8 Tips for the Ultimate U.S. Road Trip

Travel has always captured people’s imaginations, but nothing has seemed as exciting as simply driving away on an open road, especially in the United States, where the idea of a road trip is quintessentially American and an intricate network of roads connects all corners of the country.

So, in May 2015, my roommate Jeremie and I packed up my VW GTI and left with one main objective: to stand in all 48 contiguous states. Along the way, we planned to film and photograph a documentary project called Boston and Back, in which our visuals would be paired with interviews from the interesting people we met on the road.

Over the following 40 days, we traveled 12,672 miles, visiting numerous cities and parks around the country and meeting many captivating people. While we had a rough route planned beforehand, based loosely on Randy Olson’s optimal map, much of the road trip came from spontaneous decisions. Here are a few of the things we learned while wandering around the U.S.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk

1. Decide on a route

Make a list of reasonable stops you would like to visit during your road trip, and then, connect the dots to create a vague route. You’ll come across signs for amazing sights you never realized existed, as well as the dreaded detour sign, so plan to have flexibility. The last thing you want to do is miss out on sights because of a rigid schedule. Have a rough plan, but set nothing in stone.

2. Take advantage of on-the-go campsites

While we spent the majority of our nights camping in a tent, we rarely knew where we’d be sleeping until later on. Typically, we would drive until around 9 p.m. but would decide on a final destination a few hours prior. After finding a realistic stopping point for the day, we would look for campgrounds in the surrounding area, either online or in our atlas.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Jeremie Go

3. Maps and guidebooks are your best companions

Get comfortable using maps and guidebooks. Often, the best sights are on the roads less traveled, so get off the highway and hit the back roads. That’s where you’ll see the most interesting things—from the vastest of landscapes to some of the oldest towns in America. We also kept a paper atlas in our car for whenever cell service would disappear or when looking at a physical map was more beneficial.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Jeremie Go

4. Follow the quarter-tank rule

Never, ever, let your fuel meter run past quarter tank while you’re on the road, especially when you’re driving in isolated areas. Seeing the meter approach “empty” is a gut-wrenching feeling, especially when you don’t know where the next gas station will be. Gas up as soon as you can, and always keep an eye on that meter.

5. Watch your speed

Always be aware of the road rules wherever you are driving. It’s common to catch yourself carelessly going over the speed limit. There were often times when the speed limit would suddenly drop more than 30 MPH when we transitioned from open-road to town. Watch the signs, because some police officers love targeting out-of-state plates.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk

6. Eat well

Make sure you’re always stocked up with quick snacks and maybe some peanut butter and jelly. You’ll thank us later when you’re hungry in the middle of nowhere with nothing but beautiful scenery and a delicious PB&J in your hand. If you plan on camping, a portable stove and some basic supplies can really make a difference. Waking up to the smell of fresh coffee and eggs at your campsite is an energizing feeling. Also, re-stock your water and snacks whenever you can.

7. Take care of your car

What’s the worst thing that can happen on the road? Your car suddenly breaking down. Always check your car’s oil, tire pressure, engine coolant, and brake fluid levels whenever you gas up, and have all the supplies you’ll need to quickly change a tire or top-off your oil while on the road. It’s also a really good idea to get your car checked out before the trip.

As you travel, routinely throw out trash and reorganize whenever you make stops. You’ll accumulate a ton of junk and some minor filth along the way. Your car is where you live for the duration of the road trip, so unless you’re Oscar from Sesame Street, clean it up often.

8. Stay entertained.

You’ll be driving through areas where there’s no cell service, no reachable radio station (or one that’s enjoyable, at least), and miles upon miles of beautiful winding roads ahead. Make sure to load up on entertainment options: CDs, downloaded music, stand-up comedy, audio books, and podcasts all keep the drive interesting. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your chargers.

 

So, go pack your bags, load the car, and just drive, because there is nothing quite like staring down an open road with the only certainty being that a new experience awaits you. For more information about Boston and Back, check out our trailer and website.

Credit: Justin Hawk
Credit: Justin Hawk

Guest Blog: Adventure As Medicine

When you’re 16 years old, you think that life goes on forever and that hospitals are just for visiting elderly relatives. The concept of mortality simply doesn’t exist in reality—until you’re struck down with a random autoimmune attack. Suddenly, you’re waking up in ICU with no memory of the last three days or why you’re strung up with tubes and shunts sticking out of your arms. Your friends are getting their driver’s licenses, and you just got type 1 diabetes. Welcome to the rest of your life with a chronic illness that no one can see you struggle with and that most people don’t really understand.

