Tuesday, February 28, 2017

10 Tips for Driving in Iceland

You're going to Iceland! Yeah! Congrats it's the most beautiful place in the world and I've been craving to get back ever since I flew out of Keflavík a few months ago. The best way to explore the island is by renting a car and hitting the road (....and also camping out every night!). Driving in Iceland was vastly different than what I expected, so here are tips to help you out:

1. Rent a 4x4. Like, an actual 4x4 not just some cross-over with said all-wheel-drive. If you're going to dive head-first into exploring this magical place called Iceland, you'll want a vehicle with high ground clearance and a proper four-wheel-drive system you can switch on and off. Bonus points if you can score a rental with a 4WL (four-wheel-drive low) or locking rear differential for some more aggressive off-road adventuring. I rented a smaller, robust Suzuki Jimny 4x4 that kicked butt on ungodly gravel bumpy F-Roads, through snow storms in the north and even forded a stream or too. If you're planning on just driving the paved 'Ring Road' then a car will be fine. But what's the fun of that? You've got the whole island to explore and a lot of the most amazing things I saw were after driving on gravel or dirt roads, up and down mountains for a few hours. BUT! Make sure before renting a proper 4x4 you know how to drive a 4x4 and are confident doing so.

2. Opt for Three-Pedals. Again maybe it's my inner gearhead coming out, but opting for three pedals while traversing the vast roads in Iceland will result in three things: better gas mileage, cheaper rental car rates and a way more fun driving experience. Plus it's so much more of a European thing to do. 'Tis a shame we're all afraid to buy and drive manual-transmissions in the United States. They're everywhere in Iceland. I saved a surprisingly big amount of money buy choosing a manual-transmission Suzuki Jimny 4x4 on my rental from GoIceland rather than the automatic. And if you're smart and do end up renting a vehicle with four-wheel-drive, you'll have way more control come precarious situations by rowing your own gears ('shifting' for you non car speak folk). That nostalgia factor of driving a tough 4x4 with a manual gearbox is enough for me.

3. Prep Your Credit Cards. If you've done your research, you've probably learned Iceland is a cashless country. I was there for fourteen days and never once used cash. Everything, everything, everything can be paid for with a credit card which is great for those looking to rack-up some points. But first you'll need to get your plastics in-order. All credit card transactions in Iceland will most likely require a four-digit pin (similar to a debit card), so make sure you contact your bank and set a pin prior to leaving. Do this sooner rather than later. A few days before leaving for Iceland, I tried to set a pin on my U.S. Bank REI credit card and they told me they could only send me the new pin via mail and it would take up to ten business days. Kind of pathetic when I was able to do it instantly for my Barclay credit car on their website. I've heard horror stories of people forgetting to set-up a pin on their credit card and not being able to refill their rental car with gas. Also make sure you're bringing with a credit card that doesn't have any foreign transaction fees. And always, always, always when paying with a credit card if you have the on-screen option to pay using U.S. Dollars (USD) or Icelandic Krona (ISK), choose the Krona. You'll actually end up paying more than the listed price if you pay with USD. True story.

4. Consider Purchasing Additional Rental Insurance. Following the trend with step three, see if your credit card already offers CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance for rental vehicles. If not, opt for it at the counter. Most travel credit cards, like the Barclay Arrival I use, already already have built-in CDW coverage meaning you can avoid buying a damage waiver from the rental car company. This could save you a boatload of money. When I finished loading up my backpack into the trunk of the Suzuki Jimny, I did a full walk-around staring at every waking part of the car, top to bottom, checking for damage. You have to make note of any defect you see before leaving. I noticed a small rock chip in the windshield right at eye-level, about the size of a dime. I thought I had initialed it correctly on the form prior to leaving from Keflavík, but I didn't. Fourteen days later, two-hours before my flight back home to the USA, the rental company noticed it and insisted that was new damage and the windshield will need to be completely replaced. Thankfully I explained and they let me leave without charging my card extra for the replacement. But that leads me to my next point, extra rental insurance. You'll see all sorts of options when renting a vehicle in Iceland. Sand and volcanic ash protection, theft protection, super collision damage waiver, gravel protection and the list goes on. First things first- you do not need theft protection because Iceland is the literally the safest country in the world, seriously. Volcanic ash and sand protection? Maybe, but I skimped on it and was fine. Gravel protection? Mandatory. You're going to get chips in the paint or possibly a chip in the windshield from a haywire stone, especially if you hit the F-Roads or venture off the main paved 'Ring Road'. It will happen, I promise you that, so spend a few bucks on protecting your beloved rental from flying gravel uh-ohs.

