Planning your trip to Yellowstone National Park

More than 200 years ago, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the U.S. While there are now more than 50 others across the country, Yellowstone still stands as one of the most iconic landmarks in North America. Whether you are planning to go see the park as a college student, a parent with your young family or as a retiree, there is plenty to see and do during your trip. Because the park is so massive – nearly 3,500 square miles stretching across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – it would take you months or years to see everything Yellowstone has to offer. Because it's unlikely you have that kind of time to spend, here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of your trip:

Make a plan
Yellowstone is not the kind of place that lends itself to you simply showing up and seeing what happens. First of all, it's hard to overstate how truly huge the park is and how many options it provides. Whether you are planning on going on a guided tour or striking it out on your own, you need to know where you have to be at, what time and how to get there. If you do decide you want to do a guided tour or, really, just about anything short of driving or hiking around, it's likely you'll need to make a reservation. Tours, hotels and even camp grounds require you to call ahead to hold your spot, and they often sell out months in advance.

Get out of your car
Two of the biggest mistakes made by tourists are not dedicating enough time for your trip and just driving around the park. Even if you're not an avid outdoorsman, there are hundreds of places you can only access on foot, so bring along your hiking boots. It's also worth nothing that if you do leave your car in a lot while you are out enjoying the wilderness, you need to keep security in mind. Bringing along a lockbox or mini safe is one of the best ways to keep important belongings like cash, paperwork, electronics or firearms safe.

Leave the beaten path
One of the biggest draws of Yellowstone is the wildlife, and for good reason. There are more than 400 species that can be found in the park, from bison to grizzly bears. While it would be difficult to get through a trip at Yellowstone without spotting a single four-legged resident, you'll have to get off the roads for the best wildlife spotting.

Use caution around the wildlife
Always remember that you are not in a zoo. If you see a grizzly bear, don't forget that it is actually an extremely deadly predator, not a pet or an ornament for you to admire. Keep at least 100 meters away from potentially dangerous animals like bear, bison, wolves and moose. That said, there are plenty less-dangerous animals you will likely spot, depending on where you are in the park. There are more than 30,000 elk, so it's likely you'll spot them from your car. Bighorn sheep, bison and moose are also reasonably easy to find, as are birds like trumpeter swans, pelicans and sandhill cranes. If you're lucky, you may also see foxes, otters, coyotes and marmots. Big cats like lynx and mountain lions are present, but notoriously difficult to spot. 

Avoid the camping crowds
Camping is an extremely popular activity for many Yellowstone visitors, which means designated camp grounds also tend to be fairly crowded. If you're looking to avoid the crowds, you have a few options. You can apply for a backcountry permit and strike out on your own or you can simply camp outside the park. Though the park is massive, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is even larger – there are plenty of campgrounds outside of the official borders that will give you the experience without the crowds. 

Be prepared
As with any kind of outdoor activity, preparation is key. Bear in mind that most of the park is more than 7,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, weather can change at the snap of a finger, so you have got to be ready for virtually any weather. Remember, snow in the middle of summer is not out of the question. Must-haves include rain gear, sturdy boots, hats and gloves. Remember to bring along plenty of water, food and sunblock, as well, especially if you're planning on hiking. 

Shake up your trip
Not only is Yellowstone park enormous, but it is extraordinarily diverse. While you can find iconic landmarks like Old Faithful in the southern region, a trip to the northern region will lead you to Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America. In the southeast section is Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude late in the continent. Limiting yourself to one area of the park will result in you missing out on some of these natural wonders.

Easy and moderate hikes near Denver

After a particularly harsh winter, the weather is finally warming up, which is leaving plenty of hikers itching to hit the trails. If you are a Denver resident, you're surrounded by some of the best hiking in the country. Whether you're a rookie ready to break in your new boots or a veteran hiker looking for a new trail to explore, here are a few can't-miss hiking trails near Denver. But first, a few tips for first-time hikers:

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  • Start slow, especially if you haven't been keeping up with your physical conditioning.
  • New boots should be broken in before hitting the trail – there are few things worse than a pleasant hike being spoiled by blisters.
  • Always pack plenty of water for you, your family and any four-legged friends that are joining you.
  • If you aren't sure how long you will be out, toss a couple of granola or protein bars in your backpack, as well.
  • Sunscreen is always a good idea, along with sunglasses and a hat if it's going to be particularly sunny.
  • Most hikers drive out to the trailhead and set out from that point, leaving their cars in the lot. Make sure you are careful about any possessions you've left behind in your car – brining along a lockbox is the best way to protect your valuables in the case of a break-in.