Leaving the hospital, I wasn’t happy about what the rest of my life would look like. I didn’t know any better at 16, but I decided to tell myself a different story. Everything down the road seemed like it was only a fabrication of what we created and believed, so I just changed the direction.

Courtesy: Stephen Richert
Courtesy: Stephen Richert

Adventure Literally is my Medicine

I got this notion in my head that I was destined to be a climber. I wanted to do the opposite of what the doctors and nurses told me I could do. Independence seemed like a fine thing, and where better to find that than in the mountains? It took years, seven to be exact, before I internalized this narrative that adventure was truly accessible to me. Many close calls and defeats occurred along the way, but I took comfort in the idea that this wasn’t a disease limiting me—it was simply part of my climbing and that made the frustration seem worthwhile.

That mantra has been my guiding principle over the last 17 and a half years. I’ve climbed in the Bugaboos of British Columbia, the big walls of Zion National Park and Yosemite, crags in Idaho, and boulders in Bishop, California. I’ve also climbed in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other obscure areas I’ve come across in my travels. Adventure is the bigger picture into which everything else fits—or doesn’t. Having that established has made life decisions simpler. Adventure literally is my medicine.

Adventure is often romanticized as an escape from the turmoil of life, bills, and the ugliness that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. As an adult with a wife and child to support, I decided a year ago to buy a tiny trailer and make the move to become a full-time road-dweller. I’d spent years traveling in four-to-six-month cycles, but never fully committed to making it a permanent lifestyle.

I had just put in my notice at a cubicle job that had promised me the world, but delivered mostly boundaries and limitations. I barely qualified for the loan that made the tiny, egg-shaped Scamp trailer officially our new home. My only thought at that time was getting out of the suburbs where I could never see the sky and out onto the road, where I would never have to read another HR memo.

Before we knew it, we were out there—skies for days. But, with freedom comes responsibility.

Courtesy: Stephen Richert
Courtesy: Stephen Richert

It’s remarkably like life anywhere else. Ups, downs, sacrifices, and choices. Beauty and ugliness. Adventure isn’t “out there”—it’s in here.

This is the part they always leave out in those Tumblr memes. Someone smashes your car up and your insurance takes months to decide that it can’t be fixed, and you’re scrambling to find a couch to crash on and a ride to the grocery store. You’re on an austerity budget, because your new freelance career hinges on being able to babysit your 2-year-old while editing video or writing proposals. Climbing? Oh, that would be nice, but weekends aren’t a thing anymore, because now you’ve got to hustle in your free time to pay the bills.

To be fair, it hasn’t been all frayed nerves and hateful scrambling to survive. There have been long days of climbing in the alpine. There have been magnificent nights painted by the Milky Way. There have been really wonderful and casual mornings spent enjoying coffee, watching the little one play in the dirt—evenings of rock scrambling as a family after dinner.

It’s not all bad.

It’s remarkably like life anywhere else. Ups, downs, sacrifices, and choices. Beauty and ugliness. Adventure isn’t “out there”—it’s in here. These days, I just want to climb more and make better films and photographs to empower people to find adventure as medicine for their own challenges. Full-timing probably isn’t the best way for me to accomplish those things. Sometimes, the adventure gets in the way of the adventure.

Courtesy: Stephen Richert
Courtesy: Stephen Richert

I still believe that adventure is medicine—bitter medicine at times. Character building. Not because it’s all fun and scenic. Those moments are sprinkled throughout, sure, but you’ll work for them. It’s not a vacation—but it is worth it.

Courtesy: Stephen Richert
Courtesy: Stephen Richert

Things I’ve learned that I’d like to pass onto others:

  • Budget carefully. Save up.
  • Adventure is not an escape from anything.
  • Get out of debt before trying to full time.
  • Have a means of providing for yourself proven and nailed down.
  • Avoid the combination of new variables (for instance, self employment and full timing).
  • Have a plan for what constitutes “time to bail.”
  • Know what you’re sacrificing for the lifestyle.
  • Have fun. It’s not a default out on the road. It’s a choice and probably the most important one you’ll have to make over and over again.

The Top 4 Ways to Spend Labor Day in the Adirondacks' Tri-Lakes Region

Adirondack Park is a wonderful playground. Known for the High Peaks, skiing, boating, and more attractions, it emphasizes outdoor activities year round.