5. Fill Up Often. You don't have to worry about range anxiety over here for the most part, but if you're taking lots of side trips and detours throughout this wonderful country you'll want to keep that fuel gauge in the happy range. There are gas stations dotting the main paved 'Ring Road' and in most small towns you'll find one or a lone pump that's operable 24/7. Pay attention to your big road map, which I talk about below. I put around 3,000 miles on my rental car in just two-weeks, many of those miles racked-up by taking long, distant detours to explore other parts of Iceland like the East Fjords, gorgeous Snæfellsness (my favorite region) and the northernmost peninsulas. Anytime I deviated from the main 'Ring Road', I stopped at a petrol station to top-off. Again, study your map closely and plan out how far you'll drive and if you need to get to a petrol station. In Iceland you fill-up by the liter by the way. One thing that I found neat was that there were tiny villages in some of the most remote corners of Iceland where they had just one, filling pump. No station, just the pump. So if you're in a frenzy trying to find an actual gas station, don't give up as chances are it may just be the filling pump nestled away behind some old boathouse near the ocean. Oh, and try to eat tons of the infamous Icelandic lamb hot dogs that are served fresh at nearly all full-service gas stations. They're cheap and gloriously good. Onions on the bottom, yo.

6. Avoid Night Driving. To be honest, night driving in Iceland is terrifying. Not only because almost all the roads are narrow two-lanes with no shoulders, but driving on stretches of the 'Ring Road' is straight-up hypnotizing in the dark. On the main paved 'Ring Road', you'll see reflective marks on either sides of the road every few car lengths apart. If you're tired and on a flat, straight section of the 'Ring Road' passing dozens of reflectors, not seeing a single car for hours and not having curb with rumble strips to wake you up if you doze off... it's not a good combination at all. Plus you're missing all the heavenly terrain hiding in the night. Plan your days accordingly, keep an eye on the time and when the sun sets (when I was there in late fall/early winter, there were days it was almost pitch black by 4:30pm). Be safe and do your driving during the day.

7. Pay Attention and Don't Speed. The Icelandic 5-0 does not care for speeders. This is important for a latitude of reasons, not just because it's dangerous, but because there are speed cameras just about everywhere...even in some long, dark underground tunnels. Posted speed limits on just about all paved roads in Iceland are 90 kmh or about 55mph. Gravel road speed limits drop to 80kmh or around 50mph, but I'd be very cautious of driving that fast on some unpaved stretches. Many detours that take you around the coastal fjords are on bumpy gravel roads, be careful and watch for rock slides. They will happen, so watch carefully around a blind corner. The paramount reason you shouldn't speed- you're going to miss seeing everything on either side of the road. Iceland is the most beautiful place I've ever been, hopefully you'll agree. You can't soak up its allure if you're passing it by fast. Last tip- in some rural, unfathomably desolate parts of the country...you will encounter sheep in the middle of the road. There's your warning. The weather in Iceland can and will change in just seconds. From sun and blue skies to fierce snowstorms and exhausting, strong winds that will blow your vehicle all over the road. I bought a prepaid SIM card for a cheapo travel phone I got in Vietnam a few years ago and found myself calling '1777', the Icelandic road conditions and weather hotline which is updated constantly. Remember most F-Roads leading into the Highlands region are blocked in the winter and weather will close normal roads that aren't F-Roads. I'd also recommend saving '112' into your phone's contacts when in Iceland, you'll be patched through to emergency response teams should you run into trouble.

