The annual Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta has been on my bucket list since 2016 when John and I drove through Albuquerque on our way to the Grand Canyon from Carlsbad Caverns (which you can read about here!)
Attending this festival seemed out of reach while living in the south, but when I moved to Colorado I put it on my calendar right away.
John and I attended the 2019 fiesta’s second and last weekend, October 11th-13th. The festival runs annually for nine days around the first week of October and is one of the world’s largest hot air balloon displays. This year, over 550 pilots brought their balloons, baskets, and crews to show off their prized possessions.
Every day of the festival features a sunrise balloon flight, the weekends include daytime music acts, and some nights have “glows” where pilots use their balloons’ burners to light up the darkness. Before I share our experience, I want to give some advice on a few things we learned from the festival’s website before our arrival:
If you want to see our balloon adventure (and some of our other videos) check out our youtube channel HERE!
John and I arrived in Albuquerque late Friday night after the nearly eight hour drive from Denver. We weren’t able to make any of the festival events, so we went straight to our reserved site at the Turquoise Trail Campground and crawled into the back of my car to rest our heads on the car camper.
Due to the late arrival, we didn’t wake up in time to see the sunrise ascension on Saturday morning. We knew that by the time we got there, the session would be over, but we thought we’d head over to see if we could get in and check out the festival.
We arrived at the Balloon Fiesta Park around 10:30 AM, and absolutely nothing was going on at the festival. So little was happening that there weren’t even workers collecting money for parking or for tickets! We parked next to the entrance gates and strolled right in for free!
Between the sessions, several of the vendors had zipped up their tents and turned off their cooktops, but we still were able to stop into a few and walk around the grounds. There were some people lingering and hanging out, and we assumed that most of them were balloon crews and festival workers.
There are all sorts of trinkets and festival memorabilia for sale at the fiesta. We saw things ranging from precious metal jewelry, chilies and spices, wood carvings, and musical instruments. Pin trading and collecting is a very popular hobby, and almost every stand had unique pins for sale. One day, the fiesta featured a pin trading event!
While we were walking around the outskirts of the grounds, we stumbled upon a line of people leading into a pavilion and asked what was going on. We were informed that it was a luncheon and were handed two tickets to enter! We enjoyed a great lunch of friend chicken, pork chops, and mashed potatoes with several of the pilots and other balloon crew members.
After the delicious meal, the concert was just beginning to start, so we made our way to the other end of the fair grounds to check it out. We found that we’d have to buy tickets to get inside a fence surrounding the concert stage, but we could hear and see everything from just outside the fence.
Several of the balloon crews set up tailgates with tents, food, and games which made listening to the music even more fun. We met lots of nice people while we enjoyed three different acts.
We eventually meandered back to the beer garden to purchase a few very expensive beers. A lovely couple invited us to join them at a table, and we talked for almost an hour as the beer garden filled up with people leaving the concert stage.
Every person we met at the festival was unbelievably friendly and welcoming. We met people from all over the world. Germany, France, and at least a dozen states were represented. It was incredible to see how this event brought so many different people together.
When the sun started to set, skydivers dropped from the sky carrying an American flag, blowing smoke, and shooting fireworks from their chutes. It was the beginning of the evening session and balloons soon started to inflate when the divers reached the ground.
We didn’t know what to expect as far as the number of balloons and people that would be attending the evening session.
At first, only a few balloons started to expand, but before we knew it, there were dozens of balloons full of air and thousands of people admiring their designs.
The sun set behind a grouping of balloons that John and I were viewing, and it cast a beautiful reddish-orange hue onto the swarms of people and colorful balloons.
When the sun set, the balloons took on a different look. They were only lit from their burners creating a lightbulb-like effect and a more blue hue. The propane flames would fire up in synchronicity or alternate and flicker to put on a show for the audience.
There are well defined paths between each row of baskets, and we wandered in and out of them staring up at the unique pieces. Each one had a different pattern of colors, some had artistic designs, and some were even shaped like characters!
We were absolutely enamored by some of the balloons’ coloring and patterns. Balloons like the Fractal Project were some of our favorites!
The balloon baskets never leave the ground during the night glow, so we were able to get up close and personal with the crews and see inside of the balloons.
After about an hour of showing off, the balloons finally deflated and a fireworks show began. John and I decided to head out and watch the explosions through our windshield. It was a great showcase that lasted roughly 30 minutes and had us leaning forward in our seats in awe.
When we made it through the lines of cars, cones, and cops, we were starving. We made a quick stop off Route 66 at Frontier Restaurant for some delicious and inexpensive Mexican platters. When we had our fill of tacos and enchiladas, we drove into Cibola National Forest and found a place to park for the night. It was only around 9 PM, but we hopped in our car camping setup to get a good night's sleep and prepare for the early morning wakeup call.
Our first alarm went off around 3:30 AM, and we were fully dressed and leaving our parking spot by 4:30. Even with our early start, we were greeted by a line of cars outside of the festival waiting to get in.
When we did get in, we couldn’t believe how many people were in attendance this early in the morning. It was such a spectacle to see thousands of people huddled and snuggling with one another in the cold, dark morning air.
John and I bought hot chocolates and breakfast burritos right away to warm ourselves up. We enjoyed these from our tapestry on a nice, open grassy patch as we waited for the show to begin. When the balloons started to inflate, we instantly finished what we had left and hopped up off the ground.
The first line of balloons to go up is the “Dawn Patrol”. They check the weather conditions and report back to be sure it is safe for other pilots. About ten balloons were blown up first and everyone gathered around their baskets to watch and warm up.
They alternated taking off, and each one received a big round of applause from the audience. One basket had an American flag attached and was playing the national anthem! It was a great start to what would be an incredible morning.
Once they were all up and floating away, more balloons started to pop up. At first, there weren’t many balloons, and John and I both worried that some balloons had packed up and left the festival early. Within a half an hour of the last Dawn Patrol’s takeoff, we were proven wrong.
The sun started to peep out from behind the nearby Sandia Mountains and as it rose, so did the balloons. It was such an exhibition to see hundreds of balloons slowly lifting off into the purple tinted sky.
What started as just a dozen or so balloons turned into fifty, then hundreds of balloons waiting to take off. They used fans then flames to blow up their balloons illuminating the pre-dawn sky.
We walked among and around these brightly colored behemoths with our eyes and mouths wide open in wonderment. It was truly unlike anything I had ever seen.
There were so many more balloons than we had seen the night before, and more balloons were fun-shaped. There was a Smurf, Smokey the Bear, and even a carousel!
It took roughly two hours for all 560 balloons to blow up and take flight, and for that entire two hours, hundreds of thousands of people clamored, took pictures, cheered, oohed, and ahhed at every piece.
When they were all out of reach, we decided to take off ourselves putting the balloons and all the fun we had shared behind us. Neither one of us could believe how magical the festival had been. It was unlike anything we expected, and we cannot wait to return next year with friends to share how spectacular it was!
When we come back, we will keep these few ideas in the back of our minds. Some are lessons learned and others are things we found afterwards on social media:
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Blanca, Colorado, is the most unique national park Taylor and I have had the pleasure of visiting out of the dozen we have been too. The park’s namesake dune field covers thirty square miles and reaches heights of over 700 feet.
During Taylor's first trip to the national park in March (which you can read about, here) she wasn’t able to camp among the dunes, but we spent the last Friday night in September doing just that.
Prior to our night in the dunes, Taylor and I camped on Lake Como road after leaving Denver Thursday evening. The 4x4 road ascends to Lake Como where many hikers begin their climb of Mount Blanca.
There are stone fire rings that help define cleared pull offs along the road. We found a vacancy with no trouble. Our car camping platform was the perfect place to dream about the dunes in our future
Early Friday morning, Taylor and I prepared a campfire breakfast, checked our packs, and made our way toward Great Sand Dunes National Park. Just outside of the park, we stopped at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis.
Taylor purchased raw shea butter and we rented two Monarch sand sleds. Less than four miles down the road, we showed Taylor’s National Parks Pass and were soon walking into the small but rich visitor’s center.
Taylor purchased raw shea butter and we rented two Monarch sand sleds. Less than four miles down the road, we showed Taylor’s National Parks Pass and were soon walking into the small but rich visitor’s center.
The Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center featured general park information, infographics, models, magnified sand particles, and a gift shop. I found a bandana with a park map printed onto it, and Taylor purchased a Great Sand Dunes decorative picture. While in line, Prickly Pear Jelly Beans were spotted, and we couldn’t refuse them. After our purchases, a park ranger met us in the backcountry office, and we completed the backcountry permitting process.
Not forty five minutes after entering the park, we were driving toward our designated parking lot. We chose to park at Castle Creek lot even though the ranger warned us about the sandy road leading in and the steeper hike up.
Taylor and I were eager to take on the challenge of hiking over the top of the dune field’s ‘front range’. We enjoyed a prepared lunch and discussed how to best climb the monstrous piles of sand.
We decided to navigate a series of slopes whose length and difficulty gradually increased. Aiming southwest, we started down to Medano creek. The creek trickled in the summer heat as we approached the first slope and climbed our first slope of the day.
These first 40 feet of elevation gain were a wakeup call. Nursing full stomachs and questioning our goals, Taylor and I gathered our wits and pressed onward.
The next hill was the steepest of our climb and approximately 100 feet tall. We had to take short breaks all the way up this hill and when we reached the top, we realized this wouldn't be our tallest climb.
The next hill was 260-foot tall behemoth. Temporarily exhausted from reaching the top of the last mound, I scouted the highest parts of the ‘front range’ for our best route.
