When Travel Experiences Are Not in Context, Guests Don’t Remember

In recent years, adventure learning companies have focused on quantity versus quality in regards to their programs. As a trip leader, I’ve seen it too often.

In a rush to increase destination offerings, for a wider audience, many of the experiences are often not in context with the purpose of the trip. The result is that after a week-long program the guest remembers they participated in some fun things, but are not exactly sure how they grew as a person. If they cannot successfully answer this, then how is your company unique? And, why should they return?

An easy way to help guests grow, and nurture them for joining future trips, is to keep all of the travel program’s experiences in context with a big idea. In short, what is the big idea you want your guests/participants to remember? Think of a big idea as a unifying theme for the trip. All of the site visits, excursions, and explorations on the trip should gravitate around this big idea.

It is very easy to build a program around generic information, which is what most tourism companies do (see photo below). It is more challenging to design an adventure learning travel program around a unifying message where all of the experiences (walks, food, guest speakers, site visits, etc) are in context with a big idea. When travel experiences are in context, guests remember they had fun, but also their discoveries.

The Essential Ingredient for Designing a Tour is Understanding Its Theme

All program managers at learning/adventure travel companies wrestle with how best to design quality programs. The most common approach is to think of a subject or a destination (as fire, central Oregon, or Crater Lake) and build the program around it. This seems simple enough, yet themes are a continuous source of frustration, ambiguity, and pain. I’ve seen friends and co-workers, who are solid program managers, struggle with themes that never effectively come together into a cohesive whole.

The problem arises because themes are thought of as nouns. While they do include destinations and things, the essential ingredient for designing a theme is to think of it as a verb.

Some examples:
A multi-day program built around a topic of “fire” now becomes the theme, “Discover how fire helps forge every aspect of our life (sub-themes include: homes/communities, food preparation, entertainment, arts, places we play, and our survival).”

A week-long bus/hiking/rafting program with a topic of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon” transforms into a theme of, “Exploring Oregon’s dynamic geology allows for first-hand discovery and connection to one of the most fundamental forces of nature – in both its creative and destructive roles.”

An active hiking program with a topic of “Exploring Crater Lake” evolves into the theme, “Crater Lake’s breathtaking beauty, seasonal weather extremes, and distinguishing natural and cultural features, combined with a variety of recreational opportunities, provide visitors with abundant chances for discovery, reflection, and inspiration.”

Another way of thinking about a theme is to answer, “What is the big idea I want participants to remember?” Creating a theme in this light focus all of the activities and interactions around a single idea; it helps the program designer and the trip leaders focus on what is relevant while bringing the program to life.

Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Infosheet

This is my personal Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Infosheet. I created it as a reference across the course of three NOLS Wilderness Medicine WFR courses. It is a two-sided reference that prints on legal-sized paper (8.5 x 14 inches). Several fellow WFRs have asked for the document so I’m placing it online; my intent is that others can benefit and feel more secure with a patient assessment. Get WFR certified  – this document is NOT a substitute for professional training! When I use the document(s) I print them onto one sheet of legal-sized paper. Fold the sheet in half and use a fitted piece of cardboard for backing. A rubber band is applied to hold the paper to the cardboard. This is lightweight and has some sturdiness.

I have tried to be as accurate as possible with my student notes within the NOLS curriculum, send any suggestions or corrections to mark@letsgoexploring.com.

>> Download Printable PDF – Side A
>> Download Printable PDF – Side B

Updated: 2017, 2019, and 2022.

Where to Stay in San Francisco on a Budget

Where can a frugal traveler stay in ultra-expensive San Francisco? These are friendly, clean, and safe hostels to help you explore this world-class city while not wrecking your budget.

The Adelaide Hostel
The Adelaide is a few blocks west of the centrally located Union Square. The hostel’s name originates from a former owner’s love of his Australian hometown. This is an older building, but the architecture’s warm color palette and modern facilities only compliment the charm. The kitchen and dining areas are clean and there are nights where the hostel prepares meals for guests. In the morning make sure to grab a bowl of complimentary oatmeal and orange juice. A quiet area on the main floor is a great place to read and work on a laptop. The staff is very knowledgeable about local places to eat and go sightseeing. Expect some street noise if the windows are open, but earplugs will take care of most extraneous sounds.
Website: www.adelaidehostel.com