I was born in the Tri-Lakes region, which encompasses Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and Tupper Lake. After spending 20 years in the D.C. area, I returned, so that I could spend every weekend in this vacationland. This Labor Day weekend, let a local offer a few suggestions for getting the most out of the area.

Tri-Lakes

1. Take in the views from Whiteface

It’s a mountain for skiing, biking, and hiking, and it also offers a road to the top, so that every person can experience the summit. Of course, you can climb, but also consider riding the gondola or taking the Memorial Highway up to enjoy the views. On a clear day, you will see the rest of the Adirondack High Peaks, the skyline of Montreal, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Tri-Lakes

2. Become a Saranac Lake 6er

They’re not high peaks, but these six mountains surrounding Saranac Lake range in elevation from 2,452 feet to 3,822 feet and present some challenging terrain. They can be finished over an extended period, or if up to the challenge, you can climb the six peaks in 24 hours to become an “Ultra 6er.” The easiest is Baker Mountain, which is excellent for a family hike and offers amazing views. To obtain a map and descriptions of the mountains and trailhead locations, stop by the Village Office.

Tri-Lakes

3. Stop by The Wild Center

In Tupper Lake, take a stroll through The Wild Center, a natural history museum and another jewel in this region. It was included in a Today list of five travel destinations for a family adventure and also named one of the world’s best places to visit this summer. The Wild Center features several interactive attractions, such as live animal exhibits (the otters are known to steal the show); a Wild Walk suspended above the treetops that includes a full-size bald eagle’s nest (accessible to people of all generations and abilities); various-length hiking trails with flora facts along the paths; and a guided canoe paddle on the Raquette River. It’s a museum experience you’ve got to see to believe!

Tri-Lakes

4. Get out on the Tri-Lakes

The Eastern Mountain Sports store in Lake Placid offers kayak and SUP rentals, so you can explore peaceful lakes, ponds, and rivers while taking in all the beautiful scenery. With the location situated on Mirror Lake, you can paddle right from the store. Enjoy the water reflecting the surrounding mountains, watch the sun set, or paddle around to the beach for a relaxing highlight of the weekend. If you wish to venture into more of a wilderness environment, load a kayak and find a remote paddling area where wildlife prevails. Osgood and Follensby ponds are a few good choices to view loons, eagles, or the great blue herons.

Whatever you do, have fun out there this weekend!


8 Tips for Traveling on a Budget

Want to feed your wanderlust, but you’re a college student or just someone working with limited resources? Here are some tips that have helped me with traveling on a budget:

1. Bring an adventure buddy

Bringing a friend along allows you to split the expenses. For example, I am heading to Colorado in a month to spend a week hiking and camping. Ordinarily, this trip would have cost me well over $1,000 if I were to go solo, but because I’m going with a friend, I am looking at about $500 round trip. Plus, traveling with someone makes it a lot more fun.

2. Save your pennies

Literally, save every penny: Gather all of the loose change from your car, bags, and house and put it in a jar. When it’s the week of your trip, cash it in, and that amount can be money toward gas or food.

So you remember, put your jar someplace where you’ll see it every day. This way, it serves as a reminder to throw your change in, and will also be seen by whomever you live with. Maybe they’ll also throw a few dollars in!

[Credit: Marissa Fredette]
[Credit: Marissa Fredette]

3. Budget your money

Figure out how much money you’re going to need. For example, make a list of estimated gas, a place to stay, food, activities, gear, and emergency money. Then, ask yourself, “How many weeks until I leave?” Break it down and set aside some money every week, so when it’s time for your trip, you’re not short on cash.

4. Camp out

Staying in a nice hotel is great, but camping out is far cheaper and more fun, in my opinion. In Colorado, we will be staying at a KOA campground for six days, and it comes out to about $120 for my half.

5. Try Airbnb.com

Not into camping? No worries. Download Airbnb, a great app where people list affordable rooms, apartments, and entire homes, onto your phone. During a recent trip to Montreal, I rented a studio apartment for an entire weekend with all amenities, and my half came to only $70.

6. Get the right gear

Plan out what you might need for your trip, and then take advantage of your birthday and holidays to gradually build up your stash of essential gear.

Further, as another long-term strategy, make sure to sign up for EMS’ reward system, which gives you points that go toward $10 reward cash and coupons. Scope out the deals, read the emails, and wait for things to go on sale. Most importantly, tell people your plan!

People also may have tents and gear that they may not use anymore or are willing to let you borrow for your adventure. So, to fill in any gaps, ask other outdoor enthusiasts if they can lend you any basics.

