3 Eco-Friendly Fall Outdoor Getaways

Now’s the time to get outside, as the crowds go away and the wildlife returns.

Wasatch Range. (Photo: Melanie Haiken)

Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area-based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

If it feels like summer's over and you didn't meet your quota for outdoor adventure, don't give up yet. Come Labor Day, the parks empty, the trails become a lot less crowded, and temperatures drop to make outdoor sports a lot more comfortable. And then there's the wildlife viewing; the fewer people around, the easier it is to spot deer, fox, coyote, and even bear and moose feeding as they pack on the pounds for winter. Here are three late summer–early fall escapes that are as environmentally conscious as they are spectacular.

1. Wasatch Mountains, Utah: Sundance Resort

Think back to 1969, when most people didn't even know what recycling was. Yet that's when Robert Redford purchased a small family-owned ski resort called Timp Haven, rechristened it Sundance Resort, and began creating what some might call the first American eco-resort. With 10 acres of private hiking trails climbing the eastern slope of Mount Timpanogos, your boots will get plenty of use.

You won't see a lot of hoopla at Sundance about going green. There are small signs asking you to minimize water use and reuse your towels, but that's about it, because the entire resort was conceived and designed from the ground up for low environmental impact.

Everything is recycled and local. Even the soaps are handmade on site, then packaged in recycled cardboard sleeves. Bath products are bottled in biodegradable corn-based plastic. Most surprising is the resort's onsite glass kiln, installed because of Utah's lack of glass recycling service. You can visit the glass studio whenever you like to watch artisans blowing the melted recycled glass into gorgeous tumblers, bowls, and other glassware used at the resort and available for purchase.

Visually, the resort was designed for minimal impact as well. Walking the winding paths that connect one area of the resort to another, you can barely see the cabins, tucked into slopes of a canyon cut by a wild and tumbling stream. Then there's the resort's Sundance Spa, which made the top-10 list for green spas compiled each year by Organic Spa Magazine.

Outdoor Adventure

Where do you hike at Sundance? A better question would be, where don't you hike, as trails lead from all sides of the resort straight up surrounding peaks. One of the most popular day hikes is the trek to Stewart Falls, which winds through pine forests, stream canyons, and alpine meadows to the base of the 200-foot two-tiered cascade. The more ambitious climb to Arrowhead Summit, where the ridge-top view includes Heber Valley on one side and Utah Valley on the other. Take your bike with you on the lift to Ray's Summit, and you have immediate access to 25 miles of unspoiled single-track. Sundance is unusual in offering the services of full-time naturalists, available to guide you on hikes in the summer and fall and on ski treks in winter.

2. Death Valley National Park, Nevada: Furnace Creek Resort

After an hour's drive from Las Vegas, you're in another world—a world of ochre and bronze cliffs, golden sand dunes, and glistening salt flats. Too hot for serious hiking during the summer, Death Valley is perfect as temperatures cool and the light dims, making colors even more vivid.

The baking sun that has earned Death Valley the title of "hottest place on Earth" has been put to another use. The largest solar photovoltaic energy system in the American tourism industry now powers Furnace Creek Ranch, which includes the Inn at Furnace Creek as well as several restaurants, a campground, and a golf course. Completed in 2009, the system has now produced more than 10 million kilowatt hours and by 2013 had met the ranch's goal of reducing energy use by 30 percent.

Death Valley. (Photo: Melanie Haiken)

Energy isn't the only area where Furnace Creek Resort is green. Water—a key resource in the desert—is closely conserved. The famed deco-tiled swimming pool is fed by the natural spring that gave Furnace Creek its name, and the resort's lush date palm groves are kept green by water recycled from the pool.

Owner Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which has earned many of the travel industry's top green awards, made major energy renovations at the historic inn, from installing high-efficiency insulated windows and replacing outdated fans, to banning endangered fish from the restaurant's menu. And while you can argue that an eco-friendly golf course is the ultimate oxymoron, you have to give them props for biodiesel-fueled lawn mowers. Most important of all, the historic inn is open to the public from October to May, when lower temperatures allow its operation without excessive energy use. The more modern hotel accommodations and campground at Furnace Creek Ranch are open year-round.

Outdoor Adventure

None of this is why you stay at Furnace Creek, though—people come back year after year for the same reasons Clark Gable and pretty much every other major Hollywood star since has visited: to experience the multihued spectacle of the desert in all its geologic variety. Favorite hikes include Golden, Mosaic, Desolation, and Natural Bridge canyons (all under three miles), and the four-mile Gower Gulch Loop. The more adventurous will pack plenty of water and head up Wildrose or Telescope Peak. And no one should leave without exploring the Badwater Basin salt flats, Ubehebe and Little Hebe craters, and the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

Mountain bikes are also available for rent at Furnace Creek. Go for a night ride when the pavement is cool and you have the roads to yourself. Not only will you enjoy the silence of Death Valley, you'll be treated to one of the best star shows you've ever seen.

3. Adirondack State Park, New York

Less a single park than a patchwork of lake and mountain preserves, the Adirondacks are where New Yorkers get away to get outdoors. With 2.6 million acres of protected state land, we're talking a lot of territory open to hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking, fishing and every other outdoor activity you can think of. (Skiing in the winter too, of course.) The fall colors in the Adirondacks are as vivid—and last longer—than pretty much anywhere else on the East Coast.

Eco-friendliness seems to be contagious in the Adirondacks these days, with numerous lakeside resorts earning accolades for introducing energy conservation, recycling, and other green efforts. Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort  and Gauthier's Saranac Lake Inn have now both earned Platinum Green (4 leaf) ratings from Audubon International, placing them on a coveted list of only eight such properties worldwide.

From a paperless reservation system and pens made of recycled plastic to a ban on bottled water, Golden Arrow has raised resource conservation to a high art. Meanwhile, Gauthier's was recognized for, among other things, offering discount rates for guests who arrive via a nongasoline-powered mode of transportation. The Haus on Mirror Lake, also called the Haus Lake Placid, recently earned a 4-green eco-leaf rating for conservation efforts, while the Sagamore Resort on Lake George makes numerous best lists for its health-oriented organic spa.

Outdoor Sports

Picking the best spots to paddle in the Adirondacks is almost impossible when there are 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams to choose from. But the St. Regis Canoe Area is among the most pristine and least developed, while out of the big lakes, Lake George consistently rates the cleanest. Hikers argue over the best trails and peaks, but the five-mile climb up Hurricane Mountain is a favorite day hike, and the 14-mile ascent of Mount Marcy allows for top bragging rights.

Wildlife Tip: The Adirondack Fall Moose Festival in late September celebrates the region's rebounding moose population with moose calling contests and guided trips to see these majestic—and somewhat ridiculous—beasts in their natural habitat.

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