Fort Mason Hostel (Hosteling International Fisherman’s Wharf)
All of the HI hostels in the bay area great places to stay, but Fort Mason takes the cake just because of its proximity to the Marina District, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square. The hostel retains the crispness and presentation of the building’s military history.  The kitchen is sizeable and the common area includes a pool table. Nearby is a small coffee shop that offers pastries and cookies. A palatial quiet room on the main floor offers a respite for computer work, reading, or just hanging out.  A grocery store (the Marina Safeway) is about half a mile away if you need to resupply. If you want to explore the city, a Cable Car turnaround is a short walk away. The staff is very friendly and helpful and went the extra distance to answer some of my questions. I really appreciate the hostel’s extra activities, which included area hikes led by knowledgeable locals.
Website: www.sfhostels.org/fishermans-wharf

Pacific Tradewinds Hostel
Don’t let the unassuming street entrance adjacent to a Hunan restaurant fool you, the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel is clean, modern, and has a friendly staff. Located near Chinatown, this hostel is centrally located to downtown and North Beach clubs. Be aware, this is a social hostel (aka a party hostel!) and is usually frequented by a younger crowd. The hostel’s main room can quickly become busy and an innocent game of Jenga can turn into a (friendly) beer drinking competition. Bring earplugs as street noise at the night can keep you up. The hostel has a small kitchen with all the amenities. The hostel staff leads tours and clubbing excursions throughout the week.
Website: san-francisco-hostel.com

All of the above-mentioned hostels run about $50 a night. Make sure to bring a small travel lock to secure any items in a locker, as well as shower shoes and extra soap. To avoid the crowds in San Francisco, the best time for visiting is mid-October through March.

The Power of Nature Adventures (Why I Guide)

I’m an outdoor guide because traveling and nature experiences can be powerful teachers. Here is one such story about how an encounter with a whale helped others (and myself) to grow.

Gray whale calf. Photo: Nature Picture Library / Copyright Todd Pusser.

“Whale!” a woman squealed. Two-dozen people slammed themselves onto the starboard railing of a small whale watching the ship. The vessel listed uncomfortably sideways. Just feet away a baby gray whale, the length of a long kayak, floated in the rough surf. Its large black eye seemed to study each of us. Everyone was absorbed in the experience. They had forgotten their discomfort in the previous hour and a half. Up until then, it had been a bad day to be on the water: we had not seen a whale – not one. Our ship sickeningly rolled side to side in the deep troughs, the smell of diesel permeated our nostrils, cold January weather nipped our skin, the sky was oppressively overcast and the wind-chapped our lips.  Worst of all was seasickness, not just a queasy feeling, but real illness. I heard my name being simultaneously cursed as participants barfed over the boat’s edge. Some made multiple trips. As they staggered back with a sick yet relieved look on their faces I received several vexing glances. The words were blazed in their eyes, “Why did you make me come out here?”

It was a hard day. My camera had broken too, then again maybe it was for the best. This was the first whale-watching tour that I had organized for a group and it was going horribly. I secretly wanted this trip to be over, to slink home and erase it from my memory. I wanted the trip participants to forget about it, too.

When the young whale appeared the trip was born anew. A marine biologist shared her commentary: the mother was likely on the seabed feeding and would be returning shortly. The juvenile was not lost, just hanging out at the surface.

Amazingly the whale stayed parallel with our ship for about twenty minutes. Then several hundred feet away from a large mass the size of a city bus rose to the surface. She dramatically announced herself by ejecting a plume of air in a geyser-like spray. This was the mother! The smaller whale joined her and they swam off together.

The people were giddy, but also happy to return to port. Upon disembarking from the ship, the trip participants said little, just drove away. I had organized the outing as a way for overscheduled tech workers to connect with their families in the outdoors, but had I inadvertently turned more people off that helped? This was first of several trips where unexpected situations and hardships caused me to question my outings and slowly I became disillusioned. After several summers, I stopped leading nature adventures.

Fast forward to five years. I was at an outdoor market selling child-sized backpacks I made at the time. A man approached and we talked for a minute, then he said, “Hey, you’re that guy who led the whale watching trip.” He briskly shook my hand said, “Thanks.” I wondered if we were talking about the same excursion. He told me about that day, I listened with interest then in dismay as my well-intentioned nature trip was turned into a tale of deceit. At the time, he and his mother-in-law despised one another and for spite, they created ever-increasing hardships for their rival, often to the detriment of family members. One day he saw my whale watching trip and suggested a pleasant outing for the entire family. But his coyness was masked with a desire that his mother-in-law has a miserable experience. In fact, she hated that trip and wanted nothing to do with him again. To his glee, she stopped visiting altogether! Eventually, her lengthy absence spoke to his better nature and he felt guilty for his childish behavior.