8. Learn How to"Einbreid Brú". Every bridge (and tunnel) I came across in Iceland was one-lane , meaning you have to yield to whoever approaches first. You'll almost immediately see signs for this type of bridge starting off on the 'Ring Road' when you're approaching the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. I was told many accidents happen because tourists and travelers don't know how these bridges work. If you're approaching a one-lane bridge and see someone coming from the other direction, pull to the side and wait. Do not, do not, do not attempt to beat the other oncoming car. You'll either end up in an accident or have to reverse backwards down a narrow one-lane bridge. Good luck with that. Learn the signs, all of them. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue has a helpful cheat-sheet you should probably take a look at before buckling that seat belt.

9. Don't Stop in the Road. This tip is just common sense. Like mentioned above, the grand majority of roads in Iceland are narrow, two-lanes. This includes the entire 'Ring Road'. There is no room for a you to pull over off to the side and get out to take a picture. Do not be that idiot tourist who stops in the middle of the road and gets out to take a photo. This will be a very hard temptation to resist. Tourists get killed every year doing this and it's crazy dangerous to anyone else driving nearby, especially because passing maneuvers can at times be scary. There were a few times on the 'Ring Road' I'd come to a stretch in the road and have to downshift a few gears and push on the brakes hard while swerving around some foolish tourist taking a gazillion photos with his rental Kia SUV just parked in the right lane blocking traffic. Dumb, just dumb. Wait until you find a rest stop or scenic view pull-off, there are plenty of the later if you're patient enough. If, you do decided to stop and get out to snap a picture: do it only when there is not a single car to be seen for miles, not in a blind spot area such as a hill or curve, and do it quick. Real quick. No photo is worth getting run over by a car for.

10. Skip the GPS, Buy a Map. Not just because when you get home you can have it framed in glass and hung proudly on the wall of your apartment- but because they're way more reliable and detailed than say a GPS or phone navigation app. Iceland is also surprisingly easy to navigate. One road, Route 1 otherwise commonly referred to as 'The Ring Road' loops the whole mainland part of the island with a network of straight-forward roads that deviate off it. Those are the roads that you need to drive to really see the country. Upon arrival at the airport or when picking up your rental car, purchase one of the 'big' maps and hit the road. For two-weeks I navigated the entire country solely using a big paper map that I constantly unfolded, and folded back up again. I never once got lost. You can jot notes down on it and you never have to worry about it running out of signal or battery life. I remember at some of the campgrounds I stayed at, at night travelers alike would sit and compare our paper maps over cold Icelandic beer...not cell phone screens.

Finally, I strongly, strongly encourage you to take some time and page through the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue's SafeTravel website which has loads of helpful information about traveling and adventuring safe across Iceland. They also have a free app called '112',  for smartphones that allows you to check-in your current location with them, in case an emergency happens or you get lost.  On here, you can also download crevasse maps and even rent personal locator beacons should you require SOS assistance in the backcountry.

Have fun.


P.S. here's a chill driving song I heard while over there from Icelandic rapper Emmsjé Gauti. Plus, who doesn't love an old-school BMW Z3? Enjoy.
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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Gear Review: OutdoorVitals Summit 0

Cost= $165-$190 (depending on size/length)

Let me first say...this sleeping bag is awesome.

