Road Trips: California | New York | North Carolina-Tennessee | Utah
When touring the jackpot of tightly packed parks in and around California's Sierra Nevada, it just feels right to drive a hybrid. After all, four times more of these fuel-efficient cars are sold in the Golden State than anywhere else in the country. Ogle the world's biggest trees in Kings Canyon. Grab slab with legends at Yosemite National Park. Run the cool churn of the Kern River. And do it all with a greener ride. You'll be guilt free—and naturally recharged—after racking up 620 miles (998 kilometers).
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1) HIKE: Kings Canyon
Generals highway, one of two roads leading into 462,000-acre (187-hectare) Kings Canyon National Park, comes to an abrupt stop at a place called, fittingly, Road's End. From there hike the nine-mile out-and-back to view 45-foot (14-meter) Mist Falls. On the return drive, visit General Sherman, the largest tree in the world by volume (630,000 board feet or 192,000 board kilometers); then bed down at the posh Wicky-Up Ranch (20 miles or 32 kilometers south), home to an organic orange grove and an in-house massage therapist.
2) RAFT: The Kern River
Oft overlooked by rafters who favor the crowds and craziness on the nearby American River, the Kern River offers Class V runs in the spring and solid Class III and IV paddles come summer. Book an eight-mile (13-kilometer) trip down the lower section with Kern River Outfitters and get, as river manager Keith Stephens attests, "more Class III and IV rapids than you'll find on other California rivers twice as long." In the evening motor 170 miles (274 kilometers) northeast and stay the night at Panamint Springs Resort, in Death Valley National Park.
3) TREK: Darwin Falls
Death Valley. The name says it all. So skip the open-air furnace on the valley floor and visit two of the park's only oases. First stop: Darwin Falls, a 25-foot (8-meter) cascade tucked in a riparian canyon. Follow Route 190 north from Panamint Springs for two and a half miles (4 kilometers), then turn onto an unmarked but well-defined dirt track. Another two and a half miles lead you to the trailhead; continue on foot for a mile to reach the falls. Second stop: 11,049-foot (3,368-meter) Telescope Peak, which is snowcapped from November to June. Take Panamint Valley Road to Trona Wildrose Road and continue west to Charcoal Kilns. From there it's a ten-mile (16-kilometer) hike to the summit through a piñon-juniper forest.
4) CAMP: Devils Postpile
You'd have to go to Ireland (Giants Causeway) or Scotland (Fingal's Cave) to see something on the geological scale of Devils Postpile, a 60-foot-tall (18-meter-tall) cluster of hexagonal basalt columns 188 miles (303 kilometers) northwest of Death Valley on Highway 395. To view the formation, take the shuttle from the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to the Devils Postpile Ranger Station (stop number 6). First, hike the two and a half miles to 101-foot (31-meter) Rainbow Falls, then backtrack two miles (3.2 kilometers) to the Postpile, where you can camp in the shadow of the rocks.
5) CLIMB: Yosemite
After motoring a hundred miles (161 kilometers) north from Devils Postpile, head skyward at Yosemite National Park, climbing's spiritual epicenter. Don't know a cam from a quickdraw? Clip in with a seasoned guide from the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS). Swan Slab, in the middle of the park, is the ideal training ground: "It's easy to get to and has low and steep-angle climbs," says Doug Kerr of YMS. Once off the rock, dirt-bag it: Camp 4, the carnivalesque core of the American climbing scene, is just three miles away, on Northside Drive. But don't count on much sleep. Out here, the ruckus never ends.
Outfitters: Kern River Outfitters ($154 for a day-long rafting trip; www.kernrafting.com); Yosemite Mountaineering School ($126 for a day-long climbing clinic; www.yosemitepark.com)
Parks and Permits: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (www.nps.gov/seki); Death Valley National Park (www.nps.gov/deva); Devils Postpile National Monument (www.nps.gov/depo); Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose)
Lodging: Wicky-Up Ranch ($100; www.wickyup.com); Panamint Springs Resort ($79; www.deathvalley.com)
The Honda Civic Hybrid ($22,150; www.honda.com) has a golden-glove-worthy one-two punch. Its engine shifts automatically between an electric motor and a 110-horsepower combustion powerhouse, generating 49 miles (79 kilometers) per gallon in the city and 51 (82 kilometers) on open roads. The two engines have just enough giddyup, we found, to pass semis without a second, gas-guzzling thought.
The Power Plant
The sun can fry your skin. But it can also power your cell phone, digital camera, and MP3 player. Let it shine on the three solar panels of the Voltaic DayPack ($239; www.voltaicsystems.com), connect your gear, recharge, and go.
The iron-free fabric of the Horny Toad Kramer ($65; www.hornytoad.com) is 85 percent Modal, a fiber composed of wood chips. Even if you stuff it in the trunk, you'll still look eco-chic and civilized.
The Coffee Cup
Trade Styrofoam for the Thermos Element 5 Travel Mug ($30; www.thermos.com). It keeps java hot for six hours and water cold for eight.
More Energy-Smart Adventure Road Trips and Gear
Utah: 4x4 Required >>
New York: Family Values >>
North Carolina-Tennessee: Motorcycle Diaries >>
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Map by Steve Stankiewicz
Pick up our August 2006 issue for America's best hikes and drives, including 11 undiscovered trails and four energy-smart road trips; Africa's top safaris; and a border odyssey along the Devil's Highway, by writer Tim Cahill.
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