We initially decided to take follow the eastern, more gradual route. That didn't last very long. As the saying on the brochures in the Visitors Center said, "for every two steps up, you take one step back", so the longer but less steep route was more taxing that anticipated.
We quickly moved back to the front, steeper, side and tried our hardest to push ourselves up. We eventually, after many breaks, made it to the top. We passed one tent along the way and kept climbing the ascending ridge searching for a bird’s eye view of the sandscape. Soon, we found our overlook and our campsite.
The dunes rolled out before us, and we decided to we should setup camp at the bottom of the ridge we stood upon. Two sand sled wipeouts later and 70 feet lower, camp had been reached. A quick setup and some much needed water were all that stood between us and sand sledding celebration.
Taylor and I explored the surrounding dunes with our feet and our sleds until the last light lingered on the horizon. We tackled 100 foot hills, learned how to use our hands as brakes, and used nearly half of our board wax.
As the sun dimmed, stormy clouds grew darker atop the lush mountains and distant rainmakers struck the tundra with lightning. All of this unfolded against a reddish orange and deep purple sky revealing glimpses of an electric blue nearest the fading light.
Tan dunes hosted more color than I could have imagined as the sun sank in the sky. Black shadows of invisible sand clouds whipped and danced across the steepest faces leaving Taylor and I in awe of something we’d never seen. Low winds blasted the perfectly shaped sand waves surrounding us. The entire scene was remarkable.
Before darkness consumed the dunes, Taylor and I made our way back to the tent. The temperature had fallen drastically, and we had more clothes waiting in our tent. After bundling up, we discovered that the dark clouds had only grown to cover the night sky we’d been so excited for.
The Great Sand Dunes is an international Dark Sky location, and we had planned this trip according to the moon calendar to see the darkest sky possible. Sadly, our only glimpse of this wondrous dust was the night before at Lake Como Road.
Taylor and I woke up Saturday morning with our tent in the shade of a dune. We climbed to the top of the ridge we’d followed into the dunes with our sleds. The morning sunshine felt so good that we decided to stay another day.
After a breakfast in our tent, we packed up a small day pack and journeyed back down sand, in a much faster and stylish way. Sledding down our route without packs was a thrill and set the tone for a beautiful morning outside the dunes. It took us only about 20 minutes to get down from our perch, where as the day before had taken us some two or three hours to hike up.
Once our sand sled rentals were extended and our new backcountry permits were in hand, we spun down the rutted, sand road excited for another spellbinding evening. Before championing the climb to our tent, Taylor and I decided to explore Medano Creek.
We walked further down the 4x4 road watching the humble creek roll away from Mount Herard. Bushy trees, wetland grasses, and gnarly trees nearly concealed a young buck across the creek from us. We watched him pull leaves, dart his tail, and peer through the green woods toward any slight sound or movement. When he hopped away and over the hill, Taylor and I decided to start our journey back to camp.
We took a different route up the dunes, hoping it would be easier. The only thing that was really "easier" was the fact we didn't have packs on, and this time a new challenge awaited us. Blustering winds slapped us with sand as soon as we reached the top of our first, grassy sand dune.
From 40 feet to 140, Taylor and I climbed a well-defined ridge to the foot of our longest climb of the weekend. As the winds punished us, we gradually scaled 280 feet of steep sand. While we sat at the top of the sand wall, the wind continued relentlessly.
Our eyes and spirits wouldn’t be the only casualties of the sandstorm. As we neared the campsite, we noticed our misshapen tent. The tent material had been mangled by the wind and had nearly snapped our tent poles.
As we pulled the tent material back into position, the corners became more and more difficult to anchor. Eventually, our strategy turned to indoor sandbags. It didn’t leave much room inside the tent for us and our sand-riddled equipment.
With grit-filled gear and clothes, our primary concern was the potential that the winds continued into the night as we tried to sleep. We decided to abandon the second night of camping and made our way out of the dunes, after a very windy and difficult pack up.
The slow walk out was quiet between us. Mainly, because the roaring winds did not relent, but also because neither one of us wanted to cut our trip short. Though we’d just been beaten by Great Sand Dunes National Park, we knew what an incredible adventure our time there had been. Incredible mountain scenery hosting a geological oddity ripe for exploration was enough for me to consider it a contender for my favorite National Park, even as we were driving away.
If you want to see more of our sand boarding, and actually see how violent the sand storm was, check out our YouTube video from the weekend!
Winter of 2018 through ‘19 brought a record breaking amount of snowfall to the state of Colorado. This was great for skiers and snowboarders, but it was also great for wildflower enthusiasts. The melting snow nourished the ground and helped produce massive amounts of blooming wildflowers and other spectacular vegetation.
Crested Butte is renowned as Colorado’s Wildflower Capital, and this summer, the town was surrounded by a super bloom. Naturally, I planned a trip into the heart of the Rocky Mountains as quickly as I could and was fortunate to have a group of friends who wanted to join John and I and our dog, Maria.
I scoured Facebook groups, Meetup discussions, and trail websites like AllTrails to help plan our trip and scope out where the best blooms were happening. Once I knew where the flowers were, I was able to narrow down my search to campsites and trails that were open and dog friendly.
Many of the campsites don’t take reservations and operate on a first come first serve basis, and many of them do not allow dogs or groups larger than 8. We were planning to have a group of ten or more (eight ended up going) with almost as many dogs tagging along. Through my searches, I found the ‘Oh Be Joyful’ and Lake Irwin campgrounds, and Ohio Pass Road was recommended for dispersed camping. I figured these sites would be good starting points for my search when I got into town Friday afternoon.
I was the first of the group to arrive in Crested Butte and was in charge of locating our home base for the weekend. I luckily tried Lake Irwin Campground first, and to my surprise, found dispersed camping in the national forest just past the campground. I am glad I continued driving around after reading that the Lake Irwin Campground was full, because the spot we snagged couldn't have been any better.
There were a few open sites that I could see from the road, but the marker for a campsite atop a steep hill caught my attention because of its privacy. I climbed the hill and quickly set up my tent to claim the elevated oasis in the heart of the Elk Mountain Range. Maria ran and played on the lush hill while I worked to get ready for everyone’s arrival.
It took several trips up and down the hill and back and forth to the car, but in just a few short hours, I was able to set up a nearly perfect campsite. Once I’d finished, Maria and I headed into Crested Butte for cell service to let the others know where I was set up and to ask them to pick up firewood. It took a little over an hour to go into town and back, and before I knew it, the party was arriving, and nightfall was approaching.
One couple and their pit bull pup arrived first, and shortly after, three other cars arrived with the last five humans and the other four dogs. Everyone quickly set up their sleeping arrangements and lugged their gear up the hill. It was already after 10 pm, but that didn't stop us from making smores and having a few drinks. Once the fire started to die down and a few of us got cold, we decided to call it a night.
Early the next morning, it started to rain, so everyone stayed in their tents a little longer than planned and snuggled up until it stopped. After the shower, I cooked cheesy scrambled eggs and southwestern hash browns in our cast iron skillets over the campfire for breakfast. Some made teas and coffees while John and I enjoyed some hot chocolate. Breakfast warmed and fueled everyone up for the adventures that were to come.
Some of the group decided to head into town, others went fishing in the lake, and we decided to try to summit the nearby 12,000 foot peaks that towered over our campsite. Unfortunately, we were turned around by private property signs and bursts of midday thunder. Lake Irwin was not far, so we turned around and set out on a trail that lead us right to the lake.
By sheer coincidence, we emerged from the wooded trail to find a waterfall and huge field of wildflowers at the very same time that our fishing friends were checking it out. We were all blown away by the site we had simply stumbled upon, and somehow, we had it all to ourselves
We spent a few hours wandering around the lake, stopping in fields of yellow, purple, and white flowers, and throwing sticks for the dogs to chase.
The fields of flowers were unlike anything I had ever experienced, and they were all surrounded by majestic mountain slopes and peaks. When we finished wandering around the lake and our fisherman had caught his fill, we all headed back up to the campsite for a late lunch and to meet up with the group that had gone into Crested Butte.
For the rest of the day, people meandered in and out of the campsite until we lit a fire and started cooking dinner. Between funny stories and conspiracy theories, I prepared a meal of turkey sausage, beef hot dogs, potatoes, brussel sprouts, and asparagus that cooked alongside turkey and black bean quinoa burgers.
We acted as if this wasn't enough food, and shortly after eating this hearty meal, we were making smores again and comparing techniques for how to best roast a marshmallow.
It was a beautiful evening spent with even more beautiful company, but like all good things, it came to an end when the clouds started to roll in and our exhaustion became apparent. We eventually put out the fire as everyone rounded up their dogs and hopped into their sleeping bags.
We all woke up for sunrise the next morning but were greeted by another grey and cloudy morning sky. After sitting around for a little bit and discussing breakfast, we realized how quickly the clouds were rolling in and that there was rain quickly approaching.
We all hit the ground running to pack everything as quickly as we could. We weren’t quite quick enough and got stuck packing up most of our gear as the rain fell. We eventually got everything packed and loaded into our cars, and we finished before the worst of the morning storm set in.
By that time, we were in Crested Butte looking for a place to score a warm breakfast. The rain didn’t keep the restaurant crowds down, and we ended up wandering around for a short while before settling on The Daily Dose for coffees, smoothies, and a few breakfast burritos. It was a cozy place that could accommodate a large group, so it was a nice place to sit and talk about how much fun we had all had during the previous few days.
