Saturday, April 16, 2016

Explore for FREE! National Park Week Starts 4/16/2016

You guys, it's National Parks Week and all 400-plus national parks across the United States are totally FREE to access from April 16 - April 24. What a better way to ring in the NPS's 100th birthday. They're our best way to explore the pure wilderness outdoors that scatter the country. From dry deserts and thick forests to glacier-filled paradises and towering alpine mountains, go visit a national park, national monument or national historic site near you. Chances are there's one close to you! Plus as an added bonus, this year's Earth Day happens to fall during this National Parks Week, make sure to check if there are any educational or interpretative events too. Events from park cleanups to poetry walks. Make Teddy Roosevelt proud, get outside, dive into nature and take advantage of this freebie week. Do it! Once you visit your first national park, you'll be hooked.

#FindYourPark here: http://findyourpark.com/find

Want some tips, advice or pictures from national parks I've been to? Click here


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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hiking the 414, My Five Favorite Spots Around Milwaukee


Today's 414 day, a glorious day in which celebrate all great things that make up the Midwest's best city- Milwaukee! It's home to loud motorcycles, greasy butter burgers and the world's biggest music festival. But it's also home to an ever-growing community of outdoor enthusiasts. Wisconsin has to have one of the leading park systems in the country and Milwaukee follows similar suit with one of the most-awarded metropolitan park systems. Our parks have won an impressive portfolio of honors from best urban and freshwater beach (cough, Bradford) to butterfly conservation efforts. We should be proud of the 'Mil for this. Even beyond the 136 county parks, you've got a handful of private lands or state park/forest areas to explore, all within a 45 minute drive of hopping, downtown Water Street where you can grab a Lakefront IPA after. Whether it be a quick ten minute hike or a few hour adventure, here are a few of my local, easy-to access hiking spots around Milwaukee that you should probably check out.

1. Big Bay Park | trail map 5000 N. Lake Drive | Looking for an easy escape from the daily buzz? Head to suburb of Whitefish Bay, minutes north of downtown Milwaukee. Tiny yes, but 8.7 acre Big Bay Park rewards you with some pretty stellar views of the many bays along Lake Michigan that make up northern Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties. Take a hike down the path to a small, quiet beach or have a perfect picnic on the bluffs. Catch the sunrise here on an early summer morning with a cup of strong, Colectivo or Fiddleheads coffee from just down the road. That's a solid way to start the day.

2. Schlitz Audubon Nature Center | trail map 1111 E. Brown Deer Rd. | The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is my go-to spot to get my wanderlust on. This 185 acre preserve has what I think, the best hiking in Milwaukee county. It's hard to find words that describe my appreciation for this place. Growing up five-minutes away in the village of Bayside, my family would go here literally every weekend for hours and on Friday night's we'd all head to the visitor center to learn about animals and hear legendary naturalist David Stokes sing on his acoustic guitar and tell stories dressed up as a bat. Fairly confident I still have one of his cassette tapes. That's a throwback, thanks Dav. Needless to say, I owe a lot to SANC for introducing me to my never-diminishing passion for the outdoors. Daily admission is $5-$8 to explore some of the 4.21 miles worth of trails that wind through protected forest, beach front along Lake Michigan, prairies, meadows, ponds, marshes, and deep ravines. I bought a year pass for $50, totally worth it! A visit isn't complete without a stop at their impressive visitor center to see interpretive exhibits or attend one of the frequent Raptor Programs where you get the chance to learn and see up-close, hawks, owls, falcons, Loki the crow and maybe even an eagle!

3. Retzer Nature Center | trail map S14 W28167 Madison St | So it's the only place on this list that's in Waukesha County, but it definitely, definitely deserves a spot on this praise-filled blog post. I love the Retzer Nature Center for its expansive trail system that plots you in all sorts of diverse terrain. It also gets a big high-five in the name of environmental education for it's paved interpretation trail with 30 unique stations that teach one about the wildlife and land Retzer sits on. Creeks, marsh land, huge hills with vast vista views (hooray for alliteration!) of Waukesha county. You can spend a few hours here hiking around and bringing a camera is a must. My plan each time is to start at the parking lot and hike the Prairie Pond Trail that then connects to the Outer Hiking Trail (which takes you through a dense portion of forest with hills), up to the vista overlook and then down the hill to the Fen Boardwalk Trail. I know every time I go to Retzer, I leave confidently feeling recharged after a full dosage of quality hiking and abundant nature time. Don't miss the visitor center which is home to the Charles Z Horwitz Planetarium! Plan to drive about 37 minutes from downtown Milwaukee and admission is free. If you haven't been to Retzer, you need to go! (Even in the winter, RNC is a charm, being of my top-picks of destinations to go snowshoeing).