Almost a year later she returned for a holiday visit. The conversation at the dinner table was still; everyone in the room knew the two were enemies. As the serving plates started to move about she looked at him and said, “Remember that whale watching trip?” He suspected a trap but replied, “…yes.”

She looked directly at him and with a heartfelt voice said, “Thank You.” His mind was blown. No one in the family knew what to say, him especially.

She shared her story: At the time she suspected the man wanted her to get sick while whale watching, but she went anyway. It was a most unpleasant time. But when she viewed the whale up close and looked into its eye, she saw there was something there – more to the point, something in her. She returned home to southern California and was anxious to the point where sleep was difficult. She spent more time outside and took long walks. She started to walk to the store. Her walks became hikes and she asked her friends to join her, but they were “too busy”, so she went by herself. Later she joined a local hiking club. On these outings, she saw hills and valleys near her house that she had never seen despite having lived in the area for decades. On one hike in the Mojave Desert, she saw a magnificent vista and it inspired her to make a big decision. She decided to visit a place she had always dreamed of seeing since she was a child: South Korea. Then she announced to the family around the table, “I’m leaving for Seoul in three weeks.”

The iconic Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea. Image copyright Korea Tourism Organization.

The man was shocked, something in her words had spoken to him. He felt ashamed. After dinner, the two of them had a heart-to-heart talk. The trickery and malice evaporated and they started to heal their relationship. Several weeks later the mother-in-law traveled to Korea and had a wonderful trip. In the months that followed, she visited the family more often and the two of them started to go on short walks. They both enjoyed being outside, even having deep conversations. A year later they had become friends and even hiking buddies. The entire family was happier and everyone was even talking about an overseas trip.

The man finished telling me his tale. Before disappearing into the crowd he said, “Thanks again for the great trip!”

His story was an elixir for me, it helped to renew and strengthen my own passion – connecting people with the outdoors. I started to organize and lead trips once again. Fifteen years later I’m still going strong.

I guide because travel and being in the outdoors teaches things that we can only learn by experiencing life. Guiding is at that nexus, the point between being in the now, learning, and living; and it is best shared with others who seek it.

Traveling to Europe Pre-Trip Tips

Planning a trip to Europe can be fun and exciting. It can also be a headache. Avoid the headaches by planning well in advance of your trip. But, even with the best planning, some surprises will arise – as they always do. Here are eight pre-trip tips that can help with planning your successful exploration.

“My Apology, Sir, But Your Card Was Declined”
No one wants the embarrassment or headache of having his or her credit card declined while traveling in Europe. If you use a credit or debit card in Europe the transaction might register as a ‘possible fraudulent event’ and the transaction will be declined – leaving you in a tight spot. Prior to your trip inform your credit/debit card company that you will be traveling overseas. Inform them of what countries you will be traveling to and a timeframe. They will update your account so if a transaction ‘flag’ appears they can see that you are traveling and approve the transaction.

“Dude, Where’s My Card?”
In the event your credit card is stolen or lost how will you contact the bank or card company? As a backup measure have the customer service phone numbers recorded in a separate location. I also write the last four digits (not all of the numbers, just the last four numbers) of the card along with the phone numbers to help identify my account.

“By the Way, There Are Currency Exchange Rate Fees.”
No one likes seeing unexpected fees on their monthly credit/debit card statement. Prior to your trip contact your credit card/debit card company and inquire about the currency exchange rate fees. The fees can run about 3% of the total transaction. Ouch! Knowing this amount will help with planning how you use your money on your trip.

“You’ve Got Mail.”
Having a friend or family member collect your mail can be the best peace of mind while you are traveling. If this is not an option, submit a request with the Post Office to hold your mail prior to your trip. This can be done online and they can hold your mail for up to 30 days. At the time of this writing only a physical address, not a PO Box, can be requested online. A PO Box request must be made in person at the local post office. Do this several weeks before your trip just so it is out of the way.