It was so nice to hear how grateful everyone was to have been able to come together like this, and we started to plan more trips for this fall during breakfast! The weekend was perfect in every way, and the Crested Butte area provided much more than I could have ever imagined. I cannot wait to go back and see what the area has to offer during other seasons of the year!
America’s first national park is home to one of the world's largest volcanoes. Magma nor ash spew from this supervolcanic hotspot, but constant heat affects the landscape and groundwater in spectacular ways. It’s no wonder why this part of America is protected.
Yellowstone National Park encompasses over 28,000 square miles of sulphuric hot pots, glacier valleys, bubbling geysers, and picturesque lakes. In one week, John and I were able to see its highlights while backpacking through the backcountry and driving around its main roads.
Before we stepped foot in the park, we did a lot of planning and research in a very short amount of time. Acquiring permits, preparing food, and packing were critical to our success in the backcountry. We wrote our Planning and Researching post to show every step we took.
Days One-Five: Backpacking in the Backcountry
Most of our time in the park was spent on the Thorofare Trail. We spent five grueling days hiking through some of the most remote parts of the park. Hiking south along Yellowstone Lake toward the Yellowstone River included forest fire damage, lakeside valleys full of wildflowers, and deep woods.
We were set to hike 30 miles and turn around, but due to a swiftly flowing river, we were forced to turn around after 16 miles. It was our first backpacking trip and even though we didn’t complete the trail, we learned a lot about being in the wilderness and can’t wait to hit the trail again! Our “10 Biggest Backpacking Takeaways” post lists some things we learned.
When we got off the trail on the Fourth of July, there was nowhere to stay in the park. Camping is only allowed at designated sites, and each site had already been filled. We were forced to look outside the park, so we looked beyond the park’s East Entrance.
We headed out to Cody, Wyoming, with hopes of getting a good, hot meal and a soft bed. We only found one of these and also unfortunately missed the 100th annual rodeo.
We got some burgers at Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel & Restaurant before finding a Bureau of Land Management spot to park my car camper.
After each day of driving around the park, we left its boundaries to grab a bite and stay the night. Some nights were easier than others, but we wrote about where we ate and stayed each night in this separate post to help others who are in the same situation we were in!
Day 6: The First Day of Driving
Our first day driving around the park started bright and early at the East Entrance. Almost immediately, John spotted some Bison in a valley just past the Fishing Bridge. We pulled over to snap some pictures of two hiding in the shade just yards from our car. We thought this was an up-close experience, but we had no idea what would happen at our next pulloff.
As we kept driving through the valley, we saw a group of cars stopped, so we pulled over as well. Everyone was on a small hillside, but John and I found a trail reaching from our car and into the grassfield. We walked out to the end of the trail and were still 50 yards from the closest bison.
I took some pictures, but as I started to walk toward the hill for a different angle, the bison started to approach John! It got within 5 feet of him while the two stared at one another. John never lost his cool, and the bison turned to walk toward the road! Still struck with awe, we hopped into the car and continued driving to the Mud Volcano.
This was our first hydrothermal area in Yellowstone. It sits inside the Yellowstone Caldera and is constantly shifting. Magma below the surface creates mud pots, hot springs, and geysers. Some of the most acidic mud in the park is found here and caused by microscopic organisms on and below the surface.
The Mud Volcano Trail is a half-mile boardwalk loop that passes Dragon’s Mouth Spring, Mud Volcano, Grizzly Fumarole, Sour Lake, Black Dragon’s Cauldron, Sizzling Basin, Mud Geyser, and Mud Caldron. It was truly fascinating to walk around and explore these sites.
Across the street, the Sulphur Caldron is as acidic as battery acid! We checked it out before driving off to the next area, but even that didn’t come without a few stops to see wildlife including, for the first time, a black bear!!
This area has been torn apart by glacial movement, volcanic activity, and erosion all mixed together. You can see the layers of history in the incredible canyon walls that the Yellowstone River has cut through.
We started our tour of the ‘Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’ at Artist Point working our way south then north again along the north rim. Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed when we went, but the South Rim Trail was open, and we were still able to get close to the upper falls. As we continued northward, we drove up to Mount Washburn but quickly turned around as an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in.
Our next stop was Tower Falls and the general store. Mid-day was approaching, and it was hot and crowded. John and I went in the general store for souvenirs and air conditioning but ended up with beers. We crushed them under the awning outside before continuing on to Tower Falls.
It was a quick stroll to see the fall, but the trail continued past the viewpoint. We kept going the extra bit, and the trail led us to the shores of the Yellowstone River. We explored and hung out for a bit before deciding to head back up for lunch.
We made a quick stop at the petrified tree to see what that was all about. The silica mold of an ancient redwood tree left us with more questions than answers as did most things in the park. Yellowstone is truly full of fascinating curiosities.
We decided to pull over at the Forces of the Northern Range trailhead. We wanted to stop for lunch and a group of people with binoculars caught our attention. Turns out, they were looking at bears way off in the distance, but by the time we had eaten, the bears had come much closer. We got a very good look at a momma and her cub as they nibbled on some flowers.
Mammoth Hot Springs
We timed our arrival at Mammoth Hot Springs perfectly. The earlier shower had scattered some of the crowd, and many of the visitors had finished for the day or were making dinner. For periods of time, we had entire areas to ourselves which allowed us time to quietly ponder and talk about the perplexing landscape. We wondered and discussed a lot, because little of the science and geology on display answered our questions.
We started our walk at Liberty Cone. Most cone shaped mounds like this only grow to 1-2 meters, but this one is almost 14! It greets visitors on the way to the Mammoth Hot Springs Trail and is a spectacular site to see. That being said, it could not compare to its neighboring mineral fountain.
Palette Springs was one of the most perplexing formations we witnessed in Yellowstone National Park. As hot steam rises through limestone, calcium carbonate is dissolved and carried to surface pools. The calcium carbonate is deposited and form stone curtains that show the pathways of overflowing water. These wonderful pools of steaming water are also homes to multi-colored bacterium. From organisms that feed on sulfur to organisms that photosynthesize, these pools are abloom with life.
The Palette Springs boardwalk makes a loop through the lower area. We went clockwise to see Mound Spring, New Blue Spring, Cupid Spring, Grassy Spring, Dryad Spring, and Canary Spring before circling back to Cleopatra and Palette Springs. The entire time, we were enthralled by these formations and creations. It was one of my favorite areas in the entire park and the one that I have the most questions about.
When our brains were fried from contemplation and our tummies started growling, we decided to head out the North Entrance toward our hotel. We grabbed some bar food at the Emigrant Outpost in Pray, Montana, on our way to The Lewis and Clark Motel in Three Forks.
Day Seven: Heading Back South
We woke up the next morning and hit the road back toward the park. After a stop in Bozeman for a quick, fluffy breakfast at Stuffed Crepes and Waffles, our first stop in the park was Sheepeater Cliff. Its name was not as gruesome as it sounded.
It was named after the local group of Native Americans who ate and relied on the mountain sheep. We saw some marmots and a cute deer hiding in the woods before we drove off to another geyser basin.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin sits along two fault lines and a fracture in the Yellowstone Caldera. These cause frequent earthquakes and movements in the land. A park ranger said that every year new hot springs appear while others become dormant. We could see just how quickly things were changing, because part of the boardwalk in Porcelain Basin was roped off.
The geysir basin is split into two sections: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is a large, colorful sight, but Back Basin provides close up views of individual geysirs. We chose to do the Back Basin Trail first.
The longer trails have smaller crowds, plus there was a lot more to see in this area including the tallest active geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser! We watched and hoped for Steamboat to blow at the beginning of the Back Basin Trail just past Emerald Spring, but sadly did not see it erupt.
The trail continues past Cistern Spring, Black Pit Spring, Echinus Geyser, Arch Steam Vent, Mystic Spring, Puff N’s Stuff Geyser, Green Dragon Spring, Blue Mud Steam vent, Yellow Funnel Spring, Porkchop Geyser, and Vixen Geyser.
Porkchop Geyser is especially intriguing, because it made an epic comeback from dormancy in the 80’s. It shot rocks hundreds of feet into the air, it has since calmed back down and when we saw it was just a roiling hot spring.
We got a surprise eruption from Vixen Geyser as we were leaving Veteran and Corporal Geysers. The little hole shot water about 15 feet into the air for several minutes. It was very impressive and unexpected. We finished the Back Basin Trail with Palpitator Spring, Fearless Geyser, Monarch Geyser Crater, and Minute Geyser before heading to the Porcelain Basin.
We didn’t spend nearly as long in the Porcelain Basin, because we had spent nearly two hours on the Back Basin Trial. Plus, the Porcelain Basin Trail was shorter and much more crowded so we didn't need as much time. We stood at the overlook and did the short loop to see Congress Pool, Porcelain Springs, and Hurricane Vent before hopping back in the car to see what else the park had to offer.
I had never heard of or seen mud pots before, but when we arrived at Artist Paint Pots in the Gibbon Geyser basin, we could see exactly what they were named for. The gurgling pools of clay and nearby fumaroles were steaming along the hillside as we walked across the boardwalk overlook.
Lower Geyser Basin
Lower Geyser Basin is home to the Fountain Paint Pot Trail where John and I strolled around quickly looking at more mud pots and geysers. This is one of the few places in the park where you can see up to a half dozen geysers erupting in one place. We chose not to go down Firehole Lake Drive due to time constraints. The sun was starting to set, and we still had to see Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful!