Easy trails
Fording rivers or tackling sheer rock faces isn't for everyone. If you're looking for a trail that won't get your heart pumping too hard or that you can bring your whole family along on, check out some of these easy trails: 

  • South Boulder Creek Trail: One of the shortest trails on this list, South Boulder Creek Trail is extremely popular with hikers of all ages. Stretching 3.2 miles just over 20 miles outside Denver, this trail is great for spotting wildlife, including deer, coyote, birds and even the occasional mountain lion. Dogs are welcome on the north half of the trail, though watch out for the cows that dot the landscape and be sure to close all gates behind you.
  • Green Mountain Open Space: Just under 10 miles to the west of Denver, you can find Green Mountain Open Space, another trail that's on the easy side. There are a few trails you can choose in this area, so stick to a distance that you're comfortable with. Either ride or hike this trail that can have altitude gains of thousands of feet. The wide, flat paths make this trail great for families and pets – though dogs must be leashed at all times – and, as a bonus, you are treated to a great view of the city. Be sure to bring a map and keep a close eye on signs, as the winding trails can get a bit confusing.
  • Spruce Mountain Trail Loop: On the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, east of the Rampart Range section is the Spruce Mountain Trail Loop. You'll have to drive a bit farther out of Denver – about 40 miles, just north of Palmer Park, Colo. – to find this 5-mile trail. Your whole family will enjoy this trail, especially during the spring and summer, when they can find wild flowers all along the path. However, make sure to keep an eye on little ones – though the paths are flat enough, there are a few places with sheer drop-offs.

Moderate trails
If you're ready to put those hiking boots to the test, give a couple of these moderate trails a try:

  • Meyer Ranch: A bit over 15 miles west of Denver, you can find the Meyer Ranch trail in Jefferson County. You can pick your own trails, so make your hike is as long or short as you want. If you're looking to make an afternoon of your hike, you can find a picnic area about a half-mile away from the parking lot up the Owl's Perch Trail. If you find yourself in the area in the winter, there are plenty of sledding opportunities, as well.
  • Heil Ranch: There are no shortage of of activities on this trail – from hiking to mountain biking to horseback riding. Located just over 30 miles outside of Denver near beautiful Boulder, Colo., this trail has a lot to offer, no matter how you tackle it. The steep inclines are punctuated by flatter areas that will let you catch your breath, whether you're on foot or bike. Because the trails have been well tended, there are few ruts caused by erosion. 
  • Apex Park – Enchanted Forest Loop: At a little over 5 1/2 miles, this particular route at Golden, Colo.'s Apex Park is one of the least-used trails in the area, giving you a little extra room to stretch your legs. While you're hiking, keep the historical importance of the area in mind – it was one of the main routes that potential gold miners took to Central City.

Tips for first-time off-road drivers

As the snow is finally starting to melt and temperatures are slowly climbing out of the sub-freezing range, many of us are looking forward to pulling our vehicles out of storage and hitting the roads. Or, more specifically, hitting the off-road. While there's certainly no rule against off-roading through the snow and ice, the warmer months offer a little more freedom and, as an added bonus, no wading through snow if you find yourself in need of a push or tow. 

Though a fair amount of cars on the road have 4×4 capabilities, only a fair few get to actually take that off-road. If you're gearing up to do some off-road driving this spring for the first time, here are a few tips to get you started:

Safety first
It's hard to overstate how important safety is to off-road driving. Before taking off, make sure your car is in good condition. Check the engine – be sure the hoses aren't cracked, that all battery ports are properly connected and that you're not low on any fluids.

Aside from  the engine, the wheels are the most important part of your off-roading vehicle. Check that the tires don't need to be replaced. The simplest way to do this is to measure the depth of the tread, which should be at least 1/16 of an inch. You can check it without breaking out your ruler – just put a penny with Lincoln's head down into a couple treads in different parts of the tire. If you can see the top of the Great Emancipator's head, it's time for new tires.

But tire safety doesn't stop with making sure they're not bald. Inflating them to the manufacturer's specifications is the best way to get solid grip on most surfaces – with the notable exception of sand – and to prevent a blowout. Keep a tire gauge with you and check the pressure frequently, preferably before you drive the vehicle and the tires are cool.