“It Will Take At Least A Week To Exchange Your Money.”
This is an actual quote from my bank. Even if your bank is located in the middle of an economic powerhouse, like Silicon Valley, do not assume your bank can easily obtain the Euros or the currency you need in a weeks time. Exchange any money you need several weeks prior to your trip so your bank has the time to process the request. Interesting though, my bank charges a hefty fee, which happens to be roughly the same fee the money exchange station at the airport charges.

“Hello, Taxi Company. My Ride Did Not Show Up And I Am Late for The Airport.”
Most taxi services are professional, but some are not. I have been stuck waiting for taxis that never arrive, or are horribly late. When departing for the airport a shuttle or private car might be the better deal. Shuttles are inexpensive and work well for departing flights, just allow time in your itinerary to make several other stops along the route to pick up other travelers. Private cars are expensive if one person is traveling, but if you have several family members a private car can be the same or about 20% more than a shuttle. The advantage of a is that a private car goes directly to the airport saving time, and the drivers usually treat their riders like human beings rather than a piece of livestock. For trips from the airport, I am personally not fond of shuttles, a taxi or private car might work better. After a long trip of being on an airplane, not eating right or sleeping well I just want to get home. The last thing I want to do is to prolong a 12+ hour flight by sitting for another hour in a cramped and bumpy van, at rush hour, where I am the final stop, only to save a few dollars. Several weeks prior to your trip ask a friend if they can pick you up or drop you off at the airport. If not, look at the taxi, shuttle, private-car options. The key is to plan your ride several weeks out.

“Hi, I Just Wanted to Visit/Phone/Email/Skype/Text and Wish You a Happy Trip.”
It is always good to hear from and see family and friends, but several hours before your trip as your packing and dealing with loose ends is not a great time. This might sound unsavory but, it is OK to tell folks that you are leaving a day earlier than you actually are. Be careful what you post on social media sights too, and make yourself invisible on Skype and other online services. You don’t want to be slammed by well-wishers as you are packing and tying up loose ends. While best wishes are appreciated, the day before a trip is your private time to deal with little things so they do not become big problems and ruin your trip.

“Here Is The Bill for Your Room, Sir.”
Being billed again for something you paid for will wreck a budget. Just because something, like a hotel, is booked and paid for online does not mean you won’t get billed again. Prior to your trip print a receipt showing that a bill was paid for in advance. Then on your trip, look at the hotel receipt and confirm you were not double billed.

Clutter! It Will Stop You From Traveling, Exploring and Seeing the World – 10 Actions to Take Now

Clutter prevents people from traveling and experiencing life. These innocent looking piles of paperwork, a messy garage and boxes of stuff are always cluttering up households. For the person who wants to travel, explore and see more of the world clutter zaps resources; it eats up time, consumes money, it lives in our homes rent free, and haunts us in the back of our mind, as something to work on. Clutter stops Explorers like Kryptonite stops Superman – clutter impedes movement.

As someone who has been overwhelmed by clutter and has fought tooth and nail to battle it, I have realized just how much the ‘The Clutter’ was taking away from what I really enjoy doing: traveling, exploring, seeing more of the world with family. If you have similar desires for your life and are ready to deal with the clutter here are ten actions that can help:

1. Make a Budget
The single most effective thing to do in battling clutter is to make a budget. Why? A budget forces a person to look at their money and think about their household expenses. Thinking about these expenses and seeing how they are used influences what is bought , where you shop and most importantly, what is allowed into the house. Invest in a basic money management software program for the computer; it will quickly pay for itself.

2. Attach a Dollar Amount to Clutter
Clutter costs money. Just because stuff is sitting around does not mean it is not costing you. Clutter takes up space in your home, it is always there as a ‘to do’ in your mind, it is there when you leave for work, it is there when you come home. You are working but the clutter is not. Deal with the clutter by attaching a monetary amount to it: for big items $10, medium sized items $5 and for small stuff $1. This is the ‘rent’ I charge the clutter for being in my house. Add it up, whoa! Then multiply that by 12 months. Holy cow! This is the dollar amount the clutter is costing in terms of physical space and costs to mentally manage the stuff.

3. Put a Date on It
How long has that box of stuff been sitting around? Date it. It is amazing how long things sit around and are never dealt with. Adding a date gives you a time reference. As a rule, if it is over a year old and you have never needed it, get rid of it.

4. Shred Junk Mail
Junk mail is a daily in-source of clutter in the household. Get rid of it immediately. Arm yourself with a shredder and have a field day grinding the clutter into recycling materials. Several sites are online to remove your self from mailing lists; however this task should be done every several months.

