For the leisure class at both ends of the social spectrum, autumn is the best season for outdoor fun. Everyone else is back to work after summer vacation. School has started, to-do lists are a mile long, e-mail messages have piled up, and there’s a stack of work to rival the Rock of Gibraltar. The next big holiday is Christmas, or a long Thanksgiving weekend - with a bit of luck. But just because you are caught between summer and winter is no reason to hang up your hiking boots and hunker down until the snows fall. The working cognoscenti take advantage of the balmy Indian summer as it creeps into fall with its lack of crowds and off-season rates.
Whether you’re biking, hiking, paddling or climbing, consider joining the outdoor sophisticates who head to the mountains and lakes after Labor Day weekend. If you plan carefully, you can take advantage of those special spots where summer’s grasp clings on to the very last moment - with warm sunny days fighting off the encroaching winter chill. Or, if you’re weary of the heat and ready for snow, look for places where winter arrives as an early guest, unable to wait until December to serve up its icy dish. Fall truly offers the best of both worlds for the avid outdoor adventurer. This low-traffic season is ideal for trying new sports- most likely you’ll have the trails, crags and waterways to yourself. This is a slow period for many guides as well; chances are you can get good rates on first-class instruction. And in some places, you can have the best of both worlds: summer sports one day, and winter fun the next.
As the calendar counts down to the winter solstice, temperatures sink and days grow shorter. But with the right destination, as well as early starts and plenty of warm layers, you can get in full days of fun. Plan a day trip or a weeklong, multi-sport orgy. If you are kayaking through Alabama’s Little River Canyon (go ahead and skip the first 2.5 miles aptly called Suicide Run) or mountain biking the 145-mile Kokopelli Trail from Loma, Colorado to Moab, Utah, you’ll notice one thing. Solitude. Chances are even if you are visiting one of the mega-popular tourist destinations, you’ll have the place to yourself. Michael Feinstein, spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco reports, “Summer season is the most crowded season for national parks because that is when most Americans take their family on vacation. Both national and state parks see a dramatic drop in visitation after Labor Day.” Feinstein agrees that most parks experience a 40-60 percent drop in visitation in the fall months. September through November is the best time to visit tourist meccas like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon. No people and no bugs. While campsites are at a premium during summer months, and are often inaccessible after the first snow, fall travelers are likely to have their choice of the best spots. During the summer months at Rocky Mountain National Park, the fortunate few who get last-minute campsites are lucky if they have a view of the latrines. But after Labor Day, you usually don’t need reservations, even for sites with spectacular vistas of Longs Peak and the Indian Peaks to the south. For a true wilderness experience, try some of the off-the-beaten-path parks and destinations like the southern Oregon coast, western Kentucky, and the Dakotas.
Not only will you generally find fewer people out playing during the fall, but it will cost less as well. This is your chance to stay in exquisite backcountry resorts at bargain prices. Banff National Park - Canada’s Graceland for hikers - turns into a proverbial ghost town from September through the start of ski season in December. Rates at the Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotel drop 20-40 percent (depending on occupancy). Across the United States, backcountry lodges, hotels and resorts offer lower rates to attract off-season travelers. Don’t dismiss lodging that usually would strain your budget- chances are good that you can get an affordable room if you avoid prime time.
For the flip side of the seasonal coin, there are many places in North America where summer segues into winter without a blink. Say you’re planning on a big ski trip to the Tetons, or an ice-climbing pilgrimage to the Canadian Rockies, but work and warm weather make early season training impossible. No worries - there are plenty of places where there’s some snow and ice by October and November - so you can strap on your skis, snowshoes, or crampons and tone both technique and muscle for winter. Cannon Cliff and Crawford Notch in northern New Hampshire sometimes have early season ice climbing; there’s usually skiing at Sunday River (Maine) by November. In the Rocky Mountain region, ice forms on Colorado’s Mount Lincoln by mid-October, which is when the first real snow begins to accumulate in Rocky Mountain National Park. On the West Coast, check out the Oregon and Washington Cascades for an early glimpse of winter.
Tips for the wise fall outdoor adventurer
Be prepared for everything. Chances are the sun will shine, but don’t be surprised by a sudden pre-season snowstorm. The best way to pack for fall adventures is to bring plenty of layers. Bring along gloves, hat, a fleece pullover, a lightweight set of long underwear and a water-resistant jacket in case the good weather doesn’t hold.
Ask about off-season rates. Many lodges don’t quote lowered rates unless specifically asked. Also, off-season dates vary, depending on geographic location.
Consider your destination. Is it in a national or state park? If so, call the park information officer about necessary reservations, backcountry permits and fees and trail conditions. A quick call can tell you if there are any trail closures or special events planned that might crowd campsites and trails.
Check the weather before you leave home. There is an abundance of weather information available on the World Wide Web. WeatherNet at http://cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/wxnet
are excellent sources. To make sure you are armed with the most recent data, remember to always check the time and date of any forecast. Also, double-check the location of the forecast issued, to ensure that it is the closest one to your destination.
Get in shape for your planned trip. A hiking or camping trip is more enjoyable if your muscles are limber and your lungs are in shape. Begin a light stretching program at least a week before your departure. Concentrate on calves, quads, hamstrings and upper body. Start thinking of cardiovascular fitness. Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Try to get out on your bicycle, or take brisk walks or slow-paced jogs. Ten minutes a day, three or four days a week of easy exercise will make your pack feel lighter and those trails less steep.
Prepare your essential gear. Keep an equipment log from season to season, so you know in advance what you’ll need to bring. Then you’ll be ready to go at a moment’s notice.