7. Eat well without paying well

Eating out and having drinks should definitely be on your agenda, especially if you’re a foodie like me, but it can get expensive. So, to save money, make a list and head to the grocery store before your trip. Some things I bring along are sandwiches, oatmeal, cereal, granola bars, and plenty of snacks.

8. Get there

Road trip! Driving to your destination might take longer, but is significantly cheaper. A round-trip plane ticket from New York to Colorado is roughly $500 per person, but driving the same distance is only about $400 round trip. If you’re traveling with someone, then, that amount is cut in half. Plus, you’ll be able to hit some cool stops on the way!

 

So, get out there, and embrace your inner adventurer without breaking the bank!


Q&A: Adam Kunes of Have Fun Do Good

Have Fun Do GoodFresh off his organization’s trip to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, Adam Kunes, founder of Have Fun Do Good, chatted with us about what he and his group and do and how their trip went.

EMS: So, elevator pitch style, what is Have Fun Do Good and what’s your goal?

AK: Have Fun Do Good is a social good travel company. We provide group travel excursions for 21- to 35-year-olds. We partner with nonprofits all over the United States to provide our participants with a unique travel opportunity incorporating volunteer work. Our trips are a perfect blend of fun and giving back. Our goal is to force our participants to step out of their comfort zones, explore, travel, and give back at the same time.

Have Fun Do GoodEMS: What are some of the nonprofits and groups you’ve partnered with and what have your teams worked with them on?

AK: Our work ranges from disaster relief efforts to animal welfare. We have worked with dozens of nonprofits to date, including Rebuilding Together, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ronald McDonald House, National Park Services, and PubliColor. Our service projects are just as varied and have included repainting a school in the Bronx, working with special needs young adults, and beautifying Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. We are continually growing our partnerships with organizations across the country and helping to spread their missions through our trips. It’s a rewarding and mutually beneficial system.

Have Fun Do GoodEMS: What big trip did you recently come back from? How did it go?

To celebrate the National Park Service centennial, we organized a National Park Tour. Fifteen participants road-tripped from Tucson, Arizona to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Lake Powell.

The team spent the first night at Mather Campground and enjoyed epic sunset views from Mather Point. It was the first time seeing the Grand Canyon for many of our participants, which made the night really special. An unforeseen boulder happened to block the Zion National Park north entrance on Friday, August 12th, which delayed the drive from the Grand Canyon. We made it safely to our volunteer project at the Zion Nursery located next to Watchman Campground. Our group spent the afternoon working with Krystan from the National Park Service. We repotted Quercus Turbinella (better known as shrub live oak) and took inventory of plants at the nursery.

Have Fun Do Good

Day 3 took us to Zion National Park. We hiked down to Lower Pine Creek and enjoyed the waterfall and some cliff jumping. After an awesome day, the team drove east to Lake Powell to check into an Airbnb houseboat located at Wahweap Marina.

Have Fun Do GoodDay 4 brought even more adventure. We took a short hike down the sandstone bluffs to “The Chains,” a beautiful swimming area with amazing views. It was a great way to cool down on a 110-degree day. The team then ventured to Lower Antelope Canyon to take in the majestic views. It was nothing short of breathtaking. After a jam-packed day, we spent our last evening enjoying each other’s company, swimming and sliding down the houseboat slide. As an added bonus, nature provided us with a meteor shower at night.

The National Park Tour was an epic trip providing our team with amazing views, a lot of laughs, and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Participant Melina Islas summed it up best: “It’s crazy to think that we all see the same sun setting, but it looks completely unique from different perspectives. That’s why we travel! We gain new perspectives on the world, on the things that others may find ordinary, and on ourselves. I gained a new perspective on life this past weekend. Moments like these are called living.”


Family Memories from the Tetons

I first visited Grand Teton National Park on a family trip in 1999, the summer before my sophomore year of high school. In the same way my parents and maternal grandparents had in years passed, I instantly fell in love with the dramatic peaks and idyllic mountain lakes.

We visited at least once per year along with aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted friends, but with the area’s diverse activities, our family reunion would splinter each day into different groups – some rafting on the Snake River, others day-tripping to Yellowstone or over a mountain pass into Idaho, and a handful rock climbing or undertaking long day-hikes or short camping trips. We would then meet back up in the evenings for dinner, exhausted and happy.