5. Perform an 80/20 effect test
The 80/20 rule (the Pareto effect) states “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” Identify that 20% that just sits around and causes 80% of the problems. It is likely clutter.

6. Reduce the Number of Storage Containers
The problem with storage containers is that they are designed to store stuff. It is easy just to buy a container and stuff the clutter into it. If you have a bunch of storage containers put a date on them as was mentioned above. After a year give them the 80 / 20 test and rid yourself of a good number of items.

7. Turn off the TV
Keep that TV turned off. TV is a form of mental clutter and gobbles up your time and keeps you from dealing with all of the other clutter. Use TV sparingly.

8. Have a BIG Garage Sale.
When you’re ready to get rid of the clutter do a personal cost/benefit analysis on your time. Is it better to give a bunch of stuff to a help-up organization (like Goodwill) or to have a good old-fashioned garage sale? The end result is the same you get rid of stuff.

9. Make a Long Term Plan to Deal with Clutter
On your calendar set dates to deal with different projects, like the closet, that box of stuff, the second box of stuff, the cabinet, that kitchen drawer with all the stuff, etc.

10. Embrace Being Frugal
Close the loop on clutter by embracing frugality. Being frugal is not about being miserly or cheap or doing without; it is about using resources wisely, being economical and minimizing waste. Shop for items by how they impact your budget and how they help you reach your goals.

Dealing with clutter is not about simply cleaning stuff up, it is a long-term process of changing your life so you can do more of what you want to do – like traveling, exploring and seeing more of the world.

Planning for a Trip to Europe When the Dollar is Weak

A common thought is that only the wealthy can travel in Europe – especially when the buying power of the dollar is significantly lower than the Euro. This is not true. With a little careful planning a frugal traveler can stretch their dollars to save money and enhance their experiences in the lands they visit. Here are a few tips:

Keep a Budget
Keeping a budget is always a great idea when you’re traveling, but when the dollar is weak a budget is an absolute. Stay within your designated daily spend amount; if you have to go over your daily budget make sure you can reign in the costs elsewhere. Keep your receipts and at the end of the day add them up – it only takes five minutes, but it gives you peace-of-mind knowing about your money. Even if you use a credit card, keep your receipts and avoid the temptation of splurging on credit. As a reward for keeping a budget give yourself a well-deserved splurge toward the end of your trip.

Fly Into a Secondary Airport
When booking a flight to Europe research your primary destination and surrounding airports. Sometimes it is more affordable to fly into a neighboring airport, stay one night and catch a train to where you want to go. Plus you have the benefits of a side trip. I saved, on an upcoming trip to Austria, $400 on my ticket flying into a neighboring airport. Even with the costs of accommodation and a train ticket, the total cost is still less than if I had flown into the original airport – plus there is the added bonus of anticipating a four-hour train ride through the stunningly beautiful and magnificent Alps.

Lengthy Stays in Major Cities = Expensive
Major cities are often black holes for the budget minded traveler. Sometimes you have to be in the center of the action to see the sights, but consider balancing a city visit with staying a little further out and catching a train, a bus or walking into town.

Save Money with a Multi-Day Pass When Seeing the Sights
Sometimes you just have to play the part of being a tourist to see all the sights and visit all of the museums. However, playing the part of a tourist can be costly and add up quickly. Look for a multi-day pass often sold at tourist information centers provided by the city. With such a pass you pay a flat rate upfront and can see as many museums over a several day time frame that your heart can indulge. Usually included in the pass is bus fair for several of those days.

Eat Where The Waiter Greets You in His/Her Native Language
When you eat out, plan to eat many of your meals at small café’s or restaurants where the wait staff greets you in his/her native language.

One of the best tasting and affordable meals I ever enjoyed was in Italy at a tiny, family-run restaurant in a small village near Lago de Bolsena (Bolsena Lake) several hours north of Rome. The restaurant clung to the side of a steep hillside overlooking the blue lake. No one in the restaurant spoke English and the menu was entirely in Italian. Because we were in a little village far away from a major city the prices on the menu were not for tourists, but rather priced for locals. The owner of the restaurant was grateful for the additional business and enjoyed seeing new faces. The entire experience lasted several hours and it offered the opportunity to ‘talk’ to the locals using a combination of broken English, Italian and a number of hand signals; the food, wine, and experience was unforgettable.