Midway Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic was one of the things I was most excited to see in Yellowstone. Those brilliant colors are iconic, and I couldn’t wait to take it all in. Before actually getting to Prismatic Spring, the trail crosses the Firehole River where steaming water flows over the edge of the spring into the river. The boardwalk then takes you to the top of the basin and leads along the rim of the mystical, blue Excelsior Geyser Crater and up to the copper mouth of Grand Prismatic.
Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone National Park.Viewed from the park's boardwalk, rust colored stone ripples extended away from a constant cloud of dissipating steam. Glimpses of deep blue escaped the fog and reminded us of the single spring's size. Larger than a football field, this behemoth is best viewed from above.
Its grandeur was hard to comprehend, and it was impossible to see entirely from the boardwalk. We noticed hikers at an overlook on a hillside, and we knew the hike would be worth a better view. We drove south and found the Fairy Falls trailhead parking lot on our right. The Fairy Falls Trail leads to a great overlook right above Grand Prismatic. From up there, we could see how truly massive the entire geyser basin is.
It was spectacular, but we didn't stay long. The sun was setting, and the mosquitoes were coming out. We hiked down and opted to skip Biscuit Basin in an attempt to get to Old Faithful before the sun set.
Upper Geyser Basin
We arrived at the Old Faithful Visitors Center around 8:45 pm with just enough light out to see the geyser. There was hardly anyone waiting on the benches except a few families. The one closest to us believed it would erupt in the next 15-20 minutes.
After a little while, another family approached and said that it was going to be almost another 30-45 minutes. We knew that, by that time, there would be no light left. We were starving, so we decided to save Old Faithful’s explosion for the next day and see if we could score a bed in the lodge.
John and I discovered that we could score a bed for the night at $450. After politely laughing at this price, we got phone numbers for some of the park’s campsites. Sitting and cooking dinner in the parking lot, we called and searched for an open spot.
With no luck in the park again, we went out the West Entrance of the park and drove to Idaho. We found a secluded place to park my car camper with freecampsites.net and rested our heads next to a gently flowing creek
Day Eight: The Final Morning
The last morning of our trip started with breakfast from Old Town Cafe in West Yellowstone before embarking on our last day of driving through Yellowstone National Park. It was Sunday, and the only thing left we had left to see was Old Faithful erupting.
It took us a lot longer than we expected to get there, because the crowds had grown dramatically. Parking lots were overflowing and causing jammed turn lanes, plus more people meant more cars parked on the side of the road when wildlife was visible. It was extremely frustrating, but John and I were unbelievably happy that our past two days hadn't been like this.
We finally arrived at the Old Faithful Visitor Center around noon, and it was also packed. There were people everywhere. We had 30-45 minutes to spare until the geyser’s predicted eruption. I walked through the history and science museum before we met on the boardwalk and found a seat to watch the show.
I call it a show, because the eruption went on for several minutes! We were not expecting this at all. Every other geyser we had seen would shoot off once or rumble lowly, but Old Faithful shot water dozens of feet high for minutes. Everyone around us “oohed”, “aahed”, and applauded afterwards.
As soon as it ended, so did our vacation. Everyone around us left the area, and we eventually meandered our way to the car looking back at what had been a crazy, wonderful, and beautiful trip.
My birthday falls very close to the Fourth of July, so every year, I enjoy taking a weeklong trip to celebrate both events. This year’s trip was a hard one to plan though. Record breaking snowfall in the Northern and Midwestern U.S. left some of the places I planned to visit with my travel partner, John, unobtainable.
After dozens of calls to Park Rangers and Forestry Offices across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, we found that Yellowstone National Park was snow free and hikeable. Right away, we sat down and started planning an epic 60-mile hike in the southeastern corner of the park.
We were instantly drawn to the Thorofare Trail. This area is deemed one of the most “remote” parts of the country. It follows the Yellowstone Lake and River to the park boundary and sits nearly 25 miles from any road in every direction.
It took a great deal of research to make sure we would be safe in bear country when so far from rescue. We have never done a trip this long and intense before. We spent days planning out our trail, buying new gear, and packing up our campfire meals for the week long adventure. You can read all about our research, planning, and packing process here.
Once we were all packed and ready to go, we set out from Denver and arrived at the backcountry office near the southern entrance of Yellowstone 9 hours later. We met with the park ranger to discuss our plans and receive all of our necessary passes. The ranger made some phone calls while we watched a 20 minute safety video about how to handle different situations in the backcountry.
He told us that we would have to be very careful because of nearby bear activity and high water in some of the creeks we would have to traverse. We felt that we were prepared mentally and with equipment, so we signed all of the necessary paperwork to confirm that we knew the dangers and paid our fees. To see what gear we carried check out our detailed post here - it lists our most essential items and the few things we wished we had chosen differently.
It cost $3 per night per person to camp in the backcountry. We also picked up Yellowstone fishing licenses which were $25 per person for 7 days (3 day and season long permits are also available), and it is important to note that Wyoming Fishing licenses are not valid inside the park. Our total came to $86 for both of us.
After the ranger handed us our permits and a detailed map, we headed on our way. We arrived at the Nine-Mile Trailhead on the east side of Yellowstone Lake around 4 pm. With full packs and big smiles, we started our journey into the unknown.
Trail Day One – Getting going:
Our first day was an eight-mile hike, along the banks of Yellowstone Lake, to campsite 5E6. The trail did not start off as scenically as either one of us was expecting. We started in a valley of downed trees that had been burned by fires decades ago.
For the first mile or so, these charred and damaged trees surrounded us. The lake provided a stunning background behind the broken limbs and blackened stumps and helped make the journey feel less eerie until we entered the wooded and swampy areas.
We had to cross several streams on the first day starting with the bigger Cub and Clear Creeks. Each one had large rocks or fallen trees we could walk across making for fairly easy crossings. When we got down around mile 6 near campsites 5E9-5E7, the trail started to change.
The Meadow Creek watershed area is where we really entered into the deep woods. The trail became muddy and marshy from snowmelts, recent rainfalls, and little sunlight that broke through the heavy forest canopy. We also noticed a change in the environment by the bugs.
From here on out, the trail was swarmed with hundreds of pestering mosquitoes, flies, and gnats. I really wish I could put into words how many bugs there were on this trail. It was something we were absolutely not prepared for.
We quickly learned that we had underestimated the amount of bug spray and bite treatment we would need for the week. It was one of the more valuable lessons we learned on this trip, and you can read about our 10 biggest takeaways from our first backpacking trip in this post!
The heavily wooded area ended, and for the rest of the trail, we went in and out of woodsy patches and flowering valleys along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We caught a break in the curtain of bugs just in time to see the marker for our campsite about two miles after crossing over Meadow Creek. We walked up around 8:30 pm with just enough sunlight to set up our tent and get a fire going before nightfall.
Every campsite we visited in the backcountry had a designated campfire area complete with a fire ring, logs arranged around it for seating, and structures created by park rangers for hanging food high enough to be kept away from bears. We staked out everything and set up our tent in accordance with the wind so that the food smells wouldn’t bring bears toward us in the night.
John tried his hand at fly fishing while I prepared our dinner. We sat around the fire, ate our meal in awe of the number of stars we could see, and discussed the sheer grandness of our visible Milky Way. This was one of the only clear evenings of the whole week, but still, it rained that night and well into the morning.
Trail Day Two – Our first attempt:
Day two was one of our longer planned days, but we weren’t able to leave our tent until almost 10:30 am. By the time we ate breakfast and packed up our tent and gear, it was almost 1 pm when we got back on the trail. We had almost 10 miles ahead of us as we attempted to make it to campsite 6B1.
I say attempted, because that was all we were capable of on this day. The slight exhaustion and the soreness from the day before settled in and made for a fairly hard day for us. Also, starting in the middle of the day made for a much hotter walk than either of us wanted, because we were covered head to toe to protect against the vicious bugs.
The hike was very similar to the day before’s hike with periods of thick forest and open valleys that exposed views of the lake. The exception was that this day featured many more wildflowers. Instead of having forest fire damage and downed trees, the open parts of this trail were grassy hillsides covered in purple and yellow flowers stretching into the distance.
As we got closer to the southeastern arm of Yellowstone Lake, we started to see snowy caps on some far away mountains. It baffled us that the peaks remained frozen in the heat of July.
After lots of stops, swats at bugs, and a few slips, we had gone eight miles out of our arranged ten. We had to make the decision to not continue on to our campsite at 6B1 and stop at 5E1 because of exhaustion and a dangerous looking Beaver Dam Creek crossing.
It was almost 9 pm when we arrived at the ridgeline campground. We had just a few minutes of sunlight left when we set up our campsite and started a campfire. We were both a little disappointed in our progress that day, because we were walking at nearly half the speed we normally do when hiking, and we discussed ways to make up the ground we had missed.
For the first time, we tried our Mary Jane’s dehydrated meals and enjoyed a hearty bag of black bean soup and two burritos each. We were really making sure to load up to help fuel our next day on the trail. Before departing on our trip, we spent a great deal of time comparing dehydrated meals, and we felt that we made the best decision by choosing Mary Jane’s meals. The sodium content, calorie amounts, and organic ingredients were great features, but the actual taste and heartiness of the meals convinced us to keep using Mary Jane’s for every trip we take. If you want to read more about our food prep and decision process, check out this post!
We weren’t able to enjoy the night sky for long before storms started to roll in over the mountainous horizon, so we hopped in our tent after dinner and let the thunder put us to sleep. We woke up early the next morning to get a good start on the day.