Grand Tetons NPMy mom and I climbed the Grand Teton, along with Teewinot and the South Teton, the summer after I graduated from college. Seeing these peaks rising from the valley floor is one thing, but standing on top of the Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet, is an entirely different matter. These mountain-scaling adventures, where we trained on rock walls, learned to rappel, and scrambled over sheer cliffs, did more to foster my confidence and self-reliance than any other experience during my formative years.

My mom had attempted the Grand Teton without me several times in prior years, but had missed out on the summit thanks to nasty weather conditions. To finally reach the top together, vanquishing the mountain that had mesmerized us for years, was special and unforgettable. The weather conditions on the day of our climb were glorious, with sunny skies and just a few patches of ice to make it feel just harrowing enough.

And as it turns out, nothing strengthens mother-daughter bonding like sore feet, isolated campsites, and thousand-foot drop-offs.

On the hike out, we met my father and other family members, who were armed with Gatorade (and promises of cold beer at happy hour) and ready to carry our heavy packs, a few miles up from the parking lot. I have certainly never felt so grateful for a family reunion.

Grand Tetons NP

Hiking and enjoying the park have become an incredibly inclusive and unifying experience for all of my family members, regardless of age. Together, we have our slightly more tame favorite hikes: Amphitheater Lake, at the top after miles of switchbacks, where we would unfailingly stumble upon a bear feasting upon berry bushes; morning jogs up Rendezvous Mountain for waffles at the top of the ski mountain tram; and Death Canyon, for a long day hike and expansive lake views. My grandmother, however, preferred String Lake, Jenny Lake, and Phelps Lake. All are relatively flat but still stunningly beautiful, offering a wonderful day hike for those who want to get outside but may lack the physical ability to go up anything particularly steep.

Grand Teton National Park is a great place to challenge yourself and go all-out with your adventure goals, but my grandmother and her lake walks always offered a lesson in slowing down. At least once per annual trip, I would take my foot off the gas and spend a day taking it easy with her, soaking up the mountain air and remembering the importance of being with family. The mountains aren’t going anywhere, but quiet moments with loved ones and long conversations with my grandparents, in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth, were worth prioritizing. When my family visited the park this past June to celebrate my grandmother, who passed away in 2015, I felt closest to her memory during an afternoon walking around Phelps Lake.

My family is scattered across the United States, and these annual hiking adventures have become our primary opportunity to catch up with each other’s lives and reconnect. Through our countless life changes, Grand Teton National Park has remained reliable and constant for us all; my cousins and I, for instance, have photographs of us on all of these hikes throughout our childhood and adolescent years, and in a place of pride on his mantle for years, my grandfather had a framed photo of himself on top of a mountain. All of these landscapes hold precious family memories, and a hike on nearly any trail in Grand Teton National Park swiftly becomes a walk down memory lane.

Grand Tetons NP

 


Hidden Gem: Acadia's Tidal Pools

For many hikers on the East Coast, myself included, Acadia National Park is beloved and cherished, and much of its beauty comes from the surrounding water. But, most don’t think to look there, let alone consider it a reason to love the park.  

On a trip to Acadia this summer, I tried to explore parts I hadn’t seen before and focused on seeing Acadia’s famous tidal pools, located in several places, all unique and each worth a visit. Revisiting old favorites and discovering new ones, I went to three different spots on both sides of Mount Desert Island’s “lobster claw.” 

The most important thing when viewing tidal pools is timing! You must know when the tide is out or when it is coming in. Optimal viewing will be at low tide. For safety reasons, get there when the tide is going out (approaching low tide), and always keep an eye on the water — it comes in faster than you think. For finding the best time, USHarbors.com offers a helpful tide-monitoring resource

Acadia Tidal Pools

Schooner Head Overlook

The first tidal pools I visited were at Schooner Head Overlook. I arrived first thing in the morning, so that I could be there as the 11 a.m. low tide approached. Because of the clouds overhead, there wasn’t a single car in the parking lot. It was a short walk to get down to the waterfront and, from there, a bit of a scramble. Keep in mind that wet rocks are incredibly slippery, and rocks with seaweed are twice as dangerous, so proceed with extreme caution.

This time, the tidal pools were magnificent, populated by crabs, periwinkles, barnacles, sea anemones, sea urchin, and more marine life.

However, Schooner Head Overlook’s main attraction is Anemone Cave. As it is incredibly difficult and dangerous to enter, it can only be reached at the lowest tide. Further, its environment is also very delicate, so, in response, the Park Service no longer advertises it as a place to go.