Contrast this with a visit to a major city in a touristy area. In this particular case, it was Florence, Italy – a beautiful and historic city – but very expensive. Many of the restaurants near the historic museum’s areas offer menus in English. I have found that waiters often greeted me in English and charge higher prices because I am a tourist. The food can be lackluster and the experience rushed. At one restaurant the waiter greeted me in German (thinking I was German); when he learned I was American he quickly, and with a graceful slight of the hand, replaced my menu with one written in American English. It was an odd experience.

This is just one example, but the lessons are the same elsewhere; save money and meet the locals by trying to eat where the native language is spoken – the food will have much more local flair and flavor.

Carefully planning how you spend your money, especially when the dollar is weak, can help keep money in your pocket. It also allows you to step away from the touristy areas and see how the locals live and carry about their daily lives – which always provides a rich experience.

Want to Travel, Explore and See New Places? Turn Off the TV.

People often think that being a parent, having a home, and working a full-time job prevents them from traveling, exploring or spending more quality time with family. As a full-time worker, and a Dad who has to pay bills I understand these are responsibilities that often require Herculean efforts to manage. So, with such little time remaining in a personal schedule what can a person do?

One of the most important time savers is to turn off the TV. According to a Nielson report the average American spends “159 hours watching television in the home” each month plus additional time online and via mobile devices.”

That is over 5 hours a day of TV! Now, consider the average TV show has 8 minutes of commercials for every 22 minutes of programming – when the TV is on for five hours a day the viewer is exposed to 80 minutes of just advertisements a day! Yuk.

For years I blamed multiple factors because my weekends had disappeared with housework, my vacation time-off was non-existent and that I could no longer travel, explore and do what I really wanted to do. As I looked at how I used my time I realized the TV consumed several hours a day. When I added it up I was surprised; by turning off the TV I reclaimed 20 hours a week. Time I use on things that are fulfilling like thinking about the weekend, researching a local place to hike or even planning about how I can budget an overseas trip.

Do I watch some TV shows? Yes, a select few, because sometimes you have to relax after a long day. But I watch the TV on my schedule, by watching either delayed shows via a recording device or by purchasing a select few episodes online. By controlling what I watch the TV is not controlling me, or my time.

Folks who write in asking how they can travel, explore and see new places are given the same suggestion – a good start is to turn off the TV.


View from the Rubicon Trail, D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe, California

Remembering Sanborn Park Hostel: For 30 Years a Log House in the Redwoods for Travelers, Backpackers and Families

The Sanborn Park Hostel is a beautiful historic log house hidden among the coastal redwoods of Sanborn Park County Park near Saratoga, California. Sadly, after a 30-year run, the hostel recently closed its doors. Shown above is how it appeared at the time of the closing in 2010. Below is how it appeared in its heyday – in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Sanborn Park Hostel
Sanborn Park Hostel – a view from its heyday in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

This hostel was a friendly place to stay for backpackers, international travelers, bicyclists, Scout troops, church groups, students on field trips and families who needed a weekend away from the frantic pace of Silicon Valley.

Visitors could explore miles of trails in the 3,688-acre park, discover a nearby section of the San Andreas Fault, enjoy a short hike to a Nature Center, take a picnic to a nearby winery or enjoy a cookout under a grove of redwood trees.

The Hostel always provided programs and trips to help ‘tell the story’ of the local area for those who were curious. Like the park and the redwoods around the building, the hostel also has a story.

For hundreds of years, the local area was visited by native Ohlone people. Signs of their acorn grinding mortors can be found on monolithic rocks that now form an entry to Hostel grounds. The Grizzly Bear once lived in this park. Forests of old growth redwood trees blanketed the hillsides; several large redwood stumps eight feet in diameter are still in the woods if you know where to look.

In 1908 the Honorable Judge Welch built a large log style summer cottage. He named it, “Welch-Hurst.” The name was derived from his name and the word Hurst, meaning woods or a grove. The Judge planted several orchards in the area. He also had a vineyard. He turned a nearby sag pond (sag ponds are natural pools found along the path of the San Andreas Fault) into a picturesque pond with a small island, footbridge, waterfalls, and large lily pads. The pond was home to fish, frogs and an assortment of ducks and geese.

In the 1950s a man named Pick lived in the log style house. Mr. Pick had discovered Uranium in the west (Wyoming or Colorado) and sold his claim to the U.S. military earning several million dollars at the time. With part of his fortune, he bought “Welch-Hurst” and he renamed it “Walden West.” The name was derived from the book, “Walden,” by author, philosopher, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau.

