10 of the most eco-friendly destinations in North America

Still planning your summer vacation? If you're concerned about your carbon footprint, you might consider Sian Ka'an

Published May 22, 2016 3:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


In the 1950s, the world was crisscrossed by some 25 million annual tourists (i.e., overnight visitors). In 2014, according to the Center for Responsible Travel, that number ballooned to nearly 1.2 billion—about a 4,000 percent increase—contributing $7.6 trillion (almost 10 percent) to the world's GDP.

But the sad and inescapable fact is that all our flying, driving and trampling about has also contributed to the destruction of the environment, harming wildlife, historical sites and the livelihoods of indigenous societies around the globe.

As the largest global service industry, tourism can—and should—play a significant role in conservation and environmental sustainability. That was the message that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon delivered on World Tourism Day in 2012. “One of the world’s largest economic sectors, tourism is especially well‐placed to promote environmental sustainability, 'green' growth and our struggle against climate change through its relationship with energy," he said.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the world Scouting movement, was an early proponent of not only treading lightly when you travel, but also doing some good while you're there. In his last message before his death in 1941, Baden-Powell neatly summed up his philosophy: “Leave this world a little better than you found it.” It's a sentiment that anchored the "Leave No Trace" outdoor/camping ethos that took root in the 1960s, and it can easily serve as a motto for ecotourists and ethical travelers alike.

Thinking about a travel destination in North America that shares your green philosophy? Here are 10 of the best to consider.

1. Earthship Rentals (Taos, New Mexico).

Earthship Rentals (image: supercontext/Flickr CC)

Taos, a desert town in the New Mexico high desert situated at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and known for its historic Native American adobe buildings and its artist colony, has long been a destination for eco-minded free spirits. It's also the location of a small collection of unique eco-friendly buildings called Earthships.

Constructed from natural and recycled materials, including tires packed with dirt, Earthships are passive solar houses, meaning their entire structures—including windows, walls and floors—are designed to collect solar energy. The first Earthship was designed in the 1970s by the architect and environmental activist Michael Reynolds, who calls his unique practice Earthship Biotecture.

Ecotourists can enjoy the sites of Taos while staying at Earthship Rentals, which offer a unique taste of sustainable, off-grid living, including growing your own food and using water provided by cisterns that collect rain and snow. Plus, they are dog-friendly, so bring Fido along. You can also enjoy the amenities of modern life, such as Wifi and TV. But why boob-tube it when you're surrounded by a gorgeous landscape that has attracted and inspired artists for over a century? Earthships can transport you while not moving at all—the perfect opportunity to unplug and recharge.

2. Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (British Columbia).

View from one of the tents at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, British Columbia (image: Clayoquote Wilderness Resort)

Winston Churchill once said, "There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada." Unfortunately, the world's second largest nation hasn't been protecting that mighty expanse all that well. According to its 2015 annual report, the nonprofit Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society found that the nation is lagging on its commitment to protect at least 17 percent of its land and fresh water by 2020—and is behind the global average.

“Based on our assessment of progress since Canada endorsed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity 10-year plan in 2010, it would take us 50 years from today, not five, to meet our commitment to protect at least 17 percent of our land and fresh water,” said Alison Woodley, nation director of CPAWS’ parks program.

One of the places that has been protected is an eco-resort tucked away in the remote wilderness of Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia, Canada. Clayoquot Wilderness Resort offers the best of both worlds, from river kayaking, horseback riding, hiking through old-growth forest and surfing on a secluded beach, to five-star dining, spa treatments, and as its website notes, "great white tents with their fluffy duvets and antiques."

The all-inclusive, summer-only luxury resort isn’t just about pampering guests and offering great adventures in a pristine landscape—it's also playing an important role in the region’s sustainability and environmental stewardship. The resort has invested in the protection of the area's wild salmon, working with the nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy, based in neighboring Washington state, to protect the fish stocks against the threats of overfishing and climate change.

Clayoquot has also partnered with the Ahousaht First Nation to restore indigenous land, share the Ahousaht’s cultural legacy with visitors and build relationships that foster economic development within the local community.

The late Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr, who found creative inspiration in the indigenous people who lived along the Pacific Northwest coast, said, "It is wonderful to feel the grandness of Canada in the raw." Clayoquot offers that raw grandeur—just with fluffy duvets.

3. Sian Ka'an (Tulum, Mexico).

Boca Paila eco-hotel, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (image: HappyTellus/Flickr CC)

Located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Sian Ka’an is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna. The reserve is so pristine and biodiverse that, in 1986, it was designated Biosphere Reserve. And the following year, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which works with nations to secure the world's cultural and natural heritage. Sian Ka'an is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean.

There’s no shortage of eco-friendly activities here, from exploring Mayan ruins to diving in the deep cenotes (crystalline pools of freshwater connected by an intricate network of underground rivers), or simply enjoying the gorgeous white sand beaches and swimming in the Caribbean. You’d never guess that just two and half hours north is Cancun, a hyper-touristic spot that has been overrun by college students on spring break.