Trail Day Three – The Incident:
As we were packing up that morning, two park rangers arrived at our site. They asked to see our permits and asked why we didn’t make it to our designated stop. We told them that the approaching storms had worried us and that the water of Beaver Dam Creek didn’t seem safe to cross so close to nightfall.
They agreed that we made the right decision and confirmed that the creek was flowing swiftly and reminded us that we would need to be careful when crossing. They told us to get back on track with our permits and try to not stray from them too much. We told them we’d do our best.
Once we were packed and ready to go, we hiked down the hill to Beaver Dam Creek around 10 am. We got to the water, rolled up our pants, put our water shoes on, and I pulled out my hiking poles. We thought we were prepared for the crossing, but those thoughts of preparedness turned out to be my downfall – literally.
John and I approached the rushing water with too much confidence. We arrogantly but unintentionally ignored some of the things we had been shown in the safety videos and been told by the rangers.
When we entered the water, it was only about shin deep and lead us to falsely think we could cross it independently. Instead, the creek deepened quickly and the current got stronger as we went further in. Instead of holding hands or linking arms as we had been shown, we walked side by side until I slipped.
The water completely knocked my feet out from under me, and I started to tumble. The weight of my bag and the gushing water coming over me made it impossible for me to gain my footing back or even stabilize myself enough to stop floating down the river. In a matter of seconds, I was being carried downstream dozens of yards from John and the shoreline. Never in my life had I yelled out for help the way I did in this situation. John instantly ran to shore and dropped his bag in hopes of helping me. Somehow, I managed to grab a nearby tree limb and pull myself out of the water before he could arrive.
It wasn’t until I was on the bank of the river that I realized I had badly hurt myself in the fall. When I tried to stand up, my right knee went out and started throbbing. I looked down and found that I was bleeding and already covered in bruises.
John ran to me, helped me get up, and grabbed my gear. We backtracked the few hundred feet we had just hiked to the creek and arrived back to the safety of campsite 5H1.
After cleaning up my wounds and laying out all of my clothes and gear to dry, John and I reevaluated what just happened and realized how big some of the mistakes we made were. It was another lesson we had to add to our experiences, and we both agreed to never underestimate a river, stream, or creek ever again.
I was glad we put so much consideration into what was in our first aid kits, you can read about what we carried in this post. My cuts and scrapes could have been easily infected, but we made sure to take good care of them immediately.
We spent the rest of the day recuperating, relaxing, and soothing the wounds from that morning. We made the decision to stay the night at 5H1 again and head back for the trailhead the next day. It was not an easy or fun discussion especially considering that we were only about half of the way down the trail that we were hoping to finish, but we knew it was the right decision.
We set up our hammock and took a nice mid afternoon nap before walking back down to the creek to try our hand at some fly fishing. It was really the first opportunity we had to take significant time to try it out. Even though it wasn’t very successful, it was still fun practicing our casts and rigging up the gear.
When the bugs got bad and the sun started to set, we headed back up to the campsite to make some dinner. We enjoyed our Mary Jane’s again just before a storm rolled over us. We slept like babies to the sound of pouring rain and regained our energy for the next day's hike.
Day Four – The start of the return:
Since the timeline we were given was all messed up, we set off on the trail not knowing what campsite we were going to make it to or how long of a day we had ahead of ourselves. We didn’t really care though. The lack of structure meant that we could take our time getting back and make more stops to better enjoy the trail and wilderness.
We were having a very strong day, because the lazy day before really gave us our strength back. We were going at our usual 2 mile per hour rate until John let his focus slip and had a fall that resulted in a punctured palm. Luckily, we were only about a mile from a campsite, so he cleaned, treated, and bandaged the hole in his hand before we pushed on to the site.
We arrived at campsite 5E4 around 1:30 pm and better doctored John’s wound before an afternoon storm rolled in. We managed to get our rain gear set up and enjoy a lakeside lunch before we had to take shelter.
The storm lasted a good little while. Since we didn’t have a plan for the night, we decided to set up camp when the rain stopped even though it was only around 4 pm.
We managed to make a small fire with the damp wood around us and watched as the lake started to get dark and choppy again. This night, we weren’t as fortunate as others and had to eat our meals inside of our tent, because another storm came in so quickly.
The dehydrated meals’ packaging made it so easy to cook and eat them that we actually enjoyed sitting in the cozy ambiance of the tent for our meal. We went to bed after getting rid of our food waste and hanging up our bear bag. It was still raining, but we knew that it was necessary to get all of our food waste and gear out of the sleeping area.
Day Five – The final stretch:
After a good night’s rest and a very hearty breakfast, we got on the trail around 9 am on what would turn out to be our last day on the trail. We were able to cover more ground than we expected, since our bags were getting a little lighter from consuming food and medical supplies, and we were well rested from a couple of shorter days.
When we stopped for lunch at campsite 5E8, we decided to go for about 3 more miles to reach the last campsite before the trailhead. We were never able to find campsite 5H1, because it was still closed for the season.
Before we knew it, we were at Cub Creek and only about a mile and half from the trailhead. We knew we were heading into the forest of dead trees and sunshine, so we stopped one last time for a power snack and to refill our waters.
We were off the trail and back at my car around 5 pm on the Fourth of July which gave us enough time to catch some fireworks. Even though we didn’t make it nearly as far as we wanted, the timing ended up being perfect to allow us 2 ½ days to travel around the park and see its more touristy highlights. You can see photos and read our post about our road trip around the park here.
We learned a lot on our first multi-night backpacking trip, and doing it in our nation’s first national park made for an incredibly special trip. Since we didn’t finish the trail or get to fish the Yellowstone River, we are already getting plans in place to return to this remote destination and successfully explore its entire length.
After seeing Widespread Panic for the first time at Sloss Music & Arts Festival in 2016, I was hooked, so when John said to me, “Taylor, Widespread is playing in 10 hours just 6 hours from here. You want to go?” it was a no brainer.
We made it to Telluride with what we thought was plenty of time to buy tickets and get in before the show started. As it turned out, the box office had sold out of Friday night tickets, so John and I were forced to look for tickets outside of the festival. We were never able to find single day tickets, but we bought weekend passes and thought, “We’ll stay for another day of the festival or sell the passes.” After having the tickets emailed to us, we hopped in line as the show started at 7 pm.
Telluride has very strict noise ordinance, so the bands are only allowed to play during their allotted times. Though they are a notoriously late band, Panic started playing right on schedule in an attempt to respect their 10 pm cutoff time. Apparently other “spreadnecks” thought the same as John and I, and everyone showed up around the same time. As the first four songs played, we waited in the blocks-long security line. We were not happy at first, but Panic put on such a great show that we forgot how mad we were after finding a spot in the crowd.
The festival venue is unbelievable. The stage is set up against the mountainside, so we were looking not only at an incredible show but stunning, lush mountains while listening and dancing to really, really good music. Both nights’ sunsets added to the already wonderful ambiance, and when the moon rose on the second night, the whole crowd erupted into howls.
The merchandise tents and food vendors were set along the back edge and allowed plenty of space to keep the lines from congesting the venue. Ride Fest allowed us to bring in food, water, and tents, but no alcohol was allowed in. There was plenty of space for families and groups to spread out blankets and sunshades behind the soundboard which also meant plenty of space for dancing and running around.
Along with tickets and weekend passes, the festival also sold camping passes. The campground was adjacent to the music venue but required a different wristband to enter. Sadly they were all sold out when we got into town, but John and I walked right in without wristbands on Saturday morning and were able to take a look around the campgrounds.
Before the shows on Saturday, we took a lovely hike up to Bridal Veil Falls. This is one of Telluride’s most popular trails, and it leads to Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall! It’s about two miles to the base of the waterfall and an additional half mile to the top of it. The entire hike looks down on the town of Telluride, and the views only got better the further up we went. So far, it is one of my favorite hikes in Colorado that is less than 5 miles long.
After our hike, we headed into town to grab a bite to eat at The Floradora Saloon. As a lot of other things in Telluride, the “saloon” was very bougie, but we enjoyed our burgers and a few cocktails before heading to the festival.
Day two of the festival included other bands such as Temperance Movement and Thunderpussy, but we only went for Big Something and Widespread Panic. This was our second time seeing Big Something and nearly our 10th time seeing Panic. Big Something put on a groovy rock show that put us in the mood for dancing. Their Ewi player, Casey, laid down the funky sounds while the lead singer, Nick, spit some mean rhymes on their more upbeat tracks.
Panic put on one burner of a show. Two hours and fifteen minutes of uninterrupted rock and roll made for one of the best WSP shows I have seen. Late in the show, the lead singer, JB, addressed the audience, “To put it into words, we’re happy to be here.” These words perfectly summed up the atmosphere of the festival and their gratitude for the crowd. At 11 pm sharp, the band wrapped up without an encore thanks to city ordinances. The festival features a series of late night shows around town called Night Ride, but John and I opted out of these free shows to find a place to camp.
We woke up a little sore on Sunday from the hiking and dancing we had done the day before and opted not to do any hiking that morning. Instead, we grabbed a bite of breakfast at The Butcher and The Baker (still curious where the candlestick maker is). We enjoyed a wonderful, al fresco meal on the main street of Telluride while talking to other festival goers about the shows we had seen.
We had noticed that the gondola next to the festival entrance was in operation, so we decided to see where they led and check out some of Telluride’s slopes. Even though there was no skiing, the lifts were crowded with tourists, mountain bikers, and hikers.
