Adventure travel with a low carbon footprint

We in the U.S. have put more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than any other nation, by far. (See also: Putting ourselves on a low-carbon budget) For many of us, air travel is our biggest contribution to CO2 emissions. But reducing our carbon footprint doesn’t mean no more fun vacations. It does mean using different ways to get to our travel destinations. Here are some trips my husband and I are dreaming about, as recent retirees who love outdoor adventures and travels near and far.

1. Hike the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim

CO2 footprint: By car we’d go direct to North Rim. By bus to South Rim.
Drive an economy car & take shuttle bus rim to rim (4 people):
3,124 lbs. CO2  trip total
781 lbs. CO2 per person

Travel by bus:    2,111 lbs. CO2 trip total
528 lbs. CO2 per person

Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim is at the top of our list, for the colors, the strata, the geological formations, and the vast deep wonder of it all. Our fantasy is to start at the north rim, go to Phantom Ranch and stay there two nights and then hike out the south rim. One long day hike downhill from the north rim to Phantom Ranch and then a shorter, but steeper day uphill to south rim.

This trip requires a reservation at Phantom Ranch, which is not easy to get. Alternatively there is a campground on the floor of the canyon, as well as others along the way. There is a private shuttle bus system for getting rim to rim. We are debating doing this as a car or bus trip with another couple. For more information check out these links:

Getting to Grand Canyon by bus:

Phantom Ranch:

The hike and shuttle back:

Mileage and vertical gain:

2. Bicycle and Ferry Adventure

San Juan Islands, Olympic Peninsula Discovery Trail, Victoria, Sidney and back to the San Juan Islands.

This is close to carbon free.

A friend of mine raved about this trip and its beauty, panoramic views of mountains, water, wildlife and wonderful towns and cities to explore. The trip can be done as a camping/biking trip, or as a B&B, cabins or motels-style trip. If starting in Seattle bike to Mukilteo and take ferry to Clinton, continue on to Coupeville Ferry terminal. Adds about 114 miles of biking, including return to Seattle.

Here’s the preliminary itinerary starting from Orcas Island:

Day #1 – Orcas Island to Port Townsend. 47 miles by bike plus 1¾ hours on 2 ferry rides

To assure plenty of time for breaks along the way, we’ll begin the adventure with an early departure from the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal heading to Anacortes. The ferry ride may take as much as 1 hour 25 minutes. From the Anacortes Ferry Terminal there is a great 10-mile route to Deception Pass at the north end of Whidbey Island. Deception Pass State Park is a stunning location, well worth hanging out for a long rest stop. Some people may choose to camp there for the night. We’ll press on after a long break, with a Port Townsend B&B as the evening destination. From Deception Pass we’ll bicycle another 37 miles, avoiding the main highway, to the Coupeville Ferry Terminal. From Coupeville, we take the ferry to Port Townsend, approximately a 35-minute ferry ride, and find a B&B (of which there are many to choose from). Two historic parks in the area, Fort Townsend and Fort Warden, have campgrounds.

Day #2 – Port Townsend to Sequim. 33.2 miles

Port Townsend is a much-loved tourist destination on the water with a vibrant arts and crafts community. It could be hard to pull away in the morning. Biking out of Port Townsend we’re now officially on the Olympic Discovery Trail, primarily a bike path, though be forewarned that some portions are not completed, which means at times the route has us on roads with narrow shoulders.

Day #3 – Sequim to Victoria. 20 miles plus 1 ½ hr. ferry ride

Another bike and ferry day! Sequim to Port Angeles is a 20 mile ride. Since it’s not a long day on the bike it’s tempting to make a side trip out to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, which is a 7 mile round trip addition to the day, from the Olympic Discovery Trail. That’s a glorious side trip. The ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria is a 90 minute crossing and the schedule varies seasonally, but if we do this in the late spring through early fall and are mindful of the clock we should be able to spend the night in Victoria. If not, there are options in Port Angeles.

These links give the bike route and the ferry schedule:

These links describe the side trip:

Day #4 and #5 – Victoria, Victoria.

This is definitely worth spending at least two nights. The Royal BC Museum could occupy us for most of one day. Old world charm, gardens, tea, Victoria has it all.

Day #6 – Victoria to Friday Harbor – 17 miles plus 2 ferry rides approximately 2 hrs 50 minutes(Sidney to Friday Harbor, transfer to Orcas Island)

Bicycle about 17 miles from Victoria to Sidney and return to the San Juan Islands on the Washington State Ferry to Friday Harbor. There’s a bicycle trail most of the way from Victoria to Sidney. The ferry to the San Juan Islands departs from Sidney. Note: The ferry doesn’t run between Sidney and Friday Harbor between late December and late March.

Here’s the link for the bicycle trail and the ferry back to the San Juan Islands.

3. Seattle to: Heart Mountain Internment Camp and Rocky Mountain National Park

By Bus and Rental Car

CO2 footprint: bus & rental car vs. all by car

Bus to Billings, MT & rent an economy car (2 people):
2,797 lbs. CO2 trip total
1,398 lbs. CO2 per person


Total trip by economy car (2 people):
4,084 lbs. CO2 trip total
2,042 lbs. CO2 per person

Here’s an adventure to really stretch ourselves on the carbon footprint goal. Doing this trip by train isn’t feasible and the only way a car trip would be low-carbon footprint is to travel with four people.

So we took a deep breath and came up with a different approach: Bus to Billings, Montana with an overnight stop in Spokane to sleep in a bed. An early morning bus from Spokane to Billings has us arrive in Billings in the early evening. From Billings we rent a car the next morning, with the best footprint we can get.

Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is our first destination, located outside Cody, Wyoming and winner of multiple awards for excellence. It is one of the more fully reconstructed internment camps where Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated and confined behind barbed-wire fences during World War II. Like all the internment camps, we know to expect a remote location and desolate environment. We hope for a long contemplative stop, to imagine what this time must have been like for the Japanese internees and staff who worked here, including my own mother, who taught school there in 1942-43.

Approximately a two-hour drive from Billings, MT to Cody, WY. See the link for details:

From here on we’re camping and taking a couple days to get to Rocky Mountain National Park:

We’re in our element here, seeking out hikes, being in nature day after day, wildlife, and starry nights.

The options for side trips that call to us:

Hot Springs:

U.S. History:

4. Other “Getting There Greener” Options

The low carbon footprint possibilities keep surfacing:

  • Seattle to San Jose on Amtrak or bus, with a car rental in San Jose. Explore the coast from Big Sur to San Francisco. We love the ocean wildlife opportunities: brown pelicans, whales, seals, sea otters, and sea lions.
  • Alaska adventure by ferry and bus. Opportunities for stunning mountains and marine wildlife experiences.
  • Canadian Rockies by train or bus. Glorious hiking and scenery.
  • Green Tortoise Charters – -We’re told to give this a chance– intriguing charter trips to great destinations.
  • North Cascades Institute – operates the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in the heart of the North Cascades. Great programs, food & lodging.
  • Kayaking & camping the Gulf Islands in B.C. or the San Juans


Union of Concerned Scientists, “Getting There Greener”:

Carbon Footprint Calculators:

Note: calculate air travel on TerraPass and add it to the EPA figure to get the full footprint.

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