Outdoor gear can be crazy expensive. And yes while some of that pricey equipment is top-notch, affordability should never be a worry when wanting to recreate outside. Never. When I first started getting into fall and winter camping years ago, I did my first trip up to the Peshtigo River State Forest in late October. The temperatures were in the low 30s and down to the twenties at night. Fall in Wisconsin is lovely, but camping out with a cheapo summer sleeping bag was not comfortable. Months later I bought a better sleeping bag for summer and fall camping, which I brought on my first winter backpacking trip I took that next February. Single digits plummeting down to -18 degrees overnight led to a very, very frigid attempt at sleeping. Alright, cold exposure, you win. I knew I needed to invest in a quality, down sleeping bag for freezing conditions. But I didn't want to spend upwards of $300, $400 or $500 dollars. I did some research and ended up learning through a public group on Facebook called "Backpacking" about a small company in Utah called OutdoorVitals.
They make an 800-fill, duck down, sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees called the Summit. Oh...and it only costs $180. It's super warm and compacts down to a sub-Nalgene bottle size. OutdoorVitals follows a pretty rad business model by not selling their products through retail outlets. So what you order is sent directly to you from the manufacturer. They even back all their products with a lifetime warranty. And free shipping. That's how you can add such an excellent piece of gear like the Summit 0 to your inventory and still have money to buy more. Because you can never have too much outdoor gear, right? Right.

The first thing I noticed and praise about the Summit 0 is how compressible it is.  You may know, down sleeping bags like this are favorable for those aiming to keep their overall pack weight slim. The Summit 0 weights just three pounds. It's down material scrunches into the included stuff-sack and after a few effortless tugs on the exterior straps, you'll get a 6'6 (I have the long size) sleeping bag that shrinks down to the size of a standard Nalgene water bottle. The bag itself is very easy to roll-up. This is all great because I can quickly throw it in the bottom of my Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack and go. It's small size once compacted away, means it can be easily kept inside my pack and not exposed to rain and snow on the approach out to the campsite. That's a huge plus.
Overall comfort? Oh it's cozy. Very, very, very cozy. It's like a soft, puffy cocoon of warmth. I actually look forward to climbing into my sleeping bag when I'm tired and dozing-off. Even sleeping through frozen nights at temperatures the bag is rated to, you'll stay perfectly snug. On a recent winter camping trip I never felt cold at night while catching some Zs. The bag has two, adjustable drawstrings near the neck that cinch the mummy-style bag, trapping in all the hot air you're body radiates. In temperatures above the 0-20 degree range, the bag still works wonders in keeping you even warmer, so you may need to shed a layer or two. I would feel totally confident sleeping in temperatures below the zero-degree mark inside this bag. It's just that good. The zipper is on the right side, starting near your shoulder and lining the bag down to a few inches above your feet. If your toes get sweaty, you can even unzip the bag from the bottom, upwards to bring in some ventilation. 

On the outside, the bag has two loops at its base for storage when not in use. In case you're just getting into outdoor gear made of down material, you should always hang it up loose when you're not using it. This airs it out and keeps all those down duck feathers fluffed-up and ready to keep you warm once you're inside. Never keep it scrunched away and compressed. I keep mine hanging up in my apartment's gear closet when I'm not out on some trip. Plus, it makes for some great conversation when you have friends over. Say you have questions on down sleeping bag care and cleaning? OutdoorVitals has a hugely helpful video blog with all sorts of great information and tips. Make sure to keep it dry too. The tough nylon exterior shell is treated with a DWR agent to keep any precipitation off it.
So there you have it...a high-quality, compact, and durable down sleeping bag for winter and fall camping for under $200. Go buy one, now and start spending less money and more nights in your tent year-round.



Monday, February 13, 2017

High Cliff State Park, WI

The other day while I was cleaning my apartment, I looked into my gear closet with all of my outdoor supplies and saw my tent, my beloved Eurkea Taron2 I got as a Christmas present a few years back. It was sitting there on a shelf, next to my rock climbing rack and backpacking pack. "Gosh I miss my tent," I murmured to myself. I sprinted into my bedroom which is also my wannabe-home-office and checked my work schedule. I had off Thursday and Friday morning until noon. Cool, I'm going to go winter camping. "You're nuts!" are the words that always come out of my mother's mouth when I tell her about some adventure I'm going on. Yes, winter camping is nuts, but if you have the right cold weather gear you can have an absolute blast. Therefore I do.

