Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
Though I have been there on a business trip to Wilmington in Delaware, the U.S. never really took my fancy as a place to explore. Not being able to drive a car means that it is not as easy to travel about as other places and there then is the flying time needed to get there. It also doesn't help that its brasher destinations like New York City, Las Vegas or New Orleans that draw so many hold less appeal for me.
With all of this, you would think that I see nothing of worth in the country at all but I have not told the whole story for there are parts of American culture that I reckon are enriching. For instance, a lot of its literature celebrates wilderness and what it offers humanity in an age where we are ever connected and beset by an ever growing frenzy. Since we need to escape this from time to time, America's wild places remain increasingly valuable. Of course, we have to look after them too so initiatives such as Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace very are part of a culture that rightly celebrates these places.
Some even dream of leaving the modern world after them and living from the land in those backcountry places. Here, this needs to be tempered by the cautionary tale of Christopher McCandless who died in Alaska because of his dreams, or were they delusions? That is because wild places can have an unkind side and you just have to consider the creatures that live there and bears get a bad press. It is not for nothing that you need to carry food in bear-proof canisters and hang them on trees away from your sleeping area while on long distance hikes through their turf. Like all such areas, weather is a consideration too so the National Weather Service is one of those ports of call for deciding if a visit is foolhardy or not.
Once you are level-headed about such realities and approach America's special places with care, there is much to be said for them. That so many are managed as National Parks is thanks to the efforts of Scotsman John Muir and others like Theodore Roosevelt who founded the National Park service in 1916. There are State Parks, National Forests, National Monuments and National Historic Sites too should you feel the need to savour even more. If you wish to learn even more about these, worse could be done than looking at Discover the Forest, Recreation.gov or National Park Trips. For wider awareness, National Geographic is worth a look and the national train company Amtrak have a dedicated web portal showing how their services can be used to get to these special places.
The eastern states got their National Parks later than their western counterparts. In fact, this one in Maine did not have its boundaries fixed until the late 1980's due to the way the land was acquired; it was built up piecemeal through donations and bequests. Though it mainly is based on Mount Desert Island, there are other disjointed sections with one on Isle au Haut and another on the Schoodic Peninsula, the only part of the American mainland in a National Park that once went under the name of Lafayette.
An article in an issue of Lonely Planet that was a bookazine devoted to the U.S.A. left me with the erroneous impression that seeing part of the colourful spectacle that appears every autumn in the forests of New England would not be possible without a car. There may be places that one cannot go in a car-free manner but all it takes is a small satisfying sample for anyone to come away with some wonderful photos and even more wonderful memories; gratitude is better than greed.
As it happens, Acadia is more spread out than large so a base like Bar Harbour on Mount Desert Island could do a lot for you. Handily, it is not that far from Hancock County Bar Harbour Airport anyway and that is connected to Boston's Logan Airport by both Cape Air and PenAir. The airport is on the mainland near the only road linking it with the island. In the peak season, the two are linked by the Island Explorer shuttle bus network and this covers other parts of Mount Desert Island since that can get very congested during July and August without the buses. Throughout the year, Downeast Transportation operate bus services around this part of Maine and there also are year round taxi services operated by the likes of At Your Service Taxis.
Bangor Airport would be another air travel option with flights there from international hubs such as Philadelphia and New York. Then, the Amtrak Downeaster network offers Thruway connections to Bangor from Portland and Brunswick operated by Concord Coach Lines. From Bangor, the services of Bar Harbor Shuttle can be used to get to Mount Desert Island where the delights of its coastline, its woodland and Rockefeller's gravel carriage roads can be savoured on a multi-day visit. Slowing down is a much better way to enjoy an area so passing through anywhere on a fly drive road trip just seems a travesty.
Alaska has such large wilderness areas that I never considered the likelihood of such an excursion to be very high; it is not for nothing that USGS limited the maximum scale of their maps to 1:63000 when it is 1:24000 for the contiguous states of the union. This is amplified by the size of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that lies along the border with Canada, which is four times that of the better known Yellowstone National Park. Alaska's Glacier National Park also lines the border with Canada but also is one of the state's southernmost ones along with the Katmai National Park. The northernmost ones, Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley, are found within the Arctic Circle so that tells you something about how wild these are. There is one on Seward's doorstep too, Kenai Fjords, so it is not all about heading well away from civilisation if you do not fee so inclined.