There are also a handful of things you should always have before you set out off-roading. Keep a cell phone with you at all times, and be sure it's either fully charged or have a car charger on hand. Even if you're going somewhere without great reception, it's useful to have one in an emergency. If your phone doesn't have one, invest in some sort of GPS navigation system. Not only will it make finding where you're going easier, but if you happen to get stuck and need help, it will be helpful to know your coordinates. Be sure to keep a first-aid kit on hand, as well.

Though Jeep parts and accessories, along with other vehicles designed for off-roading, usually include a full-sized spare, pick one up if your truck doesn't have one. And, just as you need to take care of the tires you're driving on, be sure the spare doesn't have holes or a worn-down tread. 

A jack, tow rope, vehicle-mounted winch and shovel are also good things to have on hand in case you or a buddy run into problems.

Get comfortable
If you're a rookie off-road driver, you may have visions of powering up hills or fording rivers at high speeds, but keep in mind that a huge majority of off-roading is done quite slowly – think less than 5 miles per hour. 

Before you tackle anything crazy, start easy. While driving on gravely trails or dry dirt may not feel as adventurous as you were initially hoping for, it's an important first step. Accelerating, turning and breaking on loose gravel or dirt is extremely different than on pavement, and it's important to get a feel for your vehicle before taking it on more difficult terrain. Look for nearby state parks that have trails designed for vehicle travel to start on. 

Driving tips
Once you get going, here are a few tips for your first few off-roading adventure:

  • Down-shifting: In general, the lower gears are your best friends when off-roading. First or second gear will give you more power to help you get traction.
  • Momentum: If you're on terrain that has poor traction, your best bet is to keep moving and use the momentum of your truck to get through the rough patch. Once you stop, you may find you have trouble gaining traction to get going again.
  • Throttle: Using the accelerator is more of an art than a science. Too much power, and you risk going out of control, though too little will obviously mean you aren't going to get where you need to go. Practice makes perfect, so put your hours in to get accelerating right.
  • Stay on designated trails: Even if you're feeling particularly adventurous, always stay on paths and avoid adventuring out into uncharted territory. Not only can this be dangerous, but you risk doing damage to the area or getting kicked out of the park.

Planning your trip to Glacier National Park

One of the jewels of North America, Glacier National Park has been stunning travelers from all over the world for generations. It was made an official part of the U.S. national park system in 1910 and spreads out across more than a million acres of land in northwest Montana. From the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road to the nearly 750 miles of hiking trails it offers, there is no shortage of things to do and places to see at Glacier. 

In the early 1890s, Scottish naturalist and advocate of wildlife preservation John Muir, visited the park and was quite taken with it, to say the least. 

"Give a month at least to this precious reserve," he said in his 1901 collection of essays, Our National Park. "The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven."

If you are planning your trip to what the Native Americans called "The Backbone of the World," here are a few steps you take to get the most out of your adventure:

Make a plan…
Glacier National Park is massive, which means it's unlikely you'll be able to see everything, so make sure you do plenty of research beforehand to fit in everything that is important to you. Whether you are a first-time hiker looking to get your feet wet, so to speak, in the park or a seasoned veteran, you can find hiking trails that will suit your skill level. If you are a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to hiking, be sure to do some physical conditioning before your trip. Glacier's high elevation means the air is thinner, making activity a bit more taxing on your body. While you're planning your trip, consider what you want to get out of it. Do you want to admire the flora and fauna? Look for trails that have lots of wildflowers and wildlife. Are you a shutterbug? There are no shortages of photogenic spots in the park, though there are definitely a few spots you don't want to miss – but more on that later. Glacier is a huge park with a lot to offer, so it's essential that you go in with a game plan.

…But be flexible
You know what they say about best laid plans, and there are plenty of factors out of your control at Glacier. Your first trip once you arrive at the park should be to stop at the visitor center. There, you'll find out if you have to shift your plans around slightly to accommodate for incoming weather, construction or other issues that may close down trails and roads temporarily. One of the largest draws, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, is frequently under construction, which may impede your progress into the park, so give yourself more time than you expect to get to trail heads. 

Consider the weather
Because Glacier National Park is so high – the highest point of Going-to-the-Sun road stands at 6,646 feet above sea level – you can usually depend on it being between 10 and 15 degrees colder in the park than in the surrounding areas and can vary widely during a single day. Summer temperatures can pass 90 degrees during the day, then plummet as low as 20 degrees at night. Because of this, be sure to dress in light layers so you can add or shed clothing as the weather dictates.

