Five national parks to visit in the fall

Fall is a wonderful season to visit a national parkLabor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, and although the season will linger for a few more weeks, it is time to start looking ahead to the fall. Autumn brings crisp air, cooler temperatures, and shorter days, and along with it comes a rainbow of colors splashed across the trees. It is a perfect time to visit one of America’s national parks, as thinning crowds bring solitude and silence to those wild spaces. Here are five great destinations for this, or any other, fall.

Great Smokey Mountains National Park
On an annual basis, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited in the entire park system. Each year, more than 9 million people pass through its gates, which makes this recommendation a bit of a cliche. But fall brings a dramatic transformation to the miles of forests that stretch out across North Carolina and Tennessee. The leaves first begin to change at higher elevations, then sweep down the sides of the mountains over a few weeks time, bringing bright golds and reds to the region. The colors are at their peak in late October and early November. Be sure to visit during the week to avoid the crowds.

Fire Island National Seashore
Located not far from New York City, the Fire Island National Seashore is a barrier island with 26-miles of protected coastline to explore. Accessed by ferry or one of two bridges, the park offers beautiful sand dunes, rolling ocean waves, and a surprising amount of woodlands. Visitors in the fall quickly learn where the island derives its name, as the copious amounts of poison ivy – a scourge during the summer months– begins to turn a deep scarlet. By late October, the trees take on traditional autumn colors as well, and the annual migration of birds and monarch butterflies from the island is in full swing. It is an amazing time to visit a place that is off the radar for many travelers. Glacier National Park
With its high mountain peaks, crystal clear lakes, and thick forests, Glacier National Park offers breathtaking scenery in any season. Fall is short in northern Montana however, providing a narrow window for visitors to enjoy the views before the early snows begin to fly. None the less, it is the perfect time to visit the park, which sees few travelers after the traffic of summer subsides. Early October turns the larch and aspen trees to orange and yellow before they drop their leaves for yet another year, and while they are awash in color, they are spectacular to behold. Those wishing to drive Glacier’s famous Going to the Sun Road had better hurry however, as it closes for the season on September 19.
Visit a national park in the fall for a spectacular experience
Shenandoah National Park
Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River Valley of Virginia, this park offers more than 500 miles of hiking trails through some of the most beautiful forests east of the Mississippi River. In the fall, the oak and maple trees, which are abundant throughout the area, assume fiery hues of orange and yellow, delivering a classic seasonal experience to the region. The park’s famous Skyline Drive offers 105 miles of autumn colors to enjoy from your car, although the Fall Foliage Bike Festival may be the best way to take them all in. The festival, now in its 21st year, features 12 different routes and three days of cycling from October 21-23, which is traditionally when the colors are at their finest.

Rocky Mountain National Park
The leaves have already begun to change at the higher altitudes of northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where the annual “Aspen Gold Rush” heralds the coming of fall. Over the next few weeks it will spread down the mountains and valleys before the colors reach their peak at the end of September and slowly fade throughout October. Until then however, visitors are treated to a spectacular display of nature’s beauty that is best taken in on one of the parks 359 miles of hiking trails.

While we may lament the departure of summer for yet another year, fall has its own unique qualities for us to enjoy as well. These parks, and a number of others, will give you plenty of reasons to welcome the change in season and enjoy the colorful months ahead.

[Photos courtesy of the National Park Service]

Shenandoah National Park celebrates 75 years

I’m currently sitting in a rocking chair in Big Meadows Lodge at Shenandoah National Park listening to a young man talk about his day to what I presume to be his girlfriend back home. “We just spent two hours laying in the grass,” he says, adding “it felt good to just be really, ridiculously lazy.” I don’t know who this guy is or where he is from, but I think many of us can relate to his feeling of uninhibited bliss when visiting our nation’s great parks.

In a radio address in 1932, William Carson – the chairman of the Commission of Conservation and Development for Virginia – predicted that “scenery is going to be Virginia’s next cash crop.” He was right. Whether you want to just take in the views of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains or get out and be active, Shenandoah National Park has been a treasured getaway since its inception in 1935.

This year, the park is celebrating its 75th year with a rededication ceremony and a contest that will gift a lucky visitor with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a two-night stay in the park. On June 25th, the park will waive all entrance fees and has planned a full day of activities for its rededication, including plenty of projects and games for the kids. Park employees are expecting President Obama – who officially resides a little over two hours away in Washington, DC – to make an appearance at the ceremony. The park, which was established in 1935, has never made an official press announcement about the event, yet all 900 tickets to the big shebang were sold out back in May.

Park supervisor Karen Beck-Herzog says “75 years later, I think the park’s founders have delivered the dream.” Even if you can’t join in on events during the park’s official party, you can visit and pick up a brochure that doubles as a game of questions about the park and surrounding communities (or download it at online). Fill it out and send it in by November 1st to be entered in a contest with a grand prize for a vacation package at Skyland Resort, which is located in the park. The package includes a two-night stay, a biplane ride over the Shenandoah Valley, a guided horseback ride, and two limited edition prints of the park that are signed and numbered by artist Kevin H. Adams. There will also be 16 additional drawings for other prize packages that were generously donated by people and organizations that love the park.

I’ll be here for the next few days relaxing, hiking, and learning about this park’s legacy. Stay tuned.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Gadling gear review: Outdoor Research women’s Frescoe Hoody activewear

women's activewearI love hoodies, and ever since I was old enough to waddle around in my brother’s hand-me-downs (which unfortunately included his tighty-whiteys, until I was old enough to realize that, while my mom’s thriftiness was admirable, clothing your daughter in boy’s underwear was not), I’ve worn them. The versatility, quirky style, and marsupial-like comfort a great hoody can provide make it an unbeatable wardrobe staple for travel or at home.

When I started running a decade ago, zip-up sweatshirt hoodies were my favorite layering accessory. Unfortunately, they’re bulky, and one of the reasons I took up running was so I could exercise while traveling. Thus, like most active women, I require workout gear that fulfills my various needs.

That’s why I love Outdoor Research’s Frescoe Hoody. This lightweight pullover debuted last spring in the Seattle-based company’s women’s apparel line, just in time for me to give it a test-run on a monthlong backpacking trip through Australia.

For this particular trip, I needed a piece of activewear that could perform well in a variety of climates (it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere). It also needed to serve as sleepwear in a Sydney backpacker’s, and at a friend’s Arctic-like, 120-year-old stone cottage in the rainy Barossa Valley. Most important: I would have little opportunity to do laundry, so the hoody needed to, as advertised, deliver moisture-wicking, “quick-dry performance,” and remain stink-proof.women's activewearThe Frescoe Hoody is made of Dri-Release® E.C.O. fabric: 83% recycled polyester, 15% organic cotton, and 2% Spandex. New for 2011 is Built-in FreshGuard® odor neutralization. I have no idea what that last part means from a manufacturing standpoint, but it’s a huge selling point for someone (that would be me) who has been known to travel for weeks at a time in climatic extremes ranging from tropical jungle to high-altitude blizzard, sans access to laundry services. My test hoody didn’t have FreshGuard, and still miraculously kept stench at bay.

Pros

I confess that when I first received my Frescoe in the mail and unpacked it, I was dismayed by both the color (see Cons) and size. Although I’d ordered an XS (sizes go up to L), the “relaxed fit” was still generous. I’m 5’2″, and wear a 32A bra, so the V-neck (which is double-layered, to help prevent gaping, I presume) was a bit too low for me, but I’m used to that. How the flat-chested do suffer.

  • From the first time I wore it, however, I decided I loved the Frescoe’s slouchy design, in part because the bottom hem has a wide, flattering, slightly stretchy band. It’s slimming, but also retains body heat. The fabric is soft, light, and unbelievably comfortable, and the hood stays put but doesn’t constrict (there are no drawstrings). When I got too warm on a run, the hoody was easy to whip off while maintaining my pace, due to its loose fit. Once tied around my waist, it didn’t hinder my movement with weight or bulk.
  • women's activewear
  • What really made me fall in love with the Frescoe, however, are two fantastic features: a tiny, hidden zippered pocket ideal for holding keys, a Chapstick, and a couple of bucks, and cuff fold flaps. For cold-handed types like me, these are ideal when it’s too warm for gloves.
  • I’ve worn my Frescoe in Seattle drizzle, hiking and camping in Shenandoah National Park, and on the windy beaches of Kangaroo Island in South Australia. On that trip, I was only able to do laundry once, 10 days into my trip. Yet the top survived daily runs for two weeks, before being crammed in my backpack for four days while I was in the blistering heat of the Ningaloo Reef region in Western Australia. On day 20, the Frescoe emerged, still smelling reasonably fresh, to accompany me on a long run around Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. I even slept in it that night because it passed the “sniff test.” What? Like you haven’t done the same thing.
  • The $55 price tag may seem a bit steep for what is essentially a glorified long-sleeve T-shirt. But when you take into consideration the bells and whistles, performance ability, durability, and responsible manufacturing materials, it’s a steal.

Cons

  • At 11.8 ounces, the Frescoe isn’t as lightweight and compressible as some activewear, but it’s not bad and it kept me warm. Given how well it performs, I don’t mind a little extra bulk in my baggage.
  • women's activewearMy only other nitpick are the colors. I admittedly have a pet peeve about women’s gear that only comes in impractical, pastelly or bright hues. I do, however, like the little flower graphic on the Frescoe’s right hip. New 2011 shades (available starting in February) include Mist (light blue), Fuschia, Mandarin, and Mushroom (brown-grey).

My own hoody is Fossil, a not-terribly flattering greyish-green that makes me look somewhat cadaverous. It’s practical, however, and never shows dirt. If OR could make this baby in charcoal, burgundy, forest green, or black, I’d buy another one in a heartbeat to wear on the street, or while tossing back an apres-ski cocktail or four.

In summary, I was really impressed with the Frescoe Hoody. It delivered on its promises to stay dry and not get stinky, and the hidden zip and cuff fold features totally rock for practicality, cleverness, and cuteness. I highly recommend this top as a multi-use travel wardrobe staple. P.S. It’s also great to wear for lounging or while typing up Gadling posts.

The abridged Appalachian Trail: Shenandoah National Park’s day hikes

Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods seven ago, I’ve wanted to through-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Bryson’s account isn’t all birds and trees and sunshine, however. It largely focuses on the blisters and blood, and cast of often-sketchy characters he meets on his grueling trek. Yet through it all, he paints a beautiful portrait of one of America’s greatest recreational and conservationist achievements.

Conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye as a “project in regional planning,” the AT reached completion in 1937. It begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and runs 2,179 miles, culminating in Mount Katahdin, Maine. It traverses14 states along the way, including Virginia.

I’ve always been an avid hiker and camper, but I’ve never managed to find time to do the full trail. In May, while planning a business trip to Virginia, I realized it was time to face facts: I was 41, recovering from a lengthy illness, with a bad back, and an anemic bank account. Taking the three months or so required to through-hike the trail simply wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Fortunately, there are alternatives for thwarted ambitions and weak lumbar regions like mine. The AT extends 100 miles through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it possible to day-hike sections, or connect to them via the park’s other 399 miles of trails.

%Gallery-98597%Thus, my boyfriend (who has bad knees to go with his bad back) and I decided to camp for a few days in the park. Our sole purpose was to find the best AT day hikes situated in, or near, Loft Mountain campground, 26 miles from the southern entrance at Rockfish Gap. Then we’d continue up Skyline Drive-the famed scenic road that runs the length of the park-to the northern entrance at Front Royal. We decided to bring only the bare minimum of food (coffee, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread), to see what the park camp stores stock for ravenous through-hikers on a tight budget. During our visit, we discovered that cheating the AT is a great option for outdoor enthusiasts short on time, money, or fully-functional body parts.

We arrived at Loft Mountain on a hot, overcast afternoon. It’s a huge campground, but it was nearly deserted during our mid-week visit. All four of the park campgrounds cater to RV’s (something we wished to avoid), but after checking out the other places, we found Loft Mountain the best if you’re looking for full amenities, sites ranging from hike-in to RV, and overall scenic splendor. Outside of the campground proper, there’s a store, sewage disposal facility, coin-operated showers, laundry, telephone, mail drop, and gas station, and an amphitheater for weekend ranger programs. The AT trail runs along the eastern border of the campground.

Reservations are strongly recommended in high season, which is Memorial to Labor Day, and October, when fall colors are at their peak. The campgrounds also have a set number of first-come, first-serve sites. There are fire pits, but the park prohibits outside wood to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle: purchase wood for five dollars a bundle at all campgrounds and stores, or collect deadwood for free. Tent sites are spacious, clean, level, and mostly devoid of back-puncturing debris. We selected a sandy tent site in the more isolated “A” section, which overlooks the pastoral Shenandoah Valley. It was located above a series of equally well-maintained, but smaller, sites down a short foot path just steps off the AT (the campground has 44 walk-ins). A large, white-tailed deer, antlers covered in velvet, ambled out of the bushes near our site as we unloaded.

It’s an easy, one-and-a-quarter mile hike on the AT from the campground to the popular Doyles River Falls trailhead (mile marker 81.1 on Skyline Drive).The Doyles River trail runs along a wooded creek, which keeps things cool on steamy summer days. It’s an easy-to-moderate downhill walk (three miles, roundtrip), through mossy, fern-shrouded terrain thick with wildflowers and oak-hickory forest. The trail is well-maintained, although it could have a better marker at a major junction (hang a right just past the spring). Unfortunately, the falls were essentially non-existent, due to global warming or whatever, but it’s such a pretty, peaceful hike, no matter.

On the way back, we stopped at the camp store. It’s well-stocked; you certainly won’t lack for basic necessities or food. There’s a lot of backpacker-friendly options: pasta, rice, canned meaty things. If, however, you’re health conscious (I am), there’s mighty slim pickings. I’m not dissing the store, which is great by national park/campground standards. Camp stores obviously aren’t created to cater to the palates of demanding gourmands or health foodists, so pack accordingly. There are a lot of black bears in the park, as well, so whether you’re car or backcountry camping, you’ll need to store your food accordingly.

Dinner options included a minuscule selection of sad, floppy, produce, and some grillable meat items, such as anemic pork chops, the ubiquitous hot dogs and dubious burger meat. To save cash, we went the processed meat route. Which is how we ended up eating “pressed and formed” deli turkey (49 cents a package!) and processed “cheese food” sandwiches on squishy wannabe-Wonder Bread. In retrospect, we should have splurged on s’mores makings, which would have been great with the Bulleit bourbon Boyfriend had thought to bring from home (because, while pressed turkey is one thing, cheap bourbon is another, and life is too short to drink it).

On day two, we hiked to 81-foot Lewis Falls (moderate, 3.3 mile loop, half of it uphill), outside of Big Meadows campground/Byrd Visitor Center. The center is a nice interpretive facility with camp store and restaurant (tip: give the park restaurants a miss). The trailhead off Tanner’s Ridge Overlook (mile marker 51.5) is tricky to find. Instead, drive into the amphitheater parking, where there’s another trailhead.

If you hike the downhill loop to the falls, there’s a well-marked junction to the AT. I highly recommend a detour, even if it’s just a mile (you’ll need to backtrack). It’s a particularly beautiful section, but it also gives you a good sense of how solitary and meditative the AT can be. At the falls proper, there’s a stellar view of the Shenandoah Valley, dotted with barns, silos, and farmhouses.

On our last day we stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, near the northern entrance, and took the one-mile Fox Hollow Trail. It leads to the ruins of some old homesteads and a tiny cemetery. The homesteading heritage of the park is fascinating; it was initially formed from more than 1,000 privately-owned land tracts ranging from forest and pasture, to orchards. If you want to delve more deeply into the history of these early residents, other good trails with homesite ruins include Hannah Run at mile marker 35.1, Nicholson Hollow at 38.4, and Rose River Loop at 40.4. The visitor centers also have excellent books and exhibits on this topic.

For Shenandoah National Park backcountry information and regulations, go here.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Celebrate national s’mores month at a national park

August is National S’mores month (Who knew?!?) and the 10th is actually National S’mores Day. In honor of this sweet occasion, several national parks will hold a celebration of the chocolate-marshmallow treat that is one of America’s favorite summertime snacks. Visitors to the parks on that day, and throughout the month, will have the opportunity to enjoy the popular confection while swapping stories around the campfire.

Two of the more popular parks that have events planned include Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Shenandoah will play host to the Backyard Barbecue & S’Mores Festival on August 21st, which will serve up plenty of ribs and chicken, as well as down home music, to go along with those sticky treats. Meanwhile, visitors to Mesa Verde can take advantage of the complete camper package, which includes a reserved campsite, a pancake breakfast, two seats on the Far View Explorer tour, and all of the fix’ns necessary to make your own s’mores.

Preparing your own s’mores is an extremely easy affair. You’ll need just three ingredients: graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars. With those items on hand, you simply melt the marshmallows, preferably over an open campfire, and place it on a graham cracker. Then, put the chocolate bar onto a second graham cracker, and combine it with the first. When squished together, the hot marshmallow will partially melt the chocolate bar, creating a yummy snack that few can resist.

If you can’t make it to one of the parks to celebrate National S’mores Month, perhaps you can have a celebration of your own.

[Photo credit: Jonathunder via WikiMedia Commons]