That being said, you can still see inside the cave without entering. As you approach from the tidal pool areas at Schooner Head, you can kneel on a small ledge to view the inside. I highly recommend taking a peek, as you will be able to see all sorts of unusual life, from hot pink seaweed to deep red anemones. It remains a beautiful natural wonder hidden along Maine’s coast.

Acadia Tidal Pools

The Quietside

The next tidal pools I visited were on Mount Desert Island’s west side, known to the locals as the “Quietside.” Several tidal pools make the Quietside their home, and the first I checked out was at Wonderland. To get there, just pull off 102A to find a small, skinny parking lot with a bathroom.

To access the tidal pools, take a half-mile or so walk through pines, until you hit the shoreline. From there, you can walk in either direction to explore the pools. Wonderland is particularly nice, because the pools are larger and less crowded with seaweed. As such, you can easily get close without causing any damage or stepping on barnacles.

Too, the water is typically clear and gentle, which makes the area a nice place to stop and have lunch. And, for a longer journey, right down the road is Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.

Blagden Preserve

The last tidal pool stop I made was at the top of the Quietside, at The Nature Conservancy’s Blagden Preserve on Indian Point. Not owned by the National Park and, as a result, not frequented by many of its visitors, the Preserve is one of the island’s hidden gems. To get to the shoreline, take the Big Wood Trail for one mile through rich and dense pines, mosses, and ferns. Don’t forget to bring bug spray. Then, the trail opens up into a meadow, where you will see a path down to the water.

Here, the shore hosts great tidal pools, but is especially famous for its harbor seals. Bring your binoculars and plan to be there around dawn or dusk for the best fauna viewing.

Acadia Tidal Pools

This was my tenth trip or so to Acadia, and every time I go, I find new places to explore. The tidal pools are just one small part of what makes the park so incredible. Acadia is always worth the trip, so if you get the chance to head up this summer, make sure to check them out! 


Lessons from a National Park Chief Ranger

The last time I saw Dan Pontbriand, he was preparing for a Maine-bound vacation, securing a couple of kayaks to the top of his truck with a healthy collection of bowlines, mules, and half-hitches. I knew he wasn’t thinking about the kayaks coming off the truck at highway speeds, but rather about a scenario he’s seen many times: tying a critically injured patient onto a backboard while hanging off the side of a cliff in one of our many National Parks. 

Over Pontbriand’s 31-year career with the National Park Service, he has officially been called a Protection Ranger, a District Ranger, and a Chief Ranger in nine different parks, including Grand Teton, Olympic, and Sequoia National Parks. He has held leadership roles within the Park Service pertaining to wild-land fire fighting, law enforcement, search and rescue, and even served as the Chief of Emergency Services at the National Park Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

PontbriandGrowing up in Auburn, Maine, Pontbriand became interested in the outdoors as a Boy Scout and through spending time in the woods with his father, an avid outdoorsman. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1979 from the University of Maine at Machias. This helped him kick off his career with the National Park Service that year as a River Ranger, a job in which he spent his days paddling and patrolling the Snake River in Wyoming. But not long after, Dan began to experience the thrill of intense mountain rescues.

Pontbriand said the most difficult search and rescue missions were the ones without an ending. One of these cases happened when he was a ranger in Olympic National Park. Pontbriand received a call about a missing hiker from Germany who had split up from his partner when misinterpreting the map’s distance calculations as kilometers instead of miles. Dan said that when he and the other rangers got the word, “the weather had already turned for the worse – typical Olympic Mountains winter weather: wet, cold, overcast, day after day after day.” Pontbriand and other rangers, including a NPS-trained search dog, searched for over two weeks in the most remote regions of the park, but unfortunately, the hiker remains missing to this day. 

After responding to countless other rescues and searches during his career, Pontbriand has learned many lessons about managing risk while exploring and adventuring. His insight and wisdom, like that of many rangers you may meet during your next park trip, are extremely beneficial for both staying safe and making the most out of your National Park experience.

“There are so many causes as to why people get into trouble while visiting a National Park. Most problems arise when people fail to plan properly and simply do not know what their physical abilities are.”

Pontbriand
Pontbriand briefing a ranger regarding the search area for a as the district ranger at Olympic National Park.

According to a 2009 study, there are on average 11 search and rescue events in National Parks on any given day. “There are so many causes as to why people get into trouble while visiting a National Park,” Pontbriand said. “Most problems arise when people fail to plan properly and simply do not know what their physical abilities are.” He added that sometimes it’s as simple as visitors not taking advantage of the enormous amount of information the Park Service provides. 

