TSA Lets Travelers Apply for PreCheck

Today the Transportation Security Administration (you know ’em as TSA) began allowing travelers to apply for its PreCheck program (or as TSA calls it, Pre✓™).

According to TSA,

The new application process allows U.S. citizens to directly enroll in TSA Pre✓™, an expedited screening program that allows travelers to leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in a carry-on, in select screening lanes. To date, passengers have only been eligible through existing programs such as U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s Global Entry program and frequent flier programs with certain airlines, but this announcement will allow travelers to apply directly for the expedited screening program.

Travelers can pre-enroll at tsa.gov. But to complete the process, they’ll need to complete a background interview at a participating airport. Currently the only participating airport in the entire country is Indianapolis International Airport.

So, here’s AOL Travel’s Indianapolis travel guide.

TSA expects to open application centers in the New York City; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles areas later this month. It plans to eventually open more than 300 centers around the country. But for right now, Indianapolis.

Prehistoric Bones Big Draw To Small Indiana Town

The small town of Corydon in southern Indiana may soon get an influx of tourists thanks to a new attraction. Just discovered a few years ago, much of what is now Indiana Caverns was inaccessible to the public because all entrances were on private land. But a new passage not only opens up the underground caverns to the public, it gives visitors access to a curious pile of bones. Discoverers thought pioneers had thrown cow bones into the cave, but later came to find out the bones date back to the Ice Age. They come from a variety of species, including birds, snakes, bears, beavers, bison and more. Now, visitors can take an underground boat tour through the caverns for a chance to see the 12,000- to 15,000-year-old bones. The attraction just opened a few weeks ago, but it already tops TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Corydon.

[via WHAS11.com]

$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

Since when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.

Epic Mountain Biking In The Heart Of Indiana

Indiana might not immediately pop in your mind when you think of great mountain bike destinations, but after riding Brown County State Park, it will.

Located less than an hour south of Indianapolis, Brown County is the crown jewel of Midwestern trail riding. After the International Mountain Bicycling Association bestowed Epic status on the 25-mile trail system in 2011, riders within a day’s drive of the trails began turning up in droves. On a pleasant spring day, riders will spot license plates from as far away as Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri.

A torrential rain earlier in the week meant the parking lot was mostly filled with locals when we pulled in Sunday afternoon; no one wants to drive six hours, only to discover the trails are too muddy to ride.

The rain did impact our riding. The trail was mostly perfect, albeit a bit greasy in several spots. Where we were used to a trickle of water at the creek crossings, we pedaled across what seemed to be a river of water. Wet socks and mud-splattered kits couldn’t take our smiles away – but the hills tried.Indiana has a reputation of being flatter than a steamrolled pancake. That’s true in the northern half of the state, where you can see miles of cornfields in every direction. But the southern part of the state is known for its rolling hills. One of the nation’s most popular road rides, the Hilly Hundred – yes, it lives up to its name – is held every October on nearby roads. Inside the park, it’s a single-track rollercoaster; during my last visit, we climbed and descended multiple times, logging more than 2,000 feet of climbing in just over two hours of riding.

Clipping in at the North Gate trailhead just inside the park entrance, we pedal up to Haynes Loop and onto the newest leg of the trail, Green Valley. Green Valley has a definite flowy vibe, almost like a pump track at times. There are more technical trails out there, but few that are more fun.

Heading farther into the park, Hesitation Point looms, with its numerous rock gardens discouraging meeker riders from climbing to the gorgeous vista at the upper trailhead. Located off Hesitation Point are the fast, wide-open Limekiln Trail and the double-black diamond Schooner Trace, which has destroyed more bike frames than rust.

Each trail and trail combination is unique, with its own personality. By altering the direction and order we ride, it’s like we’re on totally different trails. You can easily spend a long weekend at the park and not get bored.

Trailbuilders are currently constructing Hobb’s Hollow, a brand new 3-mile segment of trail that will be jam-packed with bermed turns, step-ups, rock drops and tabletop jumps, along with a 2-mile descent with 360 feet of vertical drop, more than any other trail in the state. Trail advocates hope to build another 12 miles of trail over the next few years, eventually connecting the park’s single track to the nearby Nebo Ridge and Hickory Ridge trails in the Hoosier National Forest, as well as two private trail networks. With luck, in a few years riders will have more than 100 miles of connected, rideable terrain. When that day comes, IMBA might have to come up with an even more epic trail designation.

Descending back to the trailhead, our massive group splintered into twos and threes, the front rider trying to shake the others off his or her tail. To my rear, I hear Janet Sherman – five months pregnant and apparently riding with the strength of two bikers – taunting me. “Rob, are you going to rail this or what?” The implication being that unless I sped up, I had better get out of her way. I accept the challenge and bomb down the hill, fighting every instinct to squeeze my brake levers. Picking up momentum, the bumps on the trail launched me into the air for a few exhilarating moments, before touching back down onto terra firma. As I successfully steered through each successive turn, my timidness at descending gave way to the sheer joy of speed.

