our sister organization, the Alliance for International Reforestation, and learn more about what you can do to protect natural resources around the globe, for generations to come.

Happy Earth Day, Adventurers!

Reminding us all that Earth Day is every day. How will you celebrate?

We here at AIR Adventures will be working with our sister organization, the Alliance for International Reforestation, to continue the life-changing, community-empowering work of planting trees throughout Central and South America.

Join us! Learn more about our work, and how you can support our efforts at http://www.airguatemala.org

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