4. Doctor's Park | trail map 1870 E Fox Lane | Here's a park I grew up going to and still visit frequently. Seconds away from neighboring Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is Doctor's Park. This 49 acre park is well-maintained (special thanks to an active friends group who constantly improve the park) and the perfect close-by destination for those living in Milwaukee's north shore 'burbs. Once you arrive, take a walk down the hill through a gorgeous, shaded tree-filled ravine to get to the beach. A fun hike to do starts from the main parking lot and heads east along the edges of the big, main fields. You can easily spend half-an-hour wandering along the tree lines of the upper bluffs of this park. Ultimate fans rejoice, this is an ideal park to play Frisbee in. Access to Doctor's Park is free, check it out! Dr. Joseph Schneider, gifted the park to the City of Milwaukee in 1928 with this intent: "To my fellow citizens for recreation purposes." Spot-on, doc, spot-on.

5. Highland Woods | trail map 12701 N Green Bay Road 59W | Here's the biggest surprise on this list. This 85 acre plot of land in Ozaukee County just north of Thiensville has what I think, is the most outstanding, untouched full forest in Southeast Wisconsin. I was literally "wowed' when I discovered you could actually hike through it. Give yourself a good hour here, hiking around and taking your time to get lost in the towering maples and oaks that skyrocket into the sky. Highland Woods is a stunning forest nestled on a hillside and managed by the Wisconsin DNR and City of Mequon. Admission and parking is free.


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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Gear Review: 2016 Fiat 500x

Attractive, capable and Italian. But can it adventure?

As a 26 year-old millennial with an insane craving for the outdoors, it's become a tad tricky to find new cars suitable for a replacement of my aging yet still amazing Saab station wagon. They're either too boring, not practical enough, are littered with too much unnecessary gadgets I'd never use or just too expensive. Now more than ever, is "will this vehicle fit all of my outdoor gear?" becoming a more relevant priority. You can buy a cookie-cutter, dull car that just gets you from point a to point b, or seek out something unique, fun and that fully caters to your individual lifestyle. I'll choose the later.

Enter, the 2016 Fiat 500x. Based loosely on a platform shared with Jeep's new Renegade, the 500x is marketed as the four-door, all-wheel-drive, compact crossover variant of the regular 500. How'd the 500x come to be? Take Fiat's tiny two-door 500 micro car, throw it some granola, a pair of rugged hiking boots and few energy drinks and you get a very capable ride for those nature geeks.

Power comes from a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that squeezes out 180 horsepower and nearly the same amount of torque. It's engine even gets a mysterious name; Tigershark. Power was what I'd expected from a car this size, not too much and not too little. A nine-speed, yes count that right, automatic drives power to all four-wheels in AWD trims. Crazy to think that my daily driver back home, has a four-speed automatic and now this Fiat I'm piloting through Colorado has nine. That's a lot of gears, and it showed driving around in rush-hour traffic as the transmission seemed to be constantly searching for the right gear to be in. It's as if the 500x drank way too many espressos and was nervous to just sit still in one gear. This auto needs paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel for uphill/downhill driving, rather than by slapping the center-console mounted gear shifter to the left and tapping it up and down for manual shifting. Sadly, if you wan't a third pedal, there's a six-speed manual offered in the base, front-wheel-drive Pop model. Come on Fiat, give me a manual with all-wheel-drive.
On the plus side, the more gears the better in terms of efficiency. At 70mph, I was sitting at just below 1,500 RPM in 8th gear. Fuel economy is a crucial make-it-or-break it for me. If I'm going to use this to commute hours to work and for weekend getaways, it better be somewhat green. Good news, is the 500x is. I was able to reach 28mpg combined on the 460 miles spent on highways, around-town driving and on steep, high-altitude mountain passes. Ride quality felt solid. A car this size and class isn't going to have the utmost fully smooth, bump-absorbing ride you'd find in say a new Cadillac with magnetic ride control, but the little-ish Fiat soaked up what it can and wasn't thrown all over the place when imperfections in the road or potholes miraculously appeared. Plus, I wouldn't want a dead-calm ride if I were taking this car off-road anywhere, that hopping around in your seat as you meander down a dirty two-track road or s fresh-fallen snowy parking lot adds to the pizzazz and camaraderie of the trip.