Must-see spots
While there is plenty to see in Glacier National Park, here are a few of the most popular spots:

  • Going-to-the-Sun Road: This road is one of the main arteries of the park, traveling over the Continental Divide. It will take you past dozens of hiking spots and photo opportunities, though the drive alone is worth the trip.
  • St. Mary Lake: An incredibly photogenic spot, St. Mary Lake and its Wild Goose Island stand as the eastern gateway to the park.
  • Logan Pass: The highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road, Logan Pass will offer incredible views in all directions. If you're looking for wildlife, you'll find it here – mountain goats can be found all over in this high-elevation section of the park.
  • Highline Loop: Experienced – and fit – hikers at Logan Pass may want to give this difficult-but-rewarding trail a try. Considered a must-see trail for hikers all over the world, this trail will reach elevations well past 7,200 feet and show you some of the world's most beautiful views.

As with any trip, security is paramount. Most visitors park their cars at trailheads and set off on their hikes, leaving their valuables vulnerable to break-ins. If you have a pickup, be sure to bring a truck bed box with a secure lock. Small valuables should be kept in lock boxes

Tips for hiking the Appalachian Trail

For serious hikers, tackling the Appalachian Trail is the great white whale. Stretching more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, it was developed nearly a century ago by Benton MacKaye, who had visions of a path that stretched from New England to the southern Appalachian Mountains. 

Today, the Appalachian Trail is a part of the national park system and visited by thousands of people each year. Some visit for a short day-hike, some go for trips that last several days and some – called thru-hikers – attempt to travel the entire trail in one continuous stretch. Those who complete the journey, which generally takes between five and seven months, are known as "2,000 milers." Fewer than 15,000 are a part of this prestigious group. If you are taking aim to become a 2,000 miler, or just spend a few hours exploring a section of the trail, here are a few tips to make sure you have a safe and enjoyable experience:

Where and when to start
If you are planning a thru-hike, or just a hike that lasts a week or two, the decisions of when and where to start should be made together. For example, if you're heading out during the dog days of summer, it's probably a good idea to plan your hike a bit further north, whereas for an early spring or late fall trip, consider staying closer to Georgia to take advantage of the warmer weather. There are other considerations, as well. For example, Baxter State Park in Maine closes in mid-October, so if you're starting at the south end, make sure you time your trip to get there by then.

Where to stay
Because the Appalachian Trail was designed for hikers, there are shelters and tent sites set up along the way. The vast majority of hikers who are planning on spending several days on the trail bring their own tents. While you can use the provided shelters – they are strategically placed to be about a day's hike apart – it also gives you the flexibility to take it easy one day and find a campsite of your own.

Getting supplies
If you're going to be on the trail for more than a couple of days, it's likely you'll need to restock your food or water. You've got a few options here. If you're planning on taking a long hike, you may use mail drops. Just send yourself packages to points along the way that will keep you well-stocked until the next mail drop. There are also plenty of towns – the trail crosses roads once every four miles on average – so you can usually find a store if needed. Remember that the Appalachian Trail will take you through some pretty small towns, so you may have trouble shopping at night.

Staying safe
Every rule that applies to hiking safety should be remembered when tackling the Appalachian Trail. This means dressing appropriately for the weather you will likely encounter, eating regularly and drinking plenty of water. While you should keep a cell phone with you, remember that service along the trail will be spotty at best in places, so have a contingency plan ready for emergencies. Keep a whistle or flashlight with you at all times. In case of an emergency, three short calls repeated at regular intervals is the standard distress signal. This can mean blowing your whistle, shouting, flashing your light or even smoke puffs. If you hear such a signal, two short calls means you heard them and are coming to help.

If you are alone and hurt, it's important not to panic. Because the trail is relatively well-traveled, there is a good chance someone will come along before too long. Make sure you always have a map, understand how to use it and are aware of your location, so if your phone does work, you can describe your location and get help sent as quickly as possible.

Always stay aware of where you are heading, and let someone know what your plans are each day. It's rarely a good idea to hike alone, or even with a single partner or dog. Groups of three or more are the best way for everyone to stay safe. 

Currently, it is legal to carry a handgun on National Park Service land. If you chose to do so – or for any other valuables, electronics or important paperwork you may be carrying with you – consider bringing along a portable safe to ensure your belongings are secure at all times.

Most importantly, do plenty of research before setting out. There are lots of stops along the way that hikers before you have found and shared in books or on blogs. Using the experience of those before you will ensure you have a great trip, whether you're hiking 2 miles or 2,000.