Sian Ka'an is committed to protecting its fragile ecosystem—and its esteemed World Heritage Site status. As it says on its website, "Sian Ka'an is one of the most spectacular and ecologically diverse places on earth—and we want to keep it that way."

4. Nurture Through Nature (Denmark, Maine).

Yurt lodging at Nurture Through Nature (image: Jen Deraspe, Nurture Through Nature)

Located deep in the rugged heart of western Maine’s Lakes and Mountains region, Nurture Through Nature is the state's first green-certified, Earth-friendly retreat center, and has been providing individuals, couples and groups an environmentally conscious getaway since 1999.

Visitors can explore the retreat's 33 forested acres nestled along the lower slopes of Pleasant Mountain along a maze of private hiking trails that lead to a spring-fed mountain brook and sweeping views of Mount Washington and the White Mountains. This is an ideal place to reconnect with nature.

Nurture Through Nature’s stated mission is to "offer a healing, Earth-friendly retreat space for reflection, contemplation and connection with your true self and the living Earth.” That connection is encouraged by yoga classes, guided meditation, a private sauna, massage therapy, healing arts classes and holistic life coaching—all within a green-certified off-the-grid getaway that uses solar power, compost, renewable heat sources and non-toxic cleaning products.

With 1.3 million residents, Maine is the least densely populated state east of the Mississippi River. And as far as states go, it's not that popular of a tourist destination, ranking 44th in a 2014 survey conducted by HotelsCombined, a hotel booking site. Still, for a state with a GDP at around $54 billion, tourism fuels a tenth of the economy, providing more than 94,000 jobs—about 14 percent of the state’s total employment. "Given that Maine’s economy pivots on 22 million tourists who spend as much as $6 billion a year, the state’s challenge is to balance one of its main sources of income with the preservation of its ecosystem," writes Kay Tang in USA Today. "Ecotourism could be Maine’s win-win solution to this dilemma."

5. The Stanford Inn by the Sea (Mendocino, California).

The Stanford Inn by the Sea (image: Brad Greenlee/Flickr CC)

For many years, Mendocino County, located on California's north coast, has lured visitors to its lush redwood forests, breathtaking coastline and vineyards famous for producing some of the nation's best wine. That it has also become a top destination for travelers interested in environmentalism and sustainability is no surprise: In the 1970s, the county was a hippie magnet, attracting free spirits seeking independence, experimentation, communal living and a direct connection with nature.

Today, in the face of industrial logging, large-scale agriculture and urbanization—and a surging population that is expected to double by 2050—it's a challenge for the county to maintain its sustainable roots. One oasis from the area’s rapid growth is the Stanford Inn by the Sea, a pet-friendly eco-resort situated on Mendocino's coast that opened its doors to eco-conscious travelers more than three decades ago.

Guests can take advantage of a wide range of therapeutic, eco-friendly activities, from canoeing and biking to enjoying the cuisine of The Ravens, the Inn’s vegan restaurant featuring local and organic food, including produce from the Stanford Inn’s own California-certified organic farm and wine from certified organic vineyards.

The Inn also hosts wellness retreats, bringing in nutritionists, vegan chefs and health coaches to teach guests about healthy living. “Moving here in 1980, we were changed by the creative and healing energies of the land,” say founders Joan and Jeff Stanford, on their website. "The Inn manifests our commitment to live mindfully so that all might live well."

6. Omega Institute (Rhinebeck, New York).

Sanctuary (meditation hall) at Omega Institute (image: Ken Wieland/Wikipedia)

Since 1977, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies has been on a mission to "provide hope and healing for individuals and society through innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit."

Famous for its yoga and meditation retreats—as well as workshops covering everything from creativity and mindfulness to sexuality and life coach certification—Omega Institute is dedicated to healthy, green living and sustainable lifestyles.

Spread across nearly 200 acres in the quiet town of Rhinebeck in upstate New York, Omega has a dining hall, café, bookstore, meditation hall and the Ram Dass Library, named after the famed spiritual teacher and author of the seminal 1971 book Be Here Now, who Omega notes has served as one of their “trusted guides.” The campus also includes the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, a solar-powered education center and water reclamation facility.

On its website, Omega calls itself “the nation's foremost educational retreat center.” Considering its history, as well as its growing list of of A-list speakers—which includes Al Gore, Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, and Thich Nhat Hanh, among many others—it’s a claim they have little problem backing up.

7. Hotel Terra Jackson Hole (Teton Village, Wyoming).

National Elk Refuge, Jackson, Wyoming (image: Marci/Flickr CC)

Nestled between the Teton Mountain Range and the Gros Ventre Range in Wyoming, Jackson Hole is a low-lying valley that was settled in the late 1800s by Native Americans, fur trappers and homesteaders. Later, dude ranches sparked tourism to the region. Today, ecotourism is taking hold. Eco-Tour Adventuresoffers wildlife tours in Grand Teton committed to the Leave No Trace ethic. The Grand Teton Lodge Company, an authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service, buys wind credits to offset its energy use and diverts half of its waste—including food waste, aluminum cans and even horse manure—into reuse and recycling.