Another must-have feature? All-wheel-drive. If I'm spending the money on a car, it has to have all-wheel or four-wheel-drive. I do too much driving in the snow, mud, on gravel surfaces and in forests for my array of outdoor recreational activities. The 500x in this car is as solid as the towering lodgepole pines I drove alongside in Colorado this past weekend. Not once did I get stuck in treacherous winter storm conditions on the white-knuckle inducing, Berthoud Pass. Foot-deep pockets of slippery mud? No problem at all. I've driven a vast array of new vehicles over the past few years and while some AWD systems are no-brainer perfect, others are a reckless failed attempt at it. Fiat did well with the 500x's, constantly feeling confident in deep snow and ice. There's a knob on the center console that gives you three drive modes: Sport, Auto and Traction+. Traction+ mode maximizes of course, traction, appropriately diverting power to the front and or rear wheels depending on the circumstance. The transmission keeps gears from shifting too soon to allow for continued spin of the wheels if need be. Sport mode tightens up feedback in the 500x's steering, wakes-up the throttle response and quickens shift points for spirited driving. Coming back into Denver on warm, dry roads, the 500x was a blast to drive in Sport mode. Not as adrenaline-pumping as it's younger brothers, the 500 Abarth or 500 Turbo (both of which I've driven and think they're equally fantastic in my boy-racer opinion), but fun enough to celebrate and make you smile once you get back on paved roads after a spontaneous epic adventure in the back country. Again, flappy-paddle shifters behind the steering wheel or a true-manual would make that smile even more grandioso.


Inside and out, the 500x definently looks Italian. My 'Rosso Amore' tri-coat red (a $1,000 option) tester was a sleek, sharp looking car. It reminded me of a massive jelly bean. The 500x joins the cast of other uniquely styled 5-seat, compact crossovers I adore like the Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport along with Mini's Countryman and Paceman. Styling has to pop and stand out. I'm glad the 500x shares similar styling cues with the smaller 500, particularly in the front.  Black plastic moldings all around, front-and-back (which I appreciate for the loading and unloading of ski equipment and off-pavement driving), and an impressive amount of ground clearance that give the Italian some genuine, off-road pedigree. The interior is cool, modern and as a few passengers pointed out- fancy. Black leather seats with Fiat stitching, a painted dashboard that looks like it came out of an art gallery in Turin. The air conditioning vents and parts of the dashboard near the climate controls are embezzled with a metal-like trim, for a touch of class. It's a quiet, plush cabin and I felt alarmingly comfortable, even being 6'2. Cargo capacity is another key deal-breaker for me. Will it fit a kayak inside? Will it fit a pair of skis or all of my backpacking and camping gear? With the part of the 40/60 rear-seat folded down I could easily fit my cherished 180cm downhill skis (though the tips creeped a bit onto the armrest between the front two-seats. Fold down both rear seat and the 500x offers up around 50 cu-ft of room. Plenty of space for an outing to Winter Park to ski the infamous, lovely Mary Jane. Oh she's a fine one.

This particular 500x I had was the Lounge AWD model which starts at $27,100 MSRP, Fully stickered out at just over $29,000 with the optional heated leather seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, easy-to-use Uconnect infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touch-screen and navigation along with a few other fancy advanced safety features like blind-spot warning lights in the side mirrors, a rear back-up camera with reverse sensors and rear cross-path monitoring that alerts you when you're backing up say in a parking lot, and a car is approaching from either side. A few of those mentioned I could do without and save a bit of cash. Visibility isn't horrible, though thick, protruding A-pillars made curvy roads a bit nerve-racking.
Bottom Line:
So would I buy one? Perhaps. I'd have a hard time forking over nearly $30,000 on a brand-new compact crossover, even if it is fully loaded with 'today's hottest features'. In that price range you're also looking at larger, unstoppable new Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds, slightly-used Nissan Xterra Pro-4x, Toyota Land Cruisers, FJ Cruisers or 4Runners, Heck you could even snatch up a low-mileage Hummer H2 if you want to go all balls-out Americana. But of course, you'll sacrifice that gas mileage and strike an annoyance of attempting to drive a vehicle that big in tight, urban scenarios. So yes, I'd definently consider buying a Fiat 500x but it'll need to be a few years old used, in black, and with a ski carrier or cargo box on top. That'll give it a healthy dosage of Colorado swagger. Well done, Fiat, bravo. Now please excuse me as I cue up the Ocean's 12 (yes 12, way-underrated) movie soundtrack on my iPod and blast through the Rockies of while this song triumphantly plays.