We got off at the Mountain Village and explored some of the trails and shops before taking a second gondola to Market Plaza. There wasn’t as much to see at the second stop, so we quickly hopped back on to enjoy the views of the ride again. The perspective of the mountains and valley that host Telluride was incredible. We were glad to have gone, and we were even happier that it was free!
We had never planned on going to the shows on Sunday, but we had a little time to kill before heading back to Denver, so we popped into the festival to catch the last few songs of Dorthy’s performance. The crowd was a bit smaller that early in the afternoon, but everyone was still moving and grooving to the music. When they wrapped up, we decided it was time to wrap up our trip too.
Everything from the festival lineup, to the venue, and the town was absolutely perfect. Going to Ride Fest was one of the best day-of decisions I have made in a long time, and I cannot wait until next year or until the next Widespread Panic show.
When I found out that The Great Sand Dunes National Park was only three hours away from Denver, I immediately made plans to go. I have to give another shoutout to the Women Who Hike Colorado page for the inspiration and for helping me find a new travel buddy (and her pup)!
Our weekend started Friday after work when both of us drove south from Denver. The drive is a short four hours! We had planned to camp at Zapata Falls, but the road was terribly washed out from the recent snow melt. It was a blessing in disguise, because we found a wonderful Bureau of Land Management spot at the base of Mount Blanca. It featured a fire ring and a gorgeous view!
We woke up from a chilly night, enjoyed breakfast around our campfire, and decided to attempt the drive up to Zapata Falls. Good thing we did! The road wasn’t as intimidating in the daylight, but the entire four mile drive to the trailhead was very bumpy and rocky. What lay at the end of that bumpy road was worth every questionable turn we made.
Zapata Falls, in the middle of March, was a frozen masterpiece. The half-mile trail and the views surrounding the Sangre de Cristos mountains were covered in a light layer of snow. It made us feel like we were wandering into a true winter wonderlan, but none of this magical hike compared to the sheer beauty of the falls themselves.
The falls are hidden inside of a small slot canyon. Luckily, in the winter, you don't have to wade through water to see them. Instead, you have to carefully walk across and climb up the ice to see its shimmering sculptures.
We had the falls all to ourselves for about 30-minutes, so we took our time taking pictures and peering at the gushing water that could be see through holes in the ice. When we were done, other groups started to show up, and we decided it was the perfect time to head to the Great Dunes!
Our first stop inside the park was the visitor’s center to try to obtain backcountry camping passes. Sadly, since we had her puppy with us, we weren’t able to camp among the dunes. Dogs are allowed in the backcountry, at any time, but they are not allowed to 'sleep or stay overnight'. Weird, right?) The ranger did give us great advice on how to get up the dunes easily.
When we parked our car at the trailhead, it was snowing hard. We could barely see the dunes, which were only 300 yards away. We debated if we'd be crazy to go out there, but we bundled up and hit the sand.
Within five minutes of walking through the whipping and snowy wind, the sun started to shine and the clouds parted. We walked along the base of the dunes as flatly as we could before heading up the ridge.
We could not believe the views for the entire hike. Not only were the dunes themselves impeccable, but the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains made the landscape that much more stunning, and the views only got better the more we climbed.
By the time we started to climb the dunes, we both had to strip off a few layers, because we had gotten so hot. Walking up the sand was not easy! For every three steps I took, I'd slide back one. Luckily, the melted snow made the sand a little sticky and made the hike a little easier than it normally would be!
We couldn't tell you our path really. We just tried to not change elevation too often and did it gradually when we had to. There are no trails or markers in the sand, so it will be up to you to find the easiest way up.
We reached the peak of the dune that we had chosen to climb, and we were rewarded with unreal views of the vast park. The dunes went on for as far as our eyes could see. It looked like they went right up to the base of the mountains. It was incredible, and we sat and stared for a few moments. The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up at the top of the dunes, so we didn't stay long.
The trek down the dune was much easier than the journey up. In fact, we ran and rolled down half the hill laughing and acting like children. It was wonderful.
When we reached the car, we decided to go back to the same campsite as the night before and get our campsite set up before dusk. It was already around 5:30, and we were exhausted from the long and exhilarating day.
We built a bonfire, roasted weenies, and made s'mores with the stunning views of Mount Blanca in the background. We sat around and made summer plans to climb the looming 14'er and camp in the dunes. Before calling it a night, we both agreed that today had been perfect. From the timing of the weather to the things were able to see, it had all fallen into place perfectly. We both went to bed with big smiles on our faces giddy to get back already!
It is so weird to look back and realize that it has already been three years since I took my senior spring break trip to Breckenridge. Now, my little sister is a freshman in college, and she decided to spend her spring break week with my parents visiting me in my new home in Colorado!
We started our week together by meeting up in Colorado Springs bright and early Sunday morning at The Broadmoor’s Seven Falls parking lot. We said our hellos, hoped on the bus, bought our tickets, and set off on our wonderful week together! Starting at Seven Falls was a great idea, because the park was practically empty, but it did mean that it was still a little icy and chilly.
The hike started with The Pillars of Hercules's epic orange slot canyons. It's just short of a mile to the falls, but it took us quite a while to walk while we were taking pictures and gawking at the massive rock formations. We followed the South Cheyenne Creek to the end of the hike where a platform with a little gift shop, restaurant, and, of course, the falls were waiting for us.
Overall, it's a short hike, but you might end up walking quite far depending on how many flights of stairs you climb or which trails you take at the top. We chose to climb the stairs leading to The Eagle’s Nest, because the other stairwell was very icy. After 224 steep steps up, we made it to the overlook to take in the panoramic views of the falls and the incredible Pillars of Hercules that surround it.
Most of the falls were frozen, but we could still hear water gushing under the tunnels of ice that were hiding it. It was stunning to see, and the views were great, but we were very chilly at that height. We decided to head back down the stairs and the trail toward the car after only about five minutes at the top.
When we got to the car, we decided that our next stop would be The Garden of the Gods before heading into town. It was a 15 minute drive from the Broadmoor to The Garden of The Gods. We drove through the park stopping along Ridge Road to take pictures at every viewpoint or pull off available.
We, mystified by the vibrant red rocks, spent a couple of hours stopping and walking through the park. We all wished that we had gotten there earlier to do a hike and grab a parking spot so that we could have spent longer exploring around.
After my sister and I got an up-close and personal experience with some Mule Deer, we were ready to see what else Colorado Springs had to offer. Our next stop was a tour of The Air Force Academy from a family friend and current cadet.
We met him at The Cadet Chapel at the front of campus to start. It was the easiest building to find and meet at, and it’s pretty famous for its stained glass, so we wanted to be sure that we saw this first.
After the chapel, we wandered clockwise around the large courtyard that surrounds the Air Garden and the Spirit Hill in the middle of campus. Our first stop was Arnold Hall. We then attempted to get into the library and a few similar buildings with no luck, since it was Sunday.
We drove over to the sports facilities to see the lacrosse, baseball, softball, soccer, and rugby fields. We parked and walked inside to see some of the training facilities and wrapped up by driving to the overlook above the fields. It was a great view to end the wonderful day we had enjoyed together.
The next day, my family woke up early to visit the town of Golden and see my sister’s friend who attends the Colorado School of Mines. After grabbing breakfast and strolling through the shops, they stopped by Red Rocks Amphitheater on the way back to Denver.
Later on, we all met up and were ready to go to a Denver Avalanche hockey game at the Pepsi Center. My family loves sporting events, so we had a blast together getting rowdy at the game and hoping for a good fight!
Unforeseen in our plans was a “bomb cyclone blizzard” that was set to hit Colorado Wednesday and drop feet of snow. My family had to be flexible and cancel their plans in Breckenridge which was difficult, but it led to two days of board games, snuggles, and watching movies while we were snowed in.
Finally, the storm cleared up just in time for us to head north to Estes Park and check in at The Stanley Hotel. Before we dropped off our luggage, we decided to take the long route and drive through Rocky Mountain National Park.
We started at the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center and continued up Highway 36. Only certain roads are open during the winter months limiting where we could go, so we made a big loop on 34 heading toward the Fall River Visitor Center.
We stopped every with chance we had just as we had done at Garden of the Gods. We stopped for wildlife in the middle of the road, mountain views, a lake overlook, and other random stops along the way.
When we were out of the national park, we kept driving to Elkhorn Street and checked out the little downtown area. Every store had cute displays in the windows. Most were candy shops, so there were brightly colored, eye-catching arrangements everywhere we looked.
When we reached what looked like the end of the street, we decided to check out the Wapiti Colorado Pub. After filling our bellies with bison burgers and local brews, we finally went to check in and explore around The Stanley Hotel.
We, of course, went to the bar and ordered, “the hair of the dog that bit me,” (but actually ordered shining inspired cocktails and beers). We tried to get on a ghost tour, but they were unfortunately all booked up.
We still got to see where the haunted tunnels were and where a lot of celebrities had been, but we didn't see any ghosts or spirits during our stay.
We woke up the next morning to incredible views of the Rocky Mountains out our window and from the front steps of the hotel. It was the perfect view to have while saying our goodbyes to each other and the week we had spent together.
We parted ways hugging and planning when our next vacation will be. We are very excited to see what else Colorado has for us explore!
Steamboat Springs is one of Colorado’s many quaint and adorable ski towns. It is also home to the WinterWonderGrass music festival that John and I had been looking forward to since Christmas. I had heard nothing but great things about this little town, and, happily, it did not disappoint. Steamboat Springs and the WinterWonderGrass festival were actually more than I could have expected!
