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Regional travel is on the rise this year, and it’s giving people the opportunity to explore this great, diverse nation in a new light. From arid deserts to dense mountain forests, the USA has a stunning array of landscapes to suit everyone’s sense of adventure.
For those explorers looking to travel in a more thoughtful, environmentally conscious way, we break down what ecotourism is, and a few US states to check out when you’re ready to hit the road.
What is ecotourism?
The term ecotourism has been around for many years, but only in the last few has it really been considered a mainstream piece of vocabulary when talking about travel. Basically, it’s a set of ecological principles that have been developed and adapted specifically for the tourism industry.
Tourism can have both positive and negative effects on destinations (depending on how it is managed). An influx of visitors to a location can mean an increase in cash flow for the local economy, but it can also mean damage to local flora and fauna.
The idea behind implementing these principles is to minimize negative impact while encouraging the positive impacts of tourism on a location. The International Ecotourism Society has derived a set of 8 principles. In theory, the more of these principles that a business or destination adheres to, the more ‘eco friendly’ it is:
These principles include things like:
- Operating facilities with low environmental impact
- Minimizing the social/cultural impacts on a location
- Providing direct financial benefits for conservation or to support the community
Joshua Tree National Park / @daveyheuser
California is known as being ahead of the trend, particularly when it comes to environmental efforts. In the realm of ecotourism, it is no different. There are certain places in the state that go the extra mile, such as Yosemite National Park, which offers free hybrid (electric) shuttle rides, a great initiative to encourage people to get to the park while discouraging typical single-group fuel-powered vehicles.
There are a lot of educational activities set up across the state for the environmentally-minded travelers. The Help Your Harbor organization leads kayak tours and ocean cleanup from Huntington Beach every Sunday morning (8:45AM). It’s a unique way to provide both educational information and exercise.
The California desert offers some of the most unique and iconic experiences.The combination of dry air, arid landscapes, unique flora and fauna, and a quirky undertone make it the perfect place for outdoor living. Glamping options offer a chance to stay in a low-impact yurt, hut or tent with all the creature comforts you might find at home. California is one of the places where you can glamp all year round.
There are also plenty of interesting activities to do in the Joshua Tree area, including hiking trails through the national park, an outdoor sculpture park, and more.
Anchorage, Alaska / @zetong
Anyone with an interest in the natural world has to add Alaska to their list. With over 100 national parks, pristine wilderness and an endless possibility of outdoor exploration options, it really is the final frontier of eco exploration.
Have you ever wanted to horseback ride through the Alaskan mountains? There are small tour operators that can take you. They hire local staff, use local produce with minimal packaging and waste. You can also do a glacier tour, either by land or by sea-kayak. Get up close and personal with some of the oldest iced structures in the world from the comfort of a kayak.
Check out the tour operator Alaska Outdoors for a list of small group, personalized experiences in the Alaskan wilderness.
The local saying “Malama Aina'' means to take care of the land. This practice is rooted into the daily activities that take place around the islands, specifically with eco guides and activities.
If you are an ocean enthusiast, Hawaii has quite a few options, including surfing, snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving. On land, there are a lot of sustainable attractions for anyone interested in learning. You can learn about indigenous sustainability methods at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.
Hawaii is also home to some of the best organic farms in the world. Many of them have volunteer programs in which you can actually go in and help in exchange for food and board. Alternatively, you can just visit the farms and learn about their organic and sustainable practices while trialing the amazing local produce. Check out the Kanepuu Preserve for a self-guided tour featuring 48 species of endemic Hawaiian plants.
At the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority campus, there are a variety of tours focused on renewable energy, sustainability and emerging technology offered by the group. Alternatively, you can help restore native flora on a tree planting tour, where you can help plant a koa tree as part of the excursion.
Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor / @karsten116
Oregon is renowned for its huge array of biking trail options. Whether you want to ride along windy mountain roads, speed your way down mountain trails through the woods or even ride along the beach.
For urban biking adventures, start right from the city of Portland, where you can choose one of over 1,000 bikes (sponsored by Nike, Biketown) at over 100 bike stations. The idea of urban cruising has been perfected around the city with a large network of biking trails and pathways. It is a great way to explore the area with different riverfront and river crossing options. The bikes cost $1 to unlock and then run at $0.2/min. You can ride from station to station, making it a cost-effective way to explore.
For a post-biking beverage, you have a couple of eco-friendly drinking options. Hopworks is an “urban brewery” that cares. They are a Certified B Corporation, and donate 1% of sales to environmental and social organizations. They are also committed to protecting the local salmon watershed and habitats. It is an award-winning brewery that you can feel good about visiting!
According to Travel Oregon, “Oregon has the highest percentage of third-party, certified-sustainable grape growers of any region in the world,” so you might want to do a little research and tour a few vineyards while in Oregon. Amity Vineyards is a sustainable vineyard (since 1991), and produces three ‘eco-wines’ that are organic, sulfite-free and certified sustainable. A full Oregon Wine Touring Guide can be found here.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs / @pbanselme
White water rafting is an exhilarating way to experience the outdoors in Colorado, and with companies like Wilderness Aware Rafting that have been in operation since 1976, and is run on renewable energy, you’re sure to have the best time possible on the chilly mountain rapids.
There is also a Native American immersion experience. This off-the-grid tipi and educational course delves into the cultural history of the native ways of life which focus heavily on sustainability and connection to the natural surroundings. Organic and locally sourced food is cooked and prepared as part of the four-day package option, which include salmon, wild rice, squash and berries. Check out Indigenous Roots LLC for more information.
Get out there and try a few eco-friendly activities
It should be noted that there are eco-friendly activities in most (if not all) states, you just have to look for them. The idea is to highlight the kinds of activities and organizations that operate in an ecologically sound way.
One of the biggest things to remember when looking at or organizing your trip is that small decisions along the way can add up, like staying in eco accommodation, taking public transport where possible or packing reusable water bottles instead of buying single-use.
We as consumers have the power to make changes in the tourism industry. The more people that demand a level of sustainable and environmental accountability, the more the industry will encourage to make sustainability the norm.
Aaron is one of The Dharma Trails co-founders. His background in marine eco-tourism and design has resulted in the online platform dedicated to eco-travel and sustainable lifestyle inspiration. He and his partner live in the Caribbean and strive to promote ocean protection through social media.