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.

A First-Timer's Guide to Acadia National Park, Courtesy of a Local

Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island are the Northeast’s gems. Rugged Maine coastline combined with bald granite mountains and an oftentimes rustic New England feel coalesce to provide one of the best experiences you will have this summer. However, be aware that it can be packed with tourists, traffic jams, parking issues, and lobster-everything.

Speaking of which, my first piece of advice to you is this: Don’t eat the lobster ice cream. I don’t care how novel you think it is, or how adventurous you feel, but lobster and vanilla do not mix. This “delicacy” is an abomination. Both lobsters and ice cream deserve better.

Aside from this, there is plenty to do in Acadia, from the outdoors to local watering holes to dining, that it’s hard to fit it all into a single trip. Luckily for you, you can go back. That being said, if it’s your first time visiting, I have some tips:

1. Stay on the quiet side of the island

Throngs of summer residents, tourists, and cruise ship passengers come to Bar Harbor, choking the village and driving up vacation rental costs. If you want to sleep outside, I recommend Quietside campground. Blackwoods and Seawall are both good, too, but are more popular. Additionally, areas across the fjord tend to offer a slightly more rustic Maine atmosphere.

I'm fairly certain that this is Beehive peeking out of the mist. Most of the mountains on the island are bald at the top, so layering is important. Mountains tend to generate their own wind conditions for a variety of reasons, so be prepared. Some mosses have evolved to trap heat, and you can measure that it's a fraction of a degree warmer within the tuft of moss if you have the right equipment. [Credit: Charles Fischer]
I’m fairly certain that this is Beehive peeking out of the mist. Most of the mountains on the island are bald at the top, so layering is important. Mountains tend to generate their own wind conditions for a variety of reasons, so be prepared. Some mosses have evolved to trap heat, and you can measure that it’s a fraction of a degree warmer within the tuft of moss if you have the right equipment. [Credit: Charles Fischer]

2. Hike the mountains

Depending on what your activity of choice is, Acadia can offer you a number of great opportunities. You can bike the carriage roads, take climbing lessons, go on a whale watch, or see marine creatures at Diver Ed’s Dive-in Theater. However, for the outdoors enthusiast, there are some must-do hikes.

The big one is Cadillac Mountain; supposedly, the combination of location and elevation makes it the first point on the U.S. East Coast to see the sunrise each day. People flock to the top every morning, and it’s worth joining them at least once. By road, you can drive or bike to the top, and many hikes also lead to the summit – just remember a headlamp.

Beech Mountain is often overlooked, but this short hike up to a fire tower provides you with a great view of the sea.

Beehive is a bit strenuous, and people with a fear of heights will have trouble with some of the small but still fairly safe ledges. Once you reach the summit, you’ll get a truly gorgeous view of Great Head, Sand Beach, and Otter Cliffs.

Speaking of Great Head and Otter Cliffs, while not mountains, they’re excellent for bouldering and rock climbing, and present a great opportunity to examine tide pools, where you can find starfish, eels, and a variety of other sea life.

The last must-see for many folks is Jordan Pond and the Bubbles, twin peaks reflected in a clear pond. After, stop by the Jordan Pond House for chowder and popovers.

There are so many more areas I would like to list here, but it would be far too long. It is worth noting, however, that Schoodic Peninsula is part of Acadia but is not on Mount Desert Island. If you make the trip, you will be rewarded with a hidden gem that is generally free of crowds.

3. Where to eat

While there’s a lot of great food on MDI, I’m mostly familiar with Bar Harbor. There, Two Cats and Cafe This Way are must-visit breakfast and brunch establishments. The food is good quality, the atmosphere is just right, and they accommodate vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets. Also, Maine is known for its blueberries, so blueberry anything is delicious and fresh.

Morning Glory is a great little bakery where you can get foods sourced from local farms. Here, too, they offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options; also, for lunch, stop by to grab a sandwich.

Just across the street is Siam Orchid, a Thai restaurant owned by a truly great guy. His seafood is sourced locally, and everything is overall fantastic.