I loaded up my Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack, pulled together some rations for two meals, grabbed my snowshoes and hit the road. The destination for this mid-week adventure was High Cliff State Park located up in Sherwood, WI. I had the cruise control set at 65mph and Coldplay's legendary "A Rush of Blood To The Head" album playing. I can't believe that album came out fifteen years ago, I remember listening to it with my dad when it first came out in 2002. I was twelve. High Cliff State Park sits on the northeast coast of Lake Winnebago, the biggest lake in Wisco. It's a spectacular state park home to the Niagara Escarpment.

This mass of limestone rock stretches 1,000 miles across Wisconsin towards the tip of Door County and then onto, you guessed it, Niagara Falls in New York. Parts of the cliff or ledge, reach 20-30 feet high in some places and it's exposed here along the shore of Lake Winnebago. Inside the state park is a 125-acre state natural area dedicated to preserving the escarpment and its surrounding vegetation and talus forest. According to the DNR, the settling and hardening of limy ooze at the bottom of the Silurian Sea (which flooded the state some 400 million years ago) caused the escarpment to form. Over time, the dolomite was tilted downward southeast by earth's powerful forces and left the higher western edge exposed at the surface, which you can easily see here at High Cliff State Park (and at the lush Horicon Marsh region of the state). Here's a meaty article from OnMilwaukee.com that talks more about this incredible geological phenomenon.

When I got to High Cliff State Park, I registered and went to the group campground to set up tent. In the winter, the main campground is closed but you're able to camp in the group campground (sites are not plowed, you pay the standard $18 per night rate). I found a site right in the woods with views of Lake Winnebago off in the near distance. There were some fairly gusty winds blowing off the lake so I grabbed a large rock to place in the vestibule of the tent for weight and tied a strap around a large branch I had placed behind the tent. I've already had my tent blow away once in Moab, UT at Arches National Park when I had thought it was weighed down enough haha.

I strapped on my MSR Evo snowshoes and went hiking for a few hours. At High Cliff, you can hike both above and below the escarpment ledge that protrudes towards the lake. I started above and snowshoed along the tops of the cliffs. It's fascinating and just wild to see this big rocky, craggy formation up-close. Sharp edges jut out down the hill towards the water and into the perfect blue sky above. As a rock climber, seeing these makes me want to climb literally everything. The Indian Mound Trail takes you past a few, sacred Indian burial mounds before  connecting to the Red Bird Trail which straddles the top of the escarpment. The views are dizzying in some places, glancing down into the towering rock formation below you. You have to have crampons or snowshoes, simple microtrax you wrap around your shoes will not cut. You need legitimate blades or sharp spikes because it's very icy around the ledges and a fall into one of them would make for a tricky search-and-rescue operation. In places you feel like your standing above a slot canyon, it's awesome. I then wandered around below at the base of the escarpment, super intrigued by their prominence and shape. So, so, so cool. I could spend hours walking along the base of the escarpment, studying each ledge.

I continued heading down the trail towards the lake, walking admits a city of trees that I was geeking out over. hackberry, ash, basswoods, sugar maples (our state tree), elm and even willows. You guys...the trees are amazing here! Including a ginormous cottonwood tree that was a familiar sight. Familiar how you may ask? Well true story- three years ago when I was hiking here, I struck 'love at first sight' with that exact tree and later had it tattooed on my left arm. There's a moving quote that pairs with the ink. I'll blog a story about that coming up soon. It was perfect waldeinsamkeit, the solitary feeling of being alone in the woods.