Pick added a number of buildings in the area including a small complex of buildings that housed early IBM employees and possibly helped to incubate some thinking that led to modern Silicon Valley. Today, the buildings of Walden West provide outdoor education programs for students.

In the 1960s and 70s, the house rapidly passed between several owners and the structure was in serious decline. In 1970s Sanborn Park was being expanded and the old house was purchased by Santa Clara County. Estimates at the time to renovate the deteriorating Welch-Hurst house was estimated at half-a-million dollars, too much for county coffers, and the house was scheduled for demolition.

Sanborn Park Hostel
Sanborn Park Hostel’s Madrone and Redwood Staircase.

In 1979, as destruction seemed imminent, the volunteers of the Santa Clara Valley hostelling club stepped forward with a box of hand tools and $460 in the bank to finance their reconstruction project. They were given the go-ahead. Year-after-year volunteers completely rebuilt and refurbished the Judge’s old home. In the main house, they preserved the original rock fireplace and the beautiful madrone and redwood staircase (shown). They also reconstructed the old carriage house turning it into a modern building with beautiful pine ceilings and wooden floors – all the time using as much wood from the original structure as possible. Tax dollars were never used to restore Hostel. This effort was entirely self-funded.

The hostel’s ‘Golden Age’ was in the late 1980s and the early 1990’s when the Hostel’s 39 beds were completely booked.

After the horrible events of 9/11 in 2001 international travel plummeted. Seeing a backpacker from Europe was a rare sight. American travel also declined during this time as a strained U.S. economy, lessening vacation time for families, increasing insurance costs and a host of other reasons impacted travel and the Hostel. These forces slowly took their toll and Sanborn Park Hostel closed in 2010.

When the hostel closed the price to stay for one person was $14, the lowest overnight fee at any hostel in the United States.

The County has no plans for the historic Welch-Hurst building which the Hostel rented from the Parks Department. The refurbished one-hundred-year-old house will likely be boarded up and forgotten. The building is on the Registry of National Historic Places.

I have many fond memories of the hostel. While in college I worked as a ‘Houseparent’ at Sanborn Park Hostel. At the time I wanted to travel, but could not; working at the Hostel provided an opportunity for the travelers to come to me. The Hostel provided me with rich opportunities to learn about different cultures and to meet a wide variety of people. During this time I met thousands of people and some special travelers from Australia, New Zealand, and Austria became life-long friends. One wonderful woman traveling from overseas eventually became my wife.

At times the hostel had a ‘magic.’ One such time involved an evening sitting in front of the large stone fireplace in the living room. A small but bright fire burned. About fifteen people, of all ages, some from overseas, sat on the sofas. We talked about the world. At one point someone brought out some sweet crackers, then someone else made tea for the group. We all talked late into the evening about ideas, places to travel and shared stories. It was an evening that fed the soul. This might sound odd, but if you find yourself in such a setting ask how people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their native language. It is a great way to make friends and end an evening with a smile.

In the 30 years as a Hostel, 157,460 people stayed as overnight guests. This number included visitors from 99 foreign countries and all 50 states. Foreign travelers accounted for 20 percent of the total visitorship; that is roughly 31,500 visitors who chose to explore and experience America.

Four points are especially noteworthy about Sanborn Park Hostel’s 30+ year run.

  • The work to refurbish this historic 100-year-old building was done entirely by volunteers.
  • Not one penny of public money was ever used to refurbish or operate the building – it was entirely self-funded.
  • During the hostel’s entire history, it had the lowest overnight fee of all US hostels, only $3 in 1979 to $14 when it closed.
  • In the 30 years of being a Hostel that 157,460 overnight visitors stayed here; with visitors from 99 foreign countries and all 50 states.

The organization who started Sanborn Park Hostel will continue their famous monthly pot-luck and slide show dinners on the last Thursday of the month at the Saratoga Community Center. Plus, some of the resources from Sanborn Park Hostel have been used to further Hostelling along California’s Central Coast. So in a sense, although the Hostel is gone it will continue in spirit.

It is sad to see the Hostel go, but the Hostel’s newsletter said it with dignity, “Closing the Sanborn Park Hostel is bitter-sweet, but birth and death are both nature’s ways.”

To learn more about hostelling visit these sites: