Celebrate the Earth With These Wonder-filled Escapes Into Nature

April is Earth Month, culminating with Earth Day on April 22nd. If you’re looking for a way to celebrate our beautiful planet, book a trip to one of the awe-inspiring destinations below.

The Milky Way shines over the “Oregon Outback” – courtesy of Joey Hamilton/Travel Southern Oregon

If you’re looking for an amazing stargazing experience, head west to Oregon. A 2.5-million-acre area of southeastern Oregon was certified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary recently by DarkSky International, making it the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary to date. The Sanctuary, which is approximately one-half the size of New Jersey and is located within an area commonly referred to as the Oregon Outback, has committed to protect its starry night skies for the benefit of visitors, residents, and wildlife.

A Dark Sky Sanctuary is a certification given by the DarkSky International to public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. To qualify as a Dark Sky Sanctuary, the area must meet strict criteria for sky quality, commit to protecting the night sky through responsible lighting practices, and provide public outreach. These sanctuaries provide opportunities for stargazing, astrophotography, and other nighttime activities that benefit from minimal light pollution.

The Outback is located within the largest, contiguous, pristine dark sky zone in the lower 48 states, and this certification helps to protect a large portion of the designated zone. Within the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary (OOIDSS) are the unincorporated communities of Adel, Plush, and Summer Lake, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, a portion of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, nearly 1.7 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Summer Lake Wildlife Area, nearly 80,000 acres of state-owned rangeland, and the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway.

The intentions behind pursuing a large-scale sanctuary are to protect much of the unique, pristine, dark sky zone, to keep any additional dark sky recreation dispersed (as it is now), to allow a number of incorporated gateway communities to economically benefit from the same project, and to more effectively and efficiently manage a certification within a remote area.

“As the population of Oregon and the trend of light pollution continue to rise, the unparalleled scale and quality of the Outback’s dark skies will long serve as a starry refuge to people and wildlife alike,” said DarkSky Delegate Dawn Nilson, the environmental consultant who managed and authored the application.

“This four-year collaboration brings together so many of the elements we try to achieve in regenerative tourism,” said Bob Hackett, Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon. “It not only elevates the destination experience for visitors to Lake County and opens up opportunities for local businesses, but it also helps agencies and residents steward their lands in ways that celebrate a legacy of starry night skies for generations to come.”

The OOIDSS is situated in the northern extent of the Basin and Range Province of the Western United States. It’s sparsely populated, very remote, and primarily comprised of public lands. It’s a high desert area characterized by sage scrub and abrupt changes in topography that alternates between narrow faulted mountain chains and flat, arid valleys and basins. Within this unique geography of geological wonders is priority habitat for an array of wildlife, including American pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, white-tailed jack rabbit, and migratory birds navigating the Pacific Flyway. The region is also culturally significant and is home to a 13,000-year-old human occupation site. Dispersed within the OOIDSS are hot springs, wild horses, private rangelands, ranches, and cattle.

Wildflowers in Sonoma County, California – courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Celebrate Earth Day with Safari West as they proudly host 35 conservation organizations. Visitors can immerse themselves in interactive activities, informative displays, and captivating live animal presentations. Earth Day holds special significance at Safari West. Through initiatives like our Earth Day celebrations, Safari West strives to engage the community in meaningful discussions about sustainability and the preservation of biodiversity. This event is April 20th at 10:00 am.

Chanslor Ranch, a historic dairy ranch on coastal route Highway 1 in Bodega Bay, was recently acquired by Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District for use as county regional park, and is now open to the public. Long a privately owned getaway known primarily for horseback trail rides, the 378-acre ranch across Highway 1 from Bodega Dunes and Salmon Creek state beaches is now in county hands and open to the public. Visitors can hike 4.5 miles of trail leading up coastal hills, down to Salmon Creek and around the rugged landscape, which is bounded in part by the creek. Horseback riding is available through Five Brooks Bodega Bay. The land is known for a diversity of habitats, from wetlands to coastal prairie, as well as many plants and animals. The wetlands are a stopover for migrating birds, as well.