With the sun falling over the southwestern corner of Lake Winnebago, I continued on snowshoes through the old lime kiln ruins and up to the 40ft observation tower. The one thing I remember about this park is that the sunsets up here are spectacular. Colors of blood red, vibrant orange, yellow and pink filling the sky and reflecting down onto the frozen icy surface. Stunning. I arrived back at my tent and crawled inside to warm up. My Eureka Taron2 does a superb job of blocking the harsh wind. This past Christmas, my father got me a MalloMe cooking mess kit and I was anxious to try it out. (The cooking set was so good and useful- I’ll do a little write-up of it later on the blog). Since the winds had picked up noticeably, I set-up my stove in the tent’s vestibule and started boiling up some bacon and potatoes soup. Throw some ripped up bread in the pot and you’ve got a delicious hot treat to enjoy after some exposure to the cold.

Temperatures dropped to around 0 degrees into the evening so I curled up in my 0-degree down sleeping bag from OutdoorVitals I spent some time journaling and reading more of Edward Abbey’s highly-addictive book, “Desert Solitude.” The moon above shined astonishingly bright, lighting up the forest my tent was residing in. I turned my headlamp off and saw everything around me in the tent. Crazy. The strong winds blew through the trees, wracking all sorts of loud pops, snaps, cracks and creases throughout the night. Laying there in the tent, I could hear a pair of great horned owls perched above somewhere nearby singing to each other. Everything else… was silent.

The next morning, my watch beeped at 7:15am and I lit-up the stove for some granola oatmeal. The sun was shining and temperatures slowly crept upwards into the teens. At around 8:15am, I took down my tent, loaded my pack and hit the road. The 90-minute drive got me back to my apartment in Cedarburg with just twenty minutes to take a quick shower and make lunch. I flung-out my sleeping bag, pad and tent on the floor to air out in the sun, got in uniform and brewed a coffee to gulp down on my way to work. Because micro-adventures like these keep me going throughout the week and are the very best.

If you have yet to visit High Cliff State Park, please, I urge you to make an effort in doing so. It’s one of the most unique parks in Wisconsin and exploring the Niagara Escarpment should be on everyone’s adventure bucket-list.


*High Cliff State Park is a state park located along Lake Winnebago at N7630 State Park RD, in Sherwood, WI 54169 just 1hr and 40min from downtown Milwaukee. Admission fees are required (daily or annual). There are many hiking trails, a campground with electric and non-electric sites, biking trails, a marina, observation tower, fishing spots and picnic areas.*
And here's one of the many legendary songs from Coldplay's "A Rush of Blood to the Head" album. Their song 'Amsterdam' is quite good. Enjoy!

Monday, February 6, 2017

What's My Favorite National Park? [Video]

Click the video above to view on YouTube.

Good morning and happy Monday! How was your weekend? Hope it was splendid. Mine was filled with a job interview in Madison, an intense game of Settlers of Catan, a chili cook-off with a bunch of my rock climbing buddies, work and then a super bowl party. Boo you Patriots, boo. I was really hoping for Atlanta to win the game, just give the Falcons the Lombardi trophy already. Did you catch the commercials? What were your favorites? Every year I watch the Super Bowl, my inner advertising geek comes out in me (that is after all what my degree is in), and I get so immersed in each TV spot. My three favorites this year? Alfa Romeo's ads for their sexy new Giulia, the 'Complete the Journey' spot from 84 Lumber (probably my favorite...it's chillingly powerful and beautiful, watch the whole ad) and finally the short hilarious Busch commercial with the prolonged "Buschhhhhhhhh" followed by adorable animals snapping into attention. I laugh every time.