As we roll into the parking lot after our all-too-brief ride, more cars are pulling into the lot. We’re all smiling, our blood filled with adrenaline, endorphins and, after a spill or two, more than a little dirt. We all want to do another lap, but we have family responsibilities – baby sitters to pay, lawns to mow, beers to drink. As our cars head north out of the park, we’re already planning our trip back.

Want to ride Brown County State Park? It’s located on Ind. 46 East, less than an hour south of Indianapolis, off the No. 68 exit of I-65. Park entry is $5 per carload for Indiana residents, $7 for cars with out of state plates. Camping is available at the camp or you can stay at the full-service lodge inside the park. Rates start at $10 for primitive camping, $77 for the lodge. You can get by with most types of mountain bikes – I ride a dual-suspension Giant 29er, and my teammates run the gamut of a rigid 650b chromoly and 26-inch aluminum bikes. Just be sure to wear a helmet.

[Video Credit: Rob Annis]

A Perfect Day After Landing At North America’s Best Airport

An airport with just one terminal, no tram, zero VIP lounges and woeful public transportation options is the best in North America, according to the Airport Council International. Last week, Indianapolis International Airport beat out every other large facility on the continent for the top Air Service Quality award for 2012. The results are based on passenger satisfaction, and IND won for the second time since opening in 2008.

If you’re scratching your head, that means you’ve never been to IND. The first thing you notice upon landing is that the architects didn’t stop designing at the back of the terminal. Most airports greet arrivals with a cluttered mess. IND makes a striking first impression with a towering, glassed-in terminal overlooking the tarmac.

Inside, the space is contemporary, bright and calm. The layout is so intuitive that you rarely look for signage. You can see outside from every spot except the restrooms. Many of the restaurants are satellites of better local independents. There’s none of that stale, claustrophobic, generic feeling common to airports, nor is the scale so massive that the place feels deserted.

If you’re renting a car, you don’t need to board a van or shuttle – all of the vehicles are parked in the adjacent garage. You get in and out of the airport quickly and see some bold art installations along the way.

But even gorgeous airports never transcend their function. At best, they manage not to ruin a trip. So after landing at the continent’s best airport, then what?

Indy is in the midst of an urban renaissance, and you don’t see it coming. I’m a local, and here’s how I show off my town to guests.

%Gallery-183028%Walk or bike the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a brand-new, $63 million path. While most recreation trails lead out of town, where people can exercise on a stretch unbroken for miles, Indy’s does the opposite – the pretty promenade laces through the heart of downtown, replacing 8 miles of sidewalks. It passes every major attraction and cuts through every neighborhood.

You can rent wheels at the Indy Bike Hub and spend two hours getting an overview of the city from a bike seat. The trail connects to another one that runs along the back wall of the Indianapolis Zoo, and sometimes the animals make themselves heard. Make pit stops at the Central Library for the best view of the city from the sixth floor, and at the NCAA Hall of Champions museum, kicking off the 75th anniversary celebration of March Madness this month.

Ride to Fountain Square, Indy’s hipster core, and find the special stoplight for bike traffic. Stretch your legs by getting lost inside the Murphy Building, a loveable shantytown of small art galleries and studios. Make sure to find People for Urban Progress‘s quarters and buy the best souvenir in town: tote bags, iPad cases and wallets made from either salvaged Super Bowl signs (right) or the fabric roof of the city’s former football stadium.

Have lunch on up-and-coming Virginia Avenue, which connects Fountain Square to downtown. Go locavore gourmet at Bluebeard (below), a hot new restaurant that pays tribute to native son Kurt Vonnegut, or street Mexican at Tortas Guicho Dominguez y El Cubanito.

Next, it’s on to Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500 in May. An influx of European racing teams has added a stylish subculture to the gritty town. At the new Dallara IndyCar Factory, sign up for a ride in a real open-wheel racecar – it costs only $30 for a spin through city streets, which is a bargain compared to the $499 ride on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.

If there’s no time to tour the state-of-the-art factory and try out the racing simulators, at least get espresso at Lino’s Coffee, an Italian import inside the building. You might find yourself in line behind a former Indy 500 champ.

Not far away is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the 10 largest encyclopedic art museums in the country. In the last few years, the IMA has built a significant contemporary art collection; the curator represented the U.S. at the 2011 Venice Bienniele, a huge honor in the field. A big part of the renaissance is 100 Acres (below), a new contemporary sculpture park on the museum grounds. Here, installations are integrated into woods, meadows, and lake. You’ve never seen a fishing pier like the one here. It’s hard to believe that admission to both the park and museum is free. Like I said, you don’t see it coming.

[Photo credits: Airport exterior, Graeme Sharpe via Flickr; airport window, Askpang via Flickr; bikers, courtesy Indianapolis Cultural Trail; tote bag, courtesy People for Urban Progress; restaurant, courtesy Bluebeard; 100 Acres, from top: courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art; The.Urbanophile via Flickr]