For dinner, come by Galyn’s; if I’m getting lobster, that’s usually where I’ll go. That being said, I don’t think there’s any such thing as bad lobster on MDI. Once there, stick around for dessert.

Along with all listed above, other call-outs are Geddy’s and McKay’s.

You'll see many similar iconic shots of climbers on this exact climb at Otter Cliffs. Most guiding services will take you here and the top roping is well established with metal rings and staples. It's still a good idea to know how to build your own anchors in the many cracks here, though. Beware of the tide, and do not descend near the waves to retrieve lost forgotten gear. Let it go man, just let it go. [Credit: Charles Fischer]
You’ll see many similar iconic shots of climbers on this exact climb at Otter Cliffs. Most guiding services will take you here and the top roping is well established with metal rings and staples. It’s still a good idea to know how to build your own anchors in the many cracks here, though. Beware of the tide, and do not descend near the waves to retrieve lost forgotten gear. Let it go man, just let it go. [Credit: Charles Fischer]

4. For beers and desserts

If you have a sweet tooth and you’ve already been to Morning Glory, try MDI Ice Cream, offering two locations in Bar Harbor with a unique assortment of flavors. Out of the choices, I recommend a waffle cone with Nutella ice cream and chocolate sprinkles.

If you want an adult beverage to top off dinner, then the Lompoc is where all the locals hang out. While the food is a bit overpriced and the music loud, they have one of the best beer selections in town.

For a beer and a meal, the Thirsty Whale is where you can grab a pint and a burger. You’ll find better-priced fare there, but keep in mind it can be hard to get a table during peak seasons.

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]

5. Other Advice

What else should you know? For one, the whole town is very dog-friendly. Also, for getting around during the summer, a free bus run sponsored by L.L. Bean can take you to a variety of locations around the island. Catch it on the village green to reduce the headache of trying to find parking; just pay attention to the schedules.

Along with these points, I can’t write this piece without mentioning my alma mater, College of the Atlantic. The campus is open to the public, and the giant whale skull alone is worth stopping for. You’ll further find a wonderful natural history museum on campus, where there’s usually some interesting installation art. As you walk around, you’ll discover that many of the buildings are comprised of old Rockefeller summer homes, and that they basically have a castle on campus. Eat your heart out, Hogwarts!


Overseas Hiking: Reviewing The Path of the Gods

I recently returned from a trip to Italy with my family. This initially came about when my dad presented two awesome vacation ideas, as if he were planning a last hurrah for our diverging, postgrad family.

The first was going to Italy to visit my brother, who was studying abroad there for his master’s program. We theoretically would meet up with him in Milan and make our way around the country for two weeks, traveling from city to city to see the sights.

His second idea – and easily my first choice – was to visit a handful of National Parks out West to honor the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. The potential itinerary included both Glacier and Yellowstone. Nonetheless, I was outvoted, so we were headed to Italy.

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
At first, I was very disappointed and wasn’t feeling excited – which, in hindsight, sounds crazy. For me, this initially felt as if I were missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

Giving my input, I had one condition: We had to plan some hiking, as I am a crazy outdoors person and feel cooped-up if I don’t explore every once in awhile. I didn’t care what days or where – I just wanted to get outside, and I knew I would need a break from museums and tours.

Funny enough, without a car, we ended up hiking every day! My favorite, though, was called “The Path of the Gods.” We hiked this on one of our last days, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences I had while in Italy – besides the food!

The Path of the Gods

The Path of the Gods is located on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples between coastal towns Positano and Bomerano. This trail makes for stunning views of the coastline, cliffs, gorges, and precipices. Before the trip, I had read about it in passing and convinced my family it was worth doing.

In the morning, we started in Bomerano, with cappuccinos at a tiny café. Then ready to embark, we set out and followed the road, unsure of what to expect. When we got to the beginning of the trail, the sight showed me this would be a hike to remember: Sheer cliffs hanging over the ocean below and views of the farms nestled in the hillside.

The hike began with gentle climbs up and down mountain peaks, where lizards constantly jumped out of our way as we walked along this ancient path. It continued this way for a few hours, regularly offering new views. Towards the end, the path started to descend into a tiny town called Nocelle, where you could grab a bus down to Positano or take the steps. Based on my experience, I recommend walking from Bomerano to Positano and not the reverse direction – unless you’re looking for an intense workout!