Assisting a capsized U.S. Coast Guard rescue team during a storm while they themselves responded to a small capsized sailboat off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula was one of the most intense rescues Pontbriand responded to.

“While en route, I heard the Coast Guard order a HH 60 helicopter to transport our rescue team to James Island to effect the rescue [of the Coast Guard team]. It was the only helicopter that had the power to fly in those conditions,” Pontbriand remembered. “The lone surviving [Coast Guard] crew member was rescued from a cliff face just as the morning light was illuminating the island.” 

According a Pondbriand, another Coast Guard helicopter was able to pluck the sailors from the deck of the doomed sailboat. “If someone had asked me if it was possible to pluck two people off the deck of that boat in 50-foot seas, I would have said it was impossible. Yet, it happened.” 

Pontbriand
Floating the Snake River as a River Ranger in a raft at Grand Teton National Park.

Dan’s job isn’t all exciting rescues. The amount of exploring he’s been able to do in some of the lesser-known national areas has been another highlight of his career. Only around 50 of the nearly 400 units the National Park Service maintains are National Parks. The rest are made up of National Seashores, National Monuments, National Historic Parks, and more, many of which have historic, cultural, recreational, and scenic opportunities just as valuable as the ones we’re so familiar with. According to Dan, “These 350 areas get far less notoriety and visitation [but] are all special places with secrets ready to be discovered.” 

Examples of these lesser-known national areas include El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico, Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, and Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Like National Parks, these smaller areas also offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including camping, hiking, climbing, and snorkeling.

The U.S. National Parks are undoubtedly special places with diverse natural features, wildlife, culture, and climates. Rangers like Dan are a wealth of information and experience and are a valuable resource at your fingertips whenever you visit a park. Talking with a ranger might help you find that pristine and uncrowded swimming hole or the perfect location for your time-lapse Milky Way photograph, and they might give you the advice you need to stay out of the next search and rescue report during your trip! 


Photo Essay: Hike Yosemite's Half Dome

Ten years ago, my wife and I took our daughters on a West Coast trip that included Yosemite. Although we did some strenuous hiking, we did not attempt the iconic Half Dome hike.  With our daughters now grown and flown, we decided to revisit Yosemite to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial with an attempt of the 16+ mile, nearly 5000 foot elevation hike up Half Dome.  Although our initial attempt to acquire the necessary permit to hike the cables failed back in April, we were lucky to “win” the daily lottery two days before our climb.  

That morning, we arose at 4:30, entered the park by 5:15, and arrived at the trailhead sign before 6:00 a.m.  We had a long, challenging day ahead of us.

At the Trailhead

The first part of the trail was paved, but the Mist Trail we took leading to Vernal Falls was steep and a little treacherous with mist-covered steps that climb along a gorge.

Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail

On the Mist Trail by Vernal Falls

Next came the stunning Nevada Falls, seen here from the John Muir Trail, which we took on the way down to avoid the steepness of the Mist Trail.

Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail

Above Nevada Falls, the trail finally leveled out for a time as it followed the clear Merced River. Even though a violent waterfall was less than a mile down river, this water was very inviting.

Merced River

As we worked high into the Sierras, we found ourselves surrounded by Redwoods.  This alone was worth the hike.

Lin hiking through the Sequoias

We finally reached a clearing on a plateau just below the sub-dome and Half Dome itself.  We enjoyed the spectacular views and a brief rest before climbing the last mile and 1000 feet in elevation.

View of Little Half Dome

After handing the ranger our permit, we were allowed to head up the very steep, winding steps of the sub-dome.  This might have been the most exhausting part of the hike.  Fortunately, the views of the High Sierras were awe-inspiring.

Up the Sub Dome Steps

Up the Sub Dome Steps

Reaching the flat stretch at the top of the sub-dome, many hikers take a long break before continuing up the cables to the top, and more than a few chose to turn back.  Here, the hikers on the straight-up climb look like ants.

Half Dome Photoessay

The 400+ feet of cable trekking seems never-ending and is more straight-up than most photos can show.  It was not that crowded, but some risk-takers still chose to go up and down on the outside of the cables.  One mistake and you are tumbling and bouncing to the valley floor, 4,000 feet below.  Just watching the occasional lost Nalgene bottle take the plunge was daunting enough.

Climbing the Cables

We worked our way to the edge after we fought to catch our breath from the climb up the cables. You don’t want to get too close to that 4,000+ foot straight-down drop without a full rest.

On the top of Half Dome

Half Dome Photoessay

Lin, like many, chose to go backwards down the cables while I worked it sideways.