One hotel that gets high marks on its eco-scorecard is Hotel Terra Jackson Hole in Teton Village, located at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

And while the first LEED-certified hotel in Wyoming gets the big things right—like offsetting energy use by purchasing solar, hydro and wind power, and using native landscaping that needs no irrigation—Terra also considers the small things: its hot tubs use a natural substitute for chlorine, while every bathroom features countertops and soap dishes made of reclaimed glass, and 100 percent organic linens.

Plus, what could feel better after a day hitting slopes and elk-watching than a detox organic blueberry body wrap in the hotel’s Chill Spa? It’s no wonder that last year, Gayot named Terra one of America's Top 10 Green Hotels.

8. Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge (Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska).

Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge (image: Rhonda2327/Flickr CC)

Located on a remote beach in Alaska's Kachemak Bay State Park, about 10 miles by boat from Homer (the "Bear Viewing Capital of the World"), Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge gives visitors a unique way to experience the wilderness lifestyle that only the Last Frontier state can offer.

Open year-round, Sadie Cove was transformed from a private home hand-built from driftwood into an eco-lodge in 1981, completely powered by hydro and wind power. With only five private guest cabins, and accessible only by boat, helicopter or float plane, Sadie Cove gives new meaning to "getaway." As the owners Keith and Randi Iverson note on their website, “At Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge you can surround yourself in wilderness, not tourists.”

Hiking trails of Kachemak Bay State Park, kayaking, beach combing, clam-digging and fishing for salmon are some of the year-round activities for lodge guests. Bring your binoculars, because wildlife viewing here is a special treat, with whales, orcas, seals, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles, mountain goats, moose and bears all making their home in the park's lush environs.

9. Majestic Yosemite Hotel (Yosemite National Park, California).

Majestic Yosemite Hotel (image: Bryce Edwards/Flickr CC)

A National Historical Landmark known as much for its stunning granite facade as its beautiful interiors, Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee Hotel) is considered one of North America’s most distinctive luxury lodges. The site of the 123-room hotel was chosen for its stunning views of Glacier Point, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.

Completed in 1927 and designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, Ahwanee is considered a masterpiece of "National Park Service rustic" (a.k.a "parkitecture"), a style of architecture developed in the first half of the 20th century through the National Park Service's efforts to create buildings that would exist in harmony with the natural environment.

Majestic Yosemite Hotel definitely takes advantage of its natural environment: One of the reasons the site was picked was to maximize sun exposure, which provides natural, fossil-free heating.

A member of the Green Hotels Association, Majestic Yosemite also participates in the GreenPath program, an environmental stewardship program ensuring that business decisions incorporate environmental considerations.

10. Jumbo Rocks Campground (Joshua Tree National Park, California).

Skull Rock at Jumbo Rocks Campground (image: Thomas J. Sebourn/Shutterstock)

This list has some pretty pricey eco-lodges that wouldn't look out of place on your bucket list. But it wouldn't be complete without a recommendation for roughing it in the great outdoors. And since we've covered Alaska—and you've either been to the Grand Canyon or it's already on your bucket list—Jumbo Rocks Campground in Southern California's mind-blowingly gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert gets the nod (not least because this pristine and primal landscape is less than a three-hour drive from Los Angeles).

Located near the aptly named Skull Rock by the park's western border, Jumbo Rocks features 124 campsites that include picnic tables, fire rings and pit toilets. Biking, rock climbing, hiking, horseback riding are just some of the eco-friendly activities that will wear you out and get you ready for cowboy songs by the campfire, under the stars. Plus, there's a remarkable abundance of wildlife to watch (and avoid) in this dry place: bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes and black-tailed jackrabbits come out at night, while daytime widlife watchers can enjoy spotting birds, lizards and squirrels.

Reservations are not accepted, meaning it's first come, first served. And since it's pretty close to L.A., you'll want to come early, and preferably on a weekday to put up sticks before the weekenders arrive. Make a note that there's no potable water, so bring more than you think you'll need, especially if you're bringing your pet. And if you need camping essentials like a tent, sleeping bags, backpacks and hiking shoes, check out Inhabit's "Top Eco-Friendly Camping Gear for Conscientious Outdoor Enthusiasts."

No matter what your next travel destination is, getting there can be a big burden on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Consider more local and regional destinations that are accessible by bus or train. If you have to drive, use a fuel-efficient car, like a hybrid or an EV, or find a carpool. And if you simply must fly, choose coach (yes, it's smaller, but less carbon-intensive than first or business class), select an efficient airline (check Atmosfair’s airline ranking) and consider reducing your air travel carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets, which are offered by most domestic airlines and many international carriers.

Bon voyage!

By Reynard Loki

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

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