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]

4 Must-Try Tips for Light Vacation Packing, According to a Backpacker

As both a “touristy” traveler and a solo, middle-of-nowhere backpacker, I have found that these interests, unsurprisingly, are from two different worlds but overlap in a handful of ways. For example, when I go to more popular destinations, like my three-city European tour with a group of college students last winter, I found that many of my fellow travelers felt the need to pack five pairs of dress shoes, 10 evening outfits, 50 scarves, and piles of toiletries (and no, I am not just talking about the ladies). Meanwhile, I became known as the “backpack girl.” That’s right: just my Osprey on my back and my carry-on pack strapped to my front for several weeks of travel. And, while my companions were fighting over space in the elevator to stack their luggage, I was sprinting up the steps of the hostel and getting the first pick of the bunks.

You don’t have to ditch every amenity in order to travel practically for your European holiday or Cancun resort trip. However, taking a few tips from those that do this as a hobby can dramatically help in shedding some extra luggage weight.

1. Consider getting a backpack

Yes, that’s right. Even if you have never hiked in your life, a pack is a great option – and might even inspire you to take up backpacking! Depending on the length of your trip, you will be looking at a 40- to 65-liter model. I am personally a fan of Osprey for their durability, functionality, and comfort, as well as their women-specific line. I also find it helpful to get a smaller daypack, for both a carry-on and a day-to-day pack. Look into getting an 18- to 25-liter daypack; Marmot, Osprey, and EMS models are a great place to start.

Having an extra little tote that stuffs into its own pocket is also convenient for shopping, as well as for storing dirty clothes or shoes in your larger pack. Note: If a backpack is definitely not for you, Osprey also has great rolling luggage options, available through EMS.

2. Get some hiking shoes

No ifs, ands, or buts: If I have to hear one more individual complain about how their feet hurt, but they keep on wearing those support-free but fashionable shoes while walking hours through the Champs-Élysées, I will personally drive them to get a pair of Keens or Superfeet. Unlike these other styles, a good pair of walking/hiking shoes will keep you supported and ache free.

And, before you say how your ballet flats or Keds are just “so much lighter and easier to travel with,” just remember: being lightweight means that you can feel every little nook and cranny in the road. So, instead of bringing 10 pairs of shoes to switch out every day because of blisters and hotspots, just get one pair of trusty hikers. Believe me, they are even worth the time it takes to unlace them at airport security.

3. Think carefully about your “unmentionables”

Besides carrying the weight of all your cotton undies, re-packing dirty underwear is just, well, gross. This is why I switched to Ex Officio underwear. Just pack two to three pairs of this quick-drying and wicking miracle fabric; then, every night, wash your used undies in the sink with some shampoo and hang them up to dry. In the morning, you’ll have clean and dry underwear.

I also use this tactic with my socks: Get two pairs of sock liners and two to three pairs of merino wool hiking socks, known for their ability to both wick away moisture and stay stink free. Again, just rinse out the liners every night, and hang them up to dry. The liners will keep the wool socks fresher for longer, and you don’t have to carry the weight of 20 pairs of socks for your three-week vacation!

4. Ditch the jeans

I won’t bemoan you for bringing one pair of your favorite skinny jeans for a night out on the town. But for day-to-day travel and tourism? Jeans are too heavy, and the cotton is only comfy for about the first 10 minutes of touring the Colosseum. Therefore, consider getting some pants or shorts that are made of a quick-dry and a little bit stretchy material. My favorite pair for travel is the EMS Compass Pants, available in sizes for both men and women. These are stain and wrinkle resistant, and the fabric is a four-way stretch material that moves with you. If you are going somewhere chilly, just add a merino wool base layer underneath.

 

And, there it is! Just a few tips that might make you rethink the supposed “essentials” for your packing list. If you are looking to lighten your load, you don’t have to ditch your favorite items. However, investing in a few new products may make your trip less about lugging your luggage and more about the adventure.