A creek winds through the woods in Williamsburg, Virginia by Mayer Tawfik – Unsplash

Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown offer adventure seekers plenty of reasons to get outdoors. Whether hiking scenic trails, biking unexpected paths, or exploring its waterways, Williamsburg has no shortage of outdoor activities.

Walkers and more experienced hikers can find ample trails to enjoy. At Waller Mill Park, walkers explore a 3.7-mile paved trail with lake views and a 2.5-mile wooded path. There is also plenty to discover while walking through Freedom Park, where multiple trails wind around historic relics and Williamsburg Botanical Garden offers 18 different habitats along the pathways. Hikers can head to Lookout Tower and take in its panoramic views of the woods and lake or trek the Powhatan Creek Trail on a 696-foot-long timber bridge and take in some of Virginia’s most scenic vistas filled with ponds, wetlands, forests, and wildlife.

For bikers, the Colonial Parkway links the three destinations with a beautiful 23-mile ride. In Williamsburg, cyclists on the Greensprings Interpretive Trail pedal its 3.5-mile loop, with markers along the way pinpointing environmental, historical, and area wildlife points of interest. For more adventurous mountain bikers, Williamsburg’s New Quarter Park is a six mile, single-loop trail that shouldn’t be missed. It follows the contours of a natural ravine before sliding into tight turns and climbing with elevated platforms and ramps. Multiple trails, ranging in distance and skill level, are also available at York River State Park. Black Bear Run is excellent for beginners, with only slight elevations and obstacles. For the advanced rider, the Marl Ravine Trail twists and turns as it follows steep ravines cut into ancient shell deposits. Bikers on the The Historic Jamestowne Bike Trail take in views of Jamestown island, James River, the marshlands, and regenerating forests. Also in Jamestown, The Virginia Capital Trail is a 51.7-mile, fully paved trail running through four jurisdictions, with dozens of attractions along the way. In Yorktown, visitors bike past quaint shops, beautiful river views, and a scenic beach. Several marked paths are also available to bicyclists on Yorktown Battlefield, including the seven-mile Battlefield Tour and nine-mile Encampment Tour.

Surrounded by the James, York, and Chickahominy Rivers, visitors can explore the region’s shores. The water trails around Williamsburg are ideal for canoers, kayakers, and paddle boarders. Visitors can rent rowboats, canoes, and pedal boats at Waller Mill Park, or kayaks and canoes from Chickahominy Riverfront Park’s facilities, while Bay Country Kayaking offers guided excursions. Those looking to explore by boat can enjoy sightseeing cruises with York River Charters, Jamestown Discovery Boat Tours, Yorktown Sailing Charters, and Williamsburg Charter Sails.

Fishing for bass, perch, catfish, and other species is popular in the waters around Williamsburg. Little Creek Reservoir Park is a scenic spot overlooking a 996-acre reservoir. Freshwater and saltwater meet at York River State Park, a marshy preserve with three different areas for anglers. And Jamestown Beach Event Park benefits from a newly restored beachfront, paddle-craft launch, and a designated fishing area.

A spoonbill feeds at the sunset in St. Augustine Beach, Florida by Alla Kemelmakher – Unsplash

Enjoy fresh ocean air and the beautiful coastline of Florida. Sailors can mark their calendars for St. Augustine Race Week from April 6th to April 13th. If two feet on land is more your speed, there are a host of road and trail runs! Check out the Spud Run 5K and Cabbage Crawl and Race to the Taste 5K. For a two-wheeled adventure, the 12th Annual Spoonbills and Sprockets Cycling Tour on April 20th starts at Marineland and winds its way through St. Augustine, the Hammock, and Flagler Beach.

Spoonbills are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the 2024 Florida’s Birding & Photo Festival on April 24th through 28th. This jam-packed festival has over 100 events focused on birding and outdoor photography. For those interested in more terrestrial pursuits, the Earth Day Celebration at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park celebrates the symbiotic relationship between us and the Earth.

The Plein Air Paint Out on Apr 24th to 28th is a favorite of artists, encouraging painters to venture outdoors and be inspired by the beauty of Florida’s Historic Coast. Makers, artisans, and crafters offer their finest products April 13 & 14 at the Arts & Crafts Show at St. Augustine Beach.

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