 

backdown cables

The challenging cables were over, but a steep 8-mile hike back down lay ahead of us.  The High Sierras were stunning.

Walking down the steep Sub-Dome

Seeing Half Dome from the valley floor that evening made it seem impossible that we were actually up there. We were very tired after the 17-mile, almost 12-hour hike, but we were more grateful for the opportunity. Who knows when we’ll be able to visit this gem of a park again.

Half Dome from Valley Floor


Off The Beaten Path: Lassen Volcanic National Parks

When considering California and its national parks, many think of Yosemite’s massive walls, Joshua Tree’s other-worldly landscape, Death Valley’s scalding and barren land, and the enormous Redwood trees.

Hardly anyone thinks of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Due in part to California’s number of high-profile parks, along with its distance from a major city and any other tourist destination, Lassen Volcanic National Park is often overlooked. However, just because Lassen isn’t as familiar to the public doesn’t mean it’s a lesser park.

Lassen features four different types of volcanoes, including the 10,463-foot Lassen Peak. In addition, it also boasts a multitude of crystal-clear mountain lakes and enough geothermal features to impress even a Yellowstone aficionado.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Lassen National Volcanic Park on two occasions, and have found it beautiful, easy to navigate, and magnetic, as there is something about the place that draws you back. I first visited on a trip to Northern California’s Mount Shasta. My climbing partners and I decided to stop on our way and climbed Lassen Peak to acclimatize and explore the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade range.

It was on this trip that I gained first-hand knowledge of the park’s striking landscape, and learned of its Yellowstone-like geothermal spots. Despite my interest, however, there were bigger mountains to climb, and we left Lassen after a successful summit and a short nap in one of the park’s quiet parking lots.

Lassen Peak
Lassen Peak

Ironically, my second visit also coincided with a Mount Shasta trip. After climbing two routes in four days on Mount Shasta, my wife and I dropped our two climbing partners off at the Redding Airport, and then sought warm showers and cold air conditioning in one of Redding’s many motels. With one day left before flying home, and without much of a plan other than doing something outdoorsy while also trying to escape the overbearing summer heat, we thought to drive the hour to Lassen.

One of the great things about Lassen National Volcanic Park is that a large part of it lies above 7,000 feet, making it cool even in the middle of summer. The day we visited, we left behind mid-90-degree temperatures in Redding and found the park to be in the very comfortable mid-70s.

Despite legs tired from over 14,000 feet of climbing during the previous four days, most of it traveled with heavy packs, we found it difficult to avoid many of Lassen’s shorter hikes. With so much to see, breathtaking views around every corner, and limited time, we scurried around to take in as much as possible while telling our legs they could rest on the long flight home.

After spending four days in a mountain landscape, we were anxious to see something different and headed to Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest and most spectacular geothermal area. While being unburdened from the heavy packs and mountaineering boots felt great, as born-and-bred New Englanders, we sensed the trail’s 8,000-foot elevation every time it inclined even a little bit.

On the boardwalk at Bumpass Hell.
On the boardwalk at Bumpass Hell.

After taking in the out-of-this-world landscape, we were enthusiastic about visiting more of the park’s geothermal areas. While we were excited, our legs were not, so we opted to visit Sulfur Works, the park’s most accessible geothermal area, as a short walk along the sidewalk brings you to fascinating bubbling mud pots and steam vents.

After breaking free of the hypnotizing effect of watching the earth bubble and belch, we decided to move along to Cold Boiling Lake. A short one-mile hike (which, at 7,800 feet, is more work than it should be) led us to the lake, where, as the name implies, its bubbles mimic the effect of carbonation in a soda. The geothermal features of Lassen are truly other-worldly!

After sampling more of the park’s geothermal areas and taking in its amazing vistas, we drove to Lassen Peak and contemplated a summit attempt. However, any ideas for summiting were immediately dismissed when we drove past Lake Helen. This quintessential glacial lake sits in the shadow of Lassen Peak at an altitude of 8,200 feet. With its crystal-clear water tempting us, any action and ambition were put aside in favor of rest. After all, this was supposed to be a vacation! Dipping sore feet and tired legs into the cold water provided the perfect way to end an amazing trip.

I would highly recommend adding Lassen Volcanic National Park onto any trip of Northern California, or even as a stand-alone vacation. It’s an incredibly unique location that has a powerful pull to it, and I know I will be back again!

Looking down at Bumpass Hell.
Looking down at Bumpass Hell.