We arrived Friday night after a dark, snowy ride from Denver. We were just in time to catch that night’s headlining act, Railroad Earth. As soon as we found a place in the crowd, it started to snow. The stage lights hitting the flakes looked like confetti fluttering around us, and the backdrop of mountains made this scene even more magical.
When they wrapped up playing, one more act, Pixie and The Partygrass Boys, started playing on one of the smaller stages. We jammed out to a few hardcore hits like "Psycho Killer" before heading downtown to check out the nightlife.
We decided to go to the ‘Grass after Dark’ event hosted by WinterWonderGrass at Schmiggity’s. It featured the Jack Cloonan Band covering hit songs in a bluegrass fashion. We had a couple of beers and a few hot dogs while we danced around for the late-night tunes
Since ski towns are so popular this time of year, Airbnb’s and hotels can be expensive. We chose to take the less expensive option. We parked in The Routt National Forest and slept in my car camper. Park regulations state that campers’ vehicles must be two car-lengths away from the road. It didn’t take us too long to find a plowed parking space to back comfortably into. We pulled out our sleeping bags and called it a night.
Though we woke up stiff and chilly, the sleeping arrangement could have been much worse. Properly rated sleeping bags and lots of layers are a must. We were up early, so we decided to head into Steamboat Springs and find a bite to eat.
I had seen recommendations for Creekside Cafe on social media, so we popped in, luckily, before the morning crowd arrived. We enjoyed a hearty meal of waffles, bacon, eggs benedict, and espresso drinks with something extra from the bar. It was probably too much before skiing, but we had yet to rent gear or buy tickets. There was plenty of time to let it settle.
We walked down 11th Street to One Stop Ski Shop for our necessary rentals. It only cost us $25 each to get skis, boots, helmets, and poles for 24 hours. We loaded up all of gear and headed to legendary The Howelson Hill ski area.
We had stopped in earlier to see how much lift passes were. To our surprise, they were only $25. (Compare that to Steamboat Resort’s $199!) The face of Howelson Hill is dedicated to an intimidating black diamond run and the in-use competitive jumping area. The back side of the mountain is low grade, green and blue slopes that wrap around to the front. These slopes were perfect for John and I, since we are beginners. We took almost a dozen runs from 10:30 am to almost 4:00 pm!
It did wear us out, but we weren't going to let anything stop us from dancing our tails off that evening at the stages. We saw Town Mountain, The Shook Twins, and The California Honeydrops before the headliners, Trampled By Turtles. We tent hopped and boot stomped throughout the night, but we left before the final show with hot plans in mind.
We wanted to check out Strawberry Park Hot Springs and have a good soak before they closed the gates at 10:30 pm. We meandered around the different pools in the pitch black, trying to remain aware of other bathers. After almost two hours of being steeped in the piping hot water, we braved the cold and got out to find another place to sleep for the night. (Pictures taken the net day).
It turned out that our parking spot from the night before was only one half mile from the springs. After another chilly morning, we made our way downtown to a warm breakfast as soon as we could. We found solace in a diner called The Shack Cafe where we both scarfed down hearty egg breakfasts and large cups of coffee before we even started planning our day.
Since Routt National Forest and the hot springs are so close to Steamboat Springs, we decided to go back to get a few pictures and explore what we could of the forest. We stopped at one roadside pull off with a wonderful view and a friendly snowman. We decided to set up my recently purchased, compact table and enjoy the views.
We were eventually joined by another couple who was also in town for WinterWonderGrass. They gave us Klondike ice cream bars and went on to meet up with friends. It was a beautiful interaction and we decided to explore more of the forest after they’d left. We packed up and went up another snowy hill.
Little did we know, we were heading toward the Buffalo Pass Winter Backcountry Area. After parking, we grabbed a pass and took a stroll down the well-packed road. There are designated boundaries for motorized vehicles and non-motorized activities, but snowmobiling seemed to be the most popular hobby among visitors. John and I marveled at the pristine snow pack before making our way back to Steamboat for another night of strings.
Before we went to the festival, we stopped at a bar whose lights caught John’s eye. The Back Door Grill is a cozy, funky burger bar with annual awards. We had a quick beer, hot wings, and cajun fries to fuel up for the festival’s finale.
We were greeted by tunes from Picking on The Dead before Billy Strings blew our minds. A smaller set of Town Mountain gave us a chance to warm up with coffee drinks from the tent’s bar before the big headliners of the night, The Infamous Stringdusters. We snagged some pizza before the all-star, late night set, then we hit the road back to Denver.
Three hours and a few inches of snow later, we made it home safe and sound. We were exhausted, but we were in amazement at how incredible our weekend had just been. WinterWonderGrass is a great reason to get out to Steamboat Springs even if you aren’t sure about bluegrass music. Dancing to the rhythm of a stand up bass with hundreds of joyous people can only add to the charm and opportunities of Steamboat Springs.
Spending the holidays in Hawaii was a wonderfully different experience. Walking around the shores of Waikiki beach in shorts and a tank top while Christmas music played at a nearby food stall felt strange at first, but it didn’t take long for me to find the atmosphere relaxing, especially since this “vacation” was an all-expenses-paid trip.
My sister and I were unbelievably fortunate to have been asked to help nanny for multiple families on a seven day cruise around the islands of Hawaii. All that was asked of us in exchange for flights, lodging, excursions, and, of course, the cruise itself, were some babysitting hours. For seven days, we woke up and took care of kids who ranged from infant to preteen and explored around as much as we could.
Honolulu: Day One
Moving a party of 16 people, their 20+ bags, strollers, and car seats through security and onto a plane for a long, direct flight from Dallas to Honolulu was no easy task. Somehow, we managed without any issues, and it felt great to get to our hotel and know that our vacation was about to begin.
After a somewhat stressful check-in process at The Hilton Hawaiian Village – Waikiki Beach Resort, my sister and I were given the evening off to roam around. The first thing we did was watch the sun set for the night from the beach outside our resort.
On the way downstairs, we discovered that there is a weekly, seashore fireworks show launched from the hotel’s coastline. We decided to walk up the beach to grab a pierside, Polynesian-inspired dinner at Sun’s Up and claim a spot on the rocky ledges to watch the light display.
After a fairly decent program of explosions and sparkling streams, it was time to call it a night and prepare for our early-morning hike.
Honolulu and Pride of America: Day Two
My sister and I woke up early to climb Diamond Head Crater and catch the sunrise. It was extra challenging, thanks to the time change, and sadly a 6 am departure wasn't early enough.
Even though we weren’t at the top when the sun burst out, our view of the gleaming fireball as it peaked over the edge of the Pacific Ocean was more majestic than I could have ever imagined. (You can read and see more about this hike in my review: here!)
After many stairs up and back down, we headed back toward the hotel, but not before we stopped at a local farmers’ market on the campus of Kapi’olani Community College just across the street from the tunnel to Diamond Head.
We enjoyed some fresh pineapple juice and breakfast empanadas before going back to the hotel to help the family round up the children and head toward our cruise ship.
(You can see more details about both of our stops in Honolulu in this post!)
Luckily, the family had arranged transportation to and from certain places on the island so that we could all ride together with our luggage. Sometimes we were a little too proactive and over-estimated how long it would take us to travel places. A good example was when we boarded our ship, The Pride Of America.
Even after the ID checks, photo-ops, and payment stations, we were aboard the ship several hours before our room was ready. We eventually decided to claim stake at an unopened bar and keep everyone and their items there until the rooms were ready.
Finally, we unpacked just in time for the safety checks and a barbeque on the pool deck.
We had a calm evening getting accustomed to one another and preparing for the wonderful week we would spend together.
Kahului, Maui: Day Three
Cruise ship rooms are really small, but they seem extra small when you have to watch several children who crawl around and get bored easily. We spent the first day cooped up in the dorm-sized barracks of the cruise ship until the parents returned from their snorkeling excursion.
Since we only had two people to push three strollers, leaving the room wasn't really an option. When everyone returned, we grabbed a bite to eat and prepared for our sunset excursion.
Again, most things were pre-booked and that came with some unforeseen difficulties. Some of the parents didn’t know that car seats were required for any excursion requiring a bus ride or that children under the age of 5 weren’t advised to go to high altitude - excluding them from our current excursion.
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to travel to the top of Haleakala National Park to watch the sunset from above the clouds.
Luckily, my sister and I were able to go, and we got to check a National Park off our bucket lists!
We took almost an hour-long bus ride up narrow and windy roads to summit the volcanic caldera that is Haleakala. Being above the clouds when the sun set gave me a new perspective of the sun’s journey across the sky, and I was blown away by its radiance.
Once the sun had set, we hopped back onto the bus and made the windy journey back. We boarded the ship again, grabbed a bite, and hit the hay pretty early.
I found out that taking care of kids and hiking at high altitudes are exhausting after flying through several time zones.
Kahului, Maui: Day Four
The bus dropped us off around 9 AM, right at the public beach access point. We enjoyed ourselves a great deal that day by taking in the sunshine and good conversations. We played Frisbee, made sand castles, and swam in the ocean almost the entire time.
Around 2:30 PM, the bus came to pick us back up, and it was perfectly timed just before the clouds rolled in and the wind started to pick up.
Even though it was a short time in Maui, I laid out some of our details and shared more pictures in this separate post: Read more here!
Back on the boat, my sister and I got the night off, so we went to the formal dining hall, Skyline. (You can read all about the boat, its dining halls and other features in this detailed post!) We then tried to catch a show, but our timing was a little off, and we didn’t make it. We grabbed dessert on the deck and decided to go back to the room for some rest.