Cheers,
Robby



Note: it's been a long time, years in fact since I've done any kind of automotive writing, (example 1 from Cars.com, example 2 from Hooniverse.com) due to fantastic career changes, cross-country moves and new hobbies. Maybe I'll start writing more of these if I can get my hands on a few more new cars~ enjoy!
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Driving the 2016 Fiat 500x

Attractive, capable and Italian. But can it adventure?

As a 26 year-old millennial with an insane craving for the outdoors, it's become a tad tricky to find new cars suitable for a replacement of my aging yet still amazing Saab station wagon. They're either too boring, not practical enough, are littered with too much unnecessary gadgets I'd never use or just too expensive. Now more than ever, is "will this vehicle fit all of my outdoor gear?" becoming a more relevant priority. You can buy a cookie-cutter, dull car that just gets you from point a to point b, or seek out something unique, fun and that fully caters to your individual lifestyle. I'll choose the latter.

Enter, the 2016 Fiat 500x. Based loosely on a platform shared with Jeep's new Renegade, the 500x is marketed as the four-door, all-wheel-drive, compact crossover variant of the regular 500. How'd the 500x come to be? Take Fiat's tiny two-door 500 micro car, throw it some granola, a pair of rugged hiking boots and few energy drinks and you get a very capable ride for those nature geeks.

Engine and Transmission
Power comes from a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that squeezes out 180 horsepower and nearly the same amount of torque. It's engine even gets a mysterious name; Tigershark. Power was what I'd expected from a car this size, not too much and not too little. A nine-speed, yes count that right, automatic drives power to all four-wheels in AWD trims. Crazy to think that my daily driver back home, has a four-speed automatic and now this Fiat I'm piloting through Colorado has nine. That's a lot of gears, and it showed driving around in rush-hour traffic as the transmission seemed to be constantly searching for the right gear to be in. It's as if the 500x drank way too many espressos and was nervous to just sit still in one gear. This auto needs paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel for uphill/downhill driving, rather than by slapping the center-console mounted gear shifter to the left and tapping it up and down for manual shifting. Sadly, if you want a third pedal, there's a six-speed manual offered in the base, front-wheel-drive Pop model. Come on Fiat, give me a manual with all-wheel-drive.

On the plus side, the more gears the better in terms of efficiency. At 70mph, I was sitting at just below 1,500 RPM in 8th gear. Fuel economy is a crucial make-it-or-break it for me. If I'm going to use this to commute hours to work and for weekend getaways, it better be somewhat green. Good news, is the 500x is. I was able to reach 28mpg combined on the 460 miles spent on highways, around-town driving and on steep, high-altitude mountain passes. Ride quality felt solid. A car this size and class isn't going to have the utmost fully smooth, bump-absorbing ride you'd find in say a new Cadillac with magnetic ride control, but the little-ish Fiat soaked up what it can and wasn't thrown all over the place when imperfections in the road or potholes miraculously appeared. Plus, I wouldn't want a dead-calm ride if I were taking this car off-road anywhere, that hopping around in your seat as you meander down a dirty two-track road or s fresh-fallen snowy parking lot adds to the pizzazz and camaraderie of the trip.

Behind the Wheel
Another must-have feature? All-wheel-drive. If I'm spending the money on a car, it has to have all-wheel or four-wheel-drive. I do too much driving in the snow, mud, on gravel surfaces and in forests for my array of outdoor recreational activities. The 500x in this car is as solid as the towering lodgepole pines I drove alongside in Colorado this past weekend. Not once did I get stuck in treacherous winter storm conditions on the white-knuckle inducing, Berthoud Pass. Foot-deep pockets of slippery mud? No problem at all. I've driven a vast array of new vehicles over the past few years and while some AWD systems are no-brainer perfect, others are a reckless failed attempt at it. Fiat did well with the 500x's, constantly feeling confident in deep snow and ice. There's a knob on the center console that gives you three drive modes: Sport, Auto and Traction+. Traction+ mode maximizes of course, traction, appropriately diverting power to the front and or rear wheels depending on the circumstance. The transmission keeps gears from shifting too soon to allow for continued spin of the wheels if need be. Sport mode tightens up feedback in the 500x's steering, wakes-up the throttle response and quickens shift points for spirited driving. Coming back into Denver on warm, dry roads, the 500x was a blast to drive in Sport mode. Not as adrenaline-pumping as it's younger brothers, the 500 Abarth or 500 Turbo (both of which I've driven and think they're equally fantastic in my boy-racer opinion), but fun enough to celebrate and make you smile once you get back on paved roads after a spontaneous epic adventure in the back country. Again, flappy-paddle shifters behind the steering wheel or a true-manual would make that smile even more grandioso.


Looks and Practicality
Inside and out, the 500x definitely looks Italian. My 'Rosso Amore' tri-coat red (a $1,000 option) tester was a sleek, sharp looking car. It reminded me of a massive jelly bean. The 500x joins the cast of other uniquely styled 5-seat, compact crossovers I adore like the Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport along with Mini's Countryman and Paceman. Styling has to pop and stand out. I'm glad the 500x shares similar styling cues with the smaller 500, particularly in the front. Black plastic moldings all around, front-and-back (which I appreciate for the loading and unloading of ski equipment and off-pavement driving), and an impressive amount of ground clearance that give the Italian some genuine, off-road pedigree. The interior is cool, modern and as a few passengers pointed out- fancy. Black leather seats with Fiat stitching, a painted dashboard that looks like it came out of an art gallery in Turin. The air conditioning vents and parts of the dashboard near the climate controls are embezzled with a metal-like trim, for a touch of class. It's a quiet, plush cabin and I felt alarmingly comfortable, even being 6'2. Cargo capacity is another key deal-breaker for me. Will it fit a kayak inside? Will it fit a pair of skis or all of my backpacking and camping gear? With the part of the 40/60 rear-seat folded down I could easily fit my cherished 180cm downhill skis (though the tips crept a bit onto the armrest between the front two-seats. Fold down both rear seat and the 500x offers up around 50 cu-ft of room. Plenty of space for an outing to Winter Park to ski the infamous, lovely Mary Jane. Oh she's a fine one.


Features
This particular 500x I had was the Lounge AWD model which starts at $27,100 MSRP, Fully stickered out at just over $29,000 with the optional heated leather seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, easy-to-use Uconnect infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touch-screen and navigation along with a few other fancy advanced safety features like blind-spot warning lights in the side mirrors, a rear back-up camera with reverse sensors and rear cross-path monitoring that alerts you when you're backing up say in a parking lot, and a car is approaching from either side. A few of those mentioned I could do without and save a bit of cash. Visibility isn't horrible, though thick, protruding A-pillars made curvy roads a bit nerve-racking.


Bottom Line
So would I buy one? Perhaps. I'd have a hard time forking over nearly $30,000 on a brand-new compact crossover, even if it is fully loaded with 'today's hottest features'. In that price range you're also looking at larger, unstoppable new Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds, slightly-used Nissan Xterra Pro-4x, Toyota Land Cruisers, FJ Cruisers or 4Runners, Heck you could even snatch up a low-mileage Hummer H2 if you want to go all balls-out Americana. But of course, you'll sacrifice that gas mileage and strike an annoyance of attempting to drive a vehicle that big in tight, urban scenarios. So yes, I'd definitely consider buying a Fiat 500x but it'll need to be a few years old used, in black, and with a ski carrier or cargo box on top. That'll give it a healthy dosage of Colorado swagger. Well done, Fiat, bravo. Now please excuse me as I cue up the Ocean's 12 (yes 12, way-underrated) movie soundtrack on my iPod and blast through the Rockies of while this song triumphantly plays.

Cheers,
Robby

Learn more about the Fiat 500x and find a dealer near you.



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