All of these possess landscapes that are being shaped by ice and there are signs of glacial retreat too so a visit to Alaska is no escape from that reality. The expanses of wild countryside feel foreboding too because of their vastness, the lack of hiking trails and the animals who live there. Bears are such a threat that a chat with a local ranger is compulsory in some places (they call it orientation). To someone looking from afar, it all can appear off-putting but there are ways to sample what Alaska has to offer and Denali National Park between Anchorage and Fairbanks also can be accessed without needing a car, which is a big help.
Denali National Park has existed in its current form since 1980 but it was preceded by the Mount McKinley National Park, now incorporated as the Denali Wilderness, and that was founded in 1917. The two names illustrate the controversy surrounding the naming of the North America's continental top. Denali is its name in the native Athabaskan language and appropriately enough means "the high one". The other name refers to the twenty fifth president of the U.S.A., William McKinley, and came into being in 1897 when a local prospector named William A. Dickey named the mountain in his honour. The name gained greater support when the bill establishing the National Park was signed into law by then President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Nevertheless, Alaskan opposition to the name remained and culminated in the restoration of the older aboriginal one in Alaska in 1980 and the process culminated in 2015 when President Barack Obama directed that it be recognised as such federally too.
Not so many folk get to mount Denali's 6194 metre (or 20320 feet) high summit and its isolation makes it a time consuming effort. Most see it from other vantage points and some of these are found along the 91 mile long park road (the only one) from Denali Park on the George Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3 and Interstate A-4) to the former mining settlement of Kantishna, the only one in the National Park. That means that much of its length is closed to private vehicles unless reasons like lack of personal mobility support the rare granting of a permit.
Given these restrictions, the peak season shuttle service comes into its own and coming by the Alaska Railroad would mean that you have no car to park either. Trains running between Anchorage and Fairbanks call at Denali Park Village every day during the summer season. Trains do not call there during winter but serve nearby Healy instead and that is restricted to weekends with an extra weekday run during February and March.
Another option for getting to Denali during the summer months is to use The Park Connection scheduled coach service that is operated by Alaska Tour & Travel, who also run AlaskaTrain.com where you can book rail travel on private carriages that are unavailable through Alaska Railroad though they are attached to the same trains. The coach service calls at Talkeetna like the train and exclusively serves McKinley Princess Lodge. For those who fancy seeing Prince William Sound or the Kenai Fjords National Park, there are rail and coach options for those too.
Though train travel allows the chance of a day trip from Fairbanks during the summer months, staying at least two days in the area makes more sense. After all, we are talking about an area of 4.74 million acres for the National Park and that rises to 6 million when other protected areas included. This is an area that ensures that National Geographic maps need the 1:225000 scale with which they come, even if it is one that I normally would not choose for hiking use. That may not matter so much on a first visit when overextending oneself is best avoided. This is no pastoral landscape for it is well wild and so are the creatures living there. That means it commands respect while it sounds stunning enough to make a visit attractive enough for me not to write off the idea on grounds of practicality.
Waterton Lakes National Park is the smaller Canadian partner to this Montana National Park and they share much in common. Firstly, both are part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (established in 1932) though they are run very much as separate entities. Then, there is a shared geography because of their being side by side.
After all, they contain their own portions of the Rocky Mountains, a range that crosses North America from New Mexico in the United States to British Columbia in Canada. This then is part of the Continental Divide that crosses both North and South America with the western side seeing all rivers flow into the Pacific Ocean while those on the eastern side flow towards either the Atlantic Ocean or the Arctic Ocean.
Handily, trains on Amtrak's Empire Builder route call at access points like West Glacier and East Glacier as well as Essex near the Glacier National Park's southern boundary. Stopping at Whitefish is another option with its lakeside location, its nearby mountain resort and the bus service between there and Whitefish itself as well as the summertime service from there to Apgar in the Glacier National Park. The train service is a transcontinental one so we are talking about one departure from Chicago and one each from Portland and Seattle per day; trains appear to join and divide at Spokane in Washington state. Overnight travel is needed to get to and from Seattle too so even a day spent in the National Park takes up the most of three days if you involve train travel. With all there is to see, the place deserves better than that anyway.
For those who do not fancy camping, there are lodges and hotels where you can stay during a longer visit within the National Park and I have found two accommodation providers already: Glacier National Park Lodges (a Xanterra operation) and Glacier Park. Both handily have their own shuttle services with those operated by Xanterra getting you between their sites and the National Park entrances at St. Mary and West Glacier as well as the latter's train station. You need to pay for these as well as booking them in advance but the fares do not look extortionate (at the time of writing anyway) and they will wait until a train arrives too. Glacier Park operates a shuttle between East Glacier's Amtrak station and its hotel at St. Mary while it has another hotel across the road from the same station should you wish to base yourself there.
For orientation, there are guided tours around the park offered by Red Bus Tours, Sun Tours and Glacier Park Boat Company. The first of these use vehicles that first came to the National Park in the 1930's and have had their mechanicals upgraded over the years. The second one is operated by descendants of the first human inhabitants of the area, the Blackfeet, so you get their take on things. The last option on the list allows for boat trips on a number of of the lakes in the National Park so there is plenty of choice.
During the summer time, there is a free regular shuttle bus service between Agpar and St. Mary along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the whole journey takes around seven hours with changes of vehicle needed along the way. It may be done more quickly by car if traffic allows but who wants to rush through fine scenery anyway? Being able to stop to see what is about you is better than viewing everything through a car window and hiking around it is better still. There are other summertime shuttle services for which you do need to pay and pre-book such as Glacier Park's East Side Shuttle or Xanterra's Hiker's Shuttle between St. Mary and Many Glacier.
When I go anywhere, I tend to look at what hiking options there are and having 750 miles of trails in a mountain area covering around a million acres sounds very promising. The more adventurous may be tempted by the Continental Divide Trail that starts hereabouts and then goes south as far as the Mexican border. That is one of America's National Scenic Trails and the journey extends over 3100 miles so you will need around six months for its completion. That should get you away from everyday life for quite a while but my own escapes from modern living tend to be shorter so somewhere smaller with dramatic scenery like Glacier National Park is just the sort of thing that I need.
The countryside has been sculpted by glaciers over the millennia and that is how the National Park got its name rather than from the shrinking remnants that are left for us to savour today. Still, this is a harsh place to be during the winter season and the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar and St. Mary is open only for part of the year. It is called after Going-to-the-Sun Mountain near St. Mary Lake and the mountain gained its name from a Native American legend about a deity arriving to teach the Blackfeet tribe how to hunt before returning to the sun again. That shows how long humanity have had a relationship with this dramatic landscape and it remains thrilling to those of us wishing to leave urban life aside for a while and such things are needed now more than they ever have.
They may have inspired people like Colin Fletcher to walk through them and write up their travels in classic books like The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time but dusty desert landscapes usually don't take my fancy. Often, the sight of bare rocky hills and mountains is one that does delight me but a bit of greenery and a lake or river always helps to make these all the more alluring.
The classic image of the 277 mile long Grand Canyon in Arizona is one featuring dusty looking landscapes and there are suggestions that the area about it does feature more in the way of greenery. None of this stops visitors coming here because this very much is one of America's iconic places so it then is hardly a surprise to see that it gets to be in its own National Park, especially when you realise what happened in nearby Glen Canyon. That is now a National Recreation Area following the creation of Lake Powell by the building of a dam that caused much controversy and not a little regret from a Sierra Club campaigner regarding his lack of knowledge of the area.
Returning to more promising prospects, there usefully are travel possibilities for those not planning on using a car to get them to the Grand Canyon National Park. Train travel is one of these and Amtrak's South-west Chief service calls at both Williams and Flagstaff. This is a transcontinental affair that serves stations as it goes from Chicago to Los Angeles and vice versa. Arrival and departure times serve the early and late periods of the day so some thinking is required when it comes to the corresponding logistics of onward travel.
There are a number of options when it comes to getting from Williams or Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. One is to travel on the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams and it works well for day trippers since there is a morning departure with a return journey late in the afternoon. The comings and goings of these trains enliven the normally quiet Williams and there is an additional set of each way departures during the peak season. Otherwise, there also is Arizona Shuttle and that gets about the area using pre-bookable minibuses. These also are part of the Amtrak Thruway bus network and will get you from Flagstaff to the South Rim all year around with the National Park fee being paid prior to departure.
While many must devote just a day to the National Park, it is possible to stay longer with accommodation options including a variety of campsites, The Grand Hotel, Grand Canyon Lodge and Grand Canyon National Park Lodges. For getting about the South Rim, the National Park operates free shuttle buses and there is even a peak season shuttle from nearby Tusayan. Travel between the South Rim and the North Rim is not so straightforward though and it is all because of the terrain. They may be just ten miles (16 km) apart as crows fly but the shortest hike is 21 miles (34 km) in length (doing this in one day is discouraged strongly) and travel by road involves a round trip of 220 miles (354 km). There still is a seasonal minibus service between the two sides operated by Trans Canyon Shuttle that runs between mid-May and mid-October. Given the distance involved, you are talking about lengthy travel times and the journeys that are priced accordingly.
The trans-canyon shuttle service has to be seasonal because access to the North Rim itself is governed by the seasons. From mid-October to mid-May, the road there is closed because of winter snow and that illustrates how contradictory the climate of the Grand Canyon area is. What many may not realise is the altitude involve for even the floor of the canyon is around 760 metres above sea level. The South Rim then is at over 2100 metres above sea level while that for the North Rim is around 2500 metres. With these, snow does settle over the winter and the summertime brings such high temperatures that hiking is not advised between 10:00 and 16:00 and that you need to start your return when a third of your water is used (the rule of thumb is that ascent takes twice as much effort as descent, which makes a lot of sense). This makes sense when you see that temperatures on the canyon floor can rise to 47 °C when the maximum for the south rim is around 27 °C. It is little wonder than the Bright Angel Trail is advised for folk new to the place with its water provision and ranger staffing. That hiker shuttles leave earlier in the day is just as well given all this.
Braving the Inner Canyon for a hike during the summer is not the only adventure there is to be had because the 800 mile Arizona Trail passes this way too. Backpacking in there increases the challenges of dealing with warmer challenges since it looks as if you need to carry most if not all of the water that you need though the Colorado River may help with this if you have right purification kit. Permits are needed for overnight camping away for campsites and you need to have the experience to deal with the wildness and isolation of the terrain. Boating, kayaking or rafting on the river presents the same sort of tests for water sport enthusiasts with private trips being heavily restricted and needing at least one person with the experience level demanded by the Grand Canyon National Park Service. Going with a local activity provider is a much less strenuous way to go enjoying water sports in the canyon.
In summary, visits to the Grand Canyon National Park can go well beyond sedentary viewing and this is a landscape that does not accommodate the naive of mind. You can learn about it from the Grand Canyon Association and their Field Institute offers guided hikes, backpacking classes and other forms of education about wild country. To me, the place feels very alien so these sound like worthwhile activities prior to any self-guided exploration. Those who have travelled here earlier like John Wesley Powell and Colin Fletcher must have done their field work too and it wasn't for nothing that Powell wrote in 1869: Barren desolation is stretched out before me; and yet there is a beauty in the scene. Whatever what my own feelings are, it could that which draws so many to the Grand Canyon.
One thing about having an illustrious neighbour like Yellowstone National Park is that you are forever in its shadow. In the case of Yellowstone, you are talking about America's first National Park (it dates to 1872) and the attractions of a geothermal hotspot sited on a supervolcano that collapsed dramatically around 640,000 years ago remain with us today in the form of a multitude of geysers. Having been to Iceland, I realise how dramatic the sight of a gusher ejecting superheated water can be but I am less enamoured with the sulphurous stench associated with such activity or the way that ensures nothing can grow around such things. This is a landscape that can look quite barren in places.
There is another factor that obstructs Yellowstone's appearance on this list for it is difficult to get there without a car. In that respect, Grand Teton National Park does rather better with its airport and connecting bus and shuttle services. The dramatic mountain scenery is more conventional too with its lakes and woodlands setting off regularly whitened craggy summits that loom around 2100 metres over a plateau that itself already rises around 1800 metres above sea level. Like the already mentioned Glacier National Park, this part of Wyoming too is Rocky Mountain country and the National Park conserves a section of the Continental Divide extending all the way through the Americas from the top of Alaska to the tip of South America. However, the 3100 mile Continental Divide Trail, one of America's National Scenic Trails since 1978, does not pass through the National Park at all. There still are around 200 miles of hiking trails so that caters for those wishing to get away from the road network and into wilder surroundings.
The airport at Jackson Hole is found inside the National Park boundaries and that more than compensates for the lack of rail connectivity. Such is the level of air traffic, the airport would like to expand but for a long term agreement with the National Park. Otherwise, there are coach services operated by Salt Lake Express and Alltrans' Mountain States Express that link Jackson with Salt Lake City and its airport. The former operates a network that includes other destinations in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Within the National Park, Alltrans runs the summertime shuttle network and START Bus offers more ways of getting around without a car, especially around the town of Jackson itself. Between all these, it should be possible to make something of a stay in this 310,000 acre National Park that appears to have much to offer in its own right.
One wonders why these adjoining National Parks remain separate when they are mentioned together so often and both of them are found among the Sierra Nevada mountains too. After all, they are jointly administered by the National Park Service (their website even puts the two together into the same section) and even share their own visitor information website. Having been established in 1890, Sequoia National Park is the older of the two with the larger Kings Canyon National Park coming into being exactly fifty years later. The first was established to protect big trees while the second conserves big canyons so that may how they remain separate pieces of land.
Nearly 97% of the 870,000 acres of land making up the parks is wilderness and there are around 800 miles of trails so there is a lot of space here for the outdoor enthusiast. Because summer temperatures can exceed 45 C in the foothills, the importance of having enough water is as much as it would be for a visit to the foot of the Grand Canyon. Black bears abound so food and anything else with an odour needs to be stored securely, in a bear-proof canister if backpacking and with the container hoisted aloft and away from your overnight sleeping area as well.
This area also is part of the High Sierra along with Yosemite National Park. Together, they are part of an three day guided tour called the Majestic Mountain Loop and Mount Whitney forms part of the boundary of the eastern Sequoia National Park. Its summit height of around 4418 metres above sea level makes it the highest point to found in the 48 contiguous states ans shows you just how high these mountains can get. This is the sort of altitude that makes counterparts in the Alps such serious mountaineering propositions so this ascent is not to be taken lightly even if if the John Muir Trail will take you to the top.
Both Visalia and Fresno are the nearest urban centres and a variety of car-free travel options are possible. Fresno's airport and train station (on Amtrak California's San Joaquin route) are among these and peak season shuttle bus services to Kings Canyon National Park that are operated from there by Big Trees Transit. The V-LINE bus service will get you from there to Visalia and there is a Thruway bus service linking the city with Hanford's train station too. From Visalia, the peak season Sequoia Shuttle will get you into the Sequoia National Park for fee of $15 (includes National Park entry fee) while shuttle buses around the National Park are free of charge. Those basing themselves in Visalia itself can use local buses operated by Visalia Transit for getting about the place.
Despite the name, this is not the only National Park to be found in the Rocky Mountains, a range that extends from Nevada in the southern U.S.A. to Canada's British Columbia in the north. Others that have been mentioned before now include Waterton (Alberta, Canada), Glacier (Montana, U.S.A.), Yellowstone (shared between Idaho, Montana & Wyoming, U.S.A.) and Grand Teton (Wyoming, U.S.A.) but more need to be added to make a comprehensive list.
Rocky Mountain National Park also is far from being among the largest of them at 270,000 acres. For instance, Yellowstone covers around 2.22 million acres and attracts around the same number of visitors each year as its Colorado counterpart, something that causes concern for conservationists. One is tempted to wonder if the proximity to Denver, known as the "Mile-High City" because of its altitude, may have something to do with this with access possibilities offered by its airport.
Amtrak's California Zephyr service between Chicago and Emeryville near San Francisco passes nearby too though the service is nowhere near as useful as the Empire Builder route to visitors of Glacier National Park. Nearest station calls are at Denver, Fraser and Granby. In the case of Fraser, the train offers a way of getting to Winter Park with various shuttles getting you the rest of the way, winter or summer. That puts it in a much better place than Rocky Mountain National Park where getting there from Granby involves car hire or the use of a taxi. Usefully, GuestGuide Publications have a number of guides for the area in and around the National Park that you can peruse online if you want to find more about the possibilities offered to visitors by the places that they feature.
From Denver, the airport probably is the better starting point for a car-free visit to the National Park with the Estes Park Shuttle getting you from there to its eastern side. Estes Park may be busier but it still looks a good base with a good supply of accommodation like Rocky Mountain Park Inn (part of Forever Resorts). There is a peak season shuttle bus service around there too and that gets you to and from a lot of sights. Planning to be in the area when these run could mean that you are one of the 1.5 million folk visit the National Park between early July and mid-August unless you go for the shoulder months of June or September.
When it comes to hiking, it is best not to forget the altitude for Estes Park itself is at over 2200 metres above sea level and nearby mountains top out at over 3500 metres of altitude. Still, there are 355 miles of trails so there should be something for everyone. The Continental Divide Trail passes through the National Park too so you can sample part of that without having to do its entire 3100 mile length between the Canadian and Mexican borders unless you fancy taking six months off to do just that. Sometimes, shorter wild country incursions are enough and there should be enough to keep any lover of wild land happily occupied during a short stay hereabouts without needing to venture very much further.
This is another of the National Parks conserving the High Sierra in California and has a long history as an area set aside for conservation. That started with the Yosemite Grant in 1864 when Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were ceded to California for the foundation of a State Park. In 1890, this became the basis of the National Park that we know today.
Though associated with them by way of physical geography, Yosemite is well separated by distance from the jointly-run Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park that also have their own entry here. The driving distance via Fresno is around 150 miles and the direct distance between Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park is between 50 and 100 miles. Including the three as part of a tour is not a day trip and each needs longer than that anyway.
There are National Forests too in the High Sierra and these include Stanisalus, Sequoia, Inyo and Sierra. Sequoia National Forest also contains the Giant Sequoia National Monument these giant trees rightly get their share of protection from the attentions of loggers. Not only can they withstand fire but they even need wildfires to thrive and t helps that they resist disease too. The one threat against which they present no defence is humanity so they need the conservation that they enjoy.
All is astonishing countryside with its bare granite topped mountains, big trees and impressive waterfalls. The latter depend on winter snows and are best seen in springtime for maximum grandeur; later on in the year, the flow of water is much less and may even be absent altogether. There are wild flower carpets too with those in Tuolumne Meadows gaining particular fame and these are at their best in high summer with the 2600 metre altitude ensuring that summer is short and that snows stay later in the year than in other parts.
With a human incursion of between 3.5 and 4 million folk per year, it can feel crowded in places. However, once you start rising above the valley bottoms, the crowds are lost much in the same way as in the English Lake District. Handily, there are over 800 miles of trails and 97% of the 760,000 acre National Park is wilderness so there should be plenty of room for everyone. This is black bear country too so extra care is needed with storage of food and anything else that has a scent; grizzly bears were exterminated by humanity so only one type is left. Backpacking is managed too so you need to gain permits beforehand and that applies to anyone following the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail or the John Muir Trail as well.
The way that car travel introduced a fug into Yosemite in the 1970's has meant that car-free access probably is better than in other places. The operations of Amtrak California allow travel from San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles to entry points like Fresno and Merced. For those preferring air travel, there are handy airports at Fresno, Merced and Mammoth Lakes. Travel from airports, train stations and about Yosemite itself need not involve a car either thanks to buses operated by YARTS and their network allows you to base yourself outside of the National Park should all the accommodation options in there be filled to capacity. Places like Oakhurst in Madera County (part of which is in the National Park) then become possible alternatives. Given how well regarded and visited Yosemite is, that is just as well.