This post is a vlog...video + blog post = vlog. Hooray for math! The National Park Service just turned 100 this past year and have flooded the world with these wonderful "Find Your Park" advertisements that encourage people to get out, explore and find their park. The park that means the most to them and that park you fall in love with. In my efforts to check-off every National Park Service property in the U.S., I try to plan out multiple trips each year to adventure in these incredible places. A super common question I get from friends and people on the road, is "What's your favorite national park?" So that got me thinking and taking a few suggestions from others to make a video for my blog- I created this. So enjoy....and get out there to find your park. I did this in one take so I don't feel too bad about the rambling :)

Oh and I've been begging to get back in my tent, therefore I've got a quick winter camping trip planned for later this week at High Cliff State Park in Wisco. There's also a post in the works about the top places to hike in Ozaukee County per request after my recent list of the best spots in Milwaukee County exploded in popularity. Stay tuned and get outdoors!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Trekking the 414: Best Places to Hike in Milwaukee

Twice this month I've had friends of mine text me asking for my recommendations on where to go hiking around Milwaukee. MKE is home to glorious custard, loud motorcycles, the world's largest music festival Summerfest, tons of rich unique history and some phenomenal places to get outdoors. Places to escape into nature all within the grand Milwaukee County border. From a swarm of 136 excellent county parks, to nature preserves, a stunning tiny state forest and a state park right on the lakefront- they're all in the 414 and easy to get to. The Mil' has 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 even recognition for butterfly conservation efforts. We should be very proud of the this.

READ: 13 Easy Places to Go Camping Near Milwaukee

So here are five of my favorite go-to spots around Milwaukee when I'm craving some outdoor adventure. Of course, make sure to enjoy a Lakefront IPA or butter burger from Solly's after dirtying up those hiking boots.

1. Havenwoods State Forest
I blogged about this place a few months back and praised it. And gosh it constantly will continue to be praised because it's the best hidden secret of Milwaukee. Located off of Silver Spring Drive it's just minutes from I-43, Bayshore Mall and the North Shore suburbs. I love, love, love, love Havenwoods. It's beautiful everywhere you look, there are miles of hiking easy hiking trails that take you through woods and wide-open prairie fields, a small creek and a nature center. What's special about this tiny state forest, is that it's like a pure nature oasis in the middle of the urban, bustling city. We're also so  lucky to have a place like Havenwoods State Forest with such close proximity to the greater Milwaukee area. It's also free to enter and explore! If you haven't been you need to go hike hiking here.

2. Doctor's Park
Here's a county park I frequent often. 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 nice sandy 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. Keep your eyes peeled for a few paths that lead down to the lake. 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.

3. Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is my top 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 nights we'd all head to the visitor center to learn about animals and hear legendary naturalist David Stokes dress up as a bat and sing on his acoustic guitar and tell stories. Fairly confident I still have one of his cassette tapes. That's a throwback, thanks Dave. Needless to say,  I owe a ton to the SANC for introducing me to my never-diminishing passion for the outdoors. This place is so important to me. I honestly don't think I'd be working in the outdoor recreation industry today had it not been for my past and continued exposure to this place. 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. 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!

4. Big Bay Park
Looking for an easy, quick escape from the daily buzz? This county park is it. 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 county. Up top you've got some nice open grass to hang out on but the real fun is down below. Take a walk down the paved path to a small, quiet beach or have a perfect picnic on the bluffs. You can also wander out on to the stone blocks that extend about 30-40ft out into the water if you're brave and the waves aren't too wild! Sunsets here are surprisingly pleasant and you'll snag a glimpse at some cool colors. I'd also recommend catching 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.

5. Lakeshore State Park
Guess what? They're actually a state park right in downtown Milwaukee. There are a few hiking trails, spots to fish, short grass prairies, launches for kayaks and canoes along with a few  slips to dock your boat.  Paved trails also allow for skating and biking and it's super easy to connec to both the Oak Leaf Trail that rides north through the county as well as the Hank Aaron State Trail that goes west. Lakeshore is a sweet place to kick-back, soak-in  the Milwaukee skyline and enjoy Lake Michigan. It's a free state park and just seconds from the Summerfest grounds and the magnificent Milwaukee Art Museum


[Updated 1/27/2017]