Hilo, Hawaii (The Big Island): Day Five
On day four, we didn’t have the same kind of lovely experience as we’d had in Maui the day before. My sister and I never got to leave the boat. Instead, we watched the kids from 7am to nearly 4pm while the families went on unplanned kayak and volcano excursions.
We were disappointed, because we weren’t scheduled to watch any kids that day and were planning to knock Volcanoes National Park off our bucket lists. We couldn’t complain, because this was, in fact, their family’s vacation.
Kona, Hawaii (The Big Island): Day Six
Even though our beach day on Maui was the most relaxing part of our trip, my favorite day was in Kona. We started the morning off early by catching a tender boat to another boat for our Big Island Snorkeling excursion.
The entire family, babies included, were able to go on this excursion. Luckily, the waves rocked the babies to sleep, so we took the older kids off the boat’s slides and diving boards and hopped into the water.
We spent all morning splashing, snorkeling, and looking at all the coral and fish below us.
After dozens of dolphin encounters and flying fish sightings, we headed back to the port area to have an afternoon walk around the town.
My sister and I found ourselves free to go shopping on the main street. We took a look around Hawaii’s oldest church, Moku’aikaua, before we checked out The Kona Brewery and Kona Coffee. Then, we went back to the boat to depart for another island. (You can read more about our day in Kona in this separate blog post!)
Nawiliwili, Kauai: Day Seven
The further we got into our trip, the more comfortable the family became with my sister and I. On day six, we only had one child to watch, and they said we could take him off the boat if we wanted, so we jumped on the opportunity to explore the new island!
We spent the day carrying the baby on the Hop Off Hop Off bus and stopping wherever we could. The first stop was Wailua River for a river boat tour of the Fern Grotto where Elvis famously sang in Blue Hawaii.
The boat captain gave us a detailed history of the area's ecology and geology and shared how the area had grown and developed since the publishing of the movie in the 60’s. When we arrived at the grotto, a group of locals sang the wedding song made famous in the movie.
After their lovely show, we got back on the boat and returned to the dock we came from. Right on the other side of the parking lot was Smith’s Tropical Paradise, a nature park and preserve full of tropical birds and plants.
We fed peacocks, nenes, and dozens of other birds while carrying a sleeping baby on our bellies. We spent the afternoon wandering the beautifully kept, lush grounds until we had to head back to the cruise ship.
(You can see and read more about our entire day on Kauai in this extended post!)
Since this was one of our final evenings, the family had arranged a very special luau for all of us to attend at the Kilohana Manor House.
We took tours of the old sugar plantation and had rum tastings from their home-distilled liquor before sitting down for our delicious four course meal of local fish, fruit, and vegetables.
The luau performance was unlike anything we imagined. Its modern flare applied to a traditional story incorporated a bit of acrobatics with lights and music.
After the captivating entertainment, we got back on the boat and visited the Key West Bar on the pool deck for a night cap before the ship headed back to the port city of Honolulu.
Nawiliwili, Kauai and Na Pali Coast: Day Eight
We had a long night the night before, and we had lots of kids to watch on day eight, so my sister and I never left the boat. We ate burgers and mac n’ cheese at the Cadillac Diner and played games in our stateroom.
When everyone returned from their excursions and the boat departed, my sister and I headed to the top deck for a little quality pool time. We caught some rays before the boat drove past the Na Pali Coast.
The unique geology of the volcanic ripples was unlike anything I had ever seen. The lush yet barren-looking spires made me want to hike all of the coastal ridges. Sadly, our ‘drive-by’ only lasted for 20 or so minutes.
After the history lesson blared through the loud speaker system on the pool deck, our view of the Na Pali Coast diminished. My sister and I began to get ready for our last dinner and our last night of watching all the kids.
We packed up our things and left them outside the door, as instructed, before taking the kids to play ping pong and run around the arcade. It was a fun and relaxing way to spend our last night on the boat.
Honolulu: Day Nine
Our departure from the boat was just as hectic as our arrival, but the family had again arranged transportation from our boat to the airport. Unfortunately, though, the timing of the shuttle and our flight were slightly off, and we arrived at the airport about 6 hours too early.
My sister and I decided we would try to head out and go see Pearl Harbor while we were close. We extended an invitation to the party, but everyone else declined and chose to stay in the airport lounge.
My sister and I took a quick Uber ride to the monument and were instantly humbled when we entered. It is one thing to hear about and see reenactments of what happened on that infamous date in December, but to stand inside the port and see some of what those soldiers saw was a life changing experience.
We started our tour by visiting the USS Bowfin Submarine which has now been turned into a museum and memorial. We walked through the ship’s barracks and caught glimpses of what life was like for a sailor. We emerged from the submarine, and again, we were ever more grateful for our armed forces after seeing the sacrifices they made to protect our freedom.
After walking around the memorial’s grounds and reading the names of all of the soldiers on every ship, we were ready to see the USS Arizona.
Unfortunately, it was under construction, so we were only able to see it from the small trolley boat. What we were able to see was a sobering symbol of lives lost and a hard-fought battle. We were moved beyond tears remembering the sacrifices made that day.
We stayed as long as we could before we needed to head back to the airport. We could have spent days looking over and memorizing the names of those lost on that day. Instead, we called our Uber back, hopped on a plane, and made our departure back to the main land.
After a week of working hard and carefree vacationing on an all-expenses-paid cruise in paradise, we were back in the air heading toward reality. We could never thank the family that trusted us with their children and invited us on this trip enough, because we were provided the opportunity of a lifetime to go and do things we had never imagined.
Max Patch is an Appalachian Trail campsite located on the North Carolina and Tennessee border near Hot Springs, NC. Taylor and I set out one October weekend to camp atop the hill. After we hiked the quick half-mile to the top and set up our campsite, we spent Saturday relaxing and exploring the hill and surrounding area.
Tangled bushes were sprouting with delicate flowers everywhere we turned. Bees buzzed around the flowers while butterflies and moths bounced on the gentle breeze. Brave birds searched our campsite for singing crickets and camouflaged grasshoppers. Woolly worms inched through the same lush grasses where children and dogs frolicked.
I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars to properly appreciate the visible distance from atop Max Patch. Taylor and I counted the fading peaks and admired the many shades of green trees that blanketed every one.
As nightfall neared, the hilltop began to fill with tents and the clamor of campers. Taylor and I set up on the East side of the hill, but the greatest view was had on the West side when our glorious Sun set the sky ablaze.
Max Patch fell into darkness after the massive, glowing ball of fire disappeared behind the mountains. Columns of smoke rose from the campsites into a night sky that was just beginning to bud with brilliant stars, tinted planets, and entire galaxies.
Though Taylor and I are far from experienced with our telescope, Max Patch is a wonderful place to have one. We identified several constellations and marveled at the dust of the milky way. It is truly humbling to see the vast totality of our cosmic perspective.
Sunday morning, we woke up before dawn and began to gather our gear before the radiant, morning Sun cut through the clouds and fog. Everyone else around us started to wake and dozens of people gathered on our side of the mountain to watch the sun peak through the clouds for the first time that morning.
Taylor and I took one last walk around the top of Max Patch and found an unexpected sight. The lush, green valleys were overflowing with rivers of fog that looked undeniably similar to the glaciers we had recently visited in Iceland.
The spectacle of fog at dawn was a perfect way to end an already unbelievable weekend. Max Patch is nothing less than a patch of heaven in North Carolina, and it has inspired me to further explore more of the expansive Appalachian Mountains.
After a long day in Niagara Falls, we drove a quick couple of hours to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We wish we could have camped in the park or taken the train around the park, but we only spent a few hours driving between viewpoints instead.
Our first stop was Bridal Veil Falls. It was a short but pretty walk from the parking lot to this little stream. The wooden walkway leads through the trees to a wooden bridge and viewing platform. The creek’s bedrock curves to create a waterfall that looks similar to a bride’s veil when the waters are flowing. There hadn’t been much rain when we were there, but it was still peaceful to sit and watch.
We didn’t stay long before we hopped back in the car to see the The Station Road Bridge. The old bridge over the Cuyahoga river was beautiful standing in contrast to the lush trees around it.
The view got even better when a bright red Scenic Railway train came rolling by. When the train stopped, a couple came kayaking down the river, and it became the most picture perfect scene for the national park.
Our last stop was the park’s most visited area, Brandywine Falls. It was another quick walk from the parking lot to the falls, and this time there were different paths we could take. We could have either stayed above the fall or gone to see it from a lower deck.
We chose to stay up above the falls first to get a closer look at the water and see just how fast it was falling. The 65 foot waterfall sends water down a rocky journey that creates choppy, white water along the rock wall before continuing toward the Cuyahoga River.
We followed the water downstream and walked back down the boardwalk to the stairs and lower deck. We admired the unique waterfall and took pictures of each other while discussing how beautiful the entire park had been.
We really wish we would’ve had more time to see the ledges and ride on the train at sunset, but our few hours will have to do until next time. I can’t wait to go back!
The summer of 2018 was a very special one. At the beginning of the summer, John and I were able to see dozens of waterfalls in Iceland, including Europe’s most powerful waterfall. I was then able to wrap up the summer by spending my Labor Day weekend at Niagara Falls, the most powerful waterfall in North America!
Like most of my trips, this one was decided at the very last minute. The trip wasn’t planned at the last minute, and I didn’t know about it until the weekend before we departed. We left Nashville around four p.m. on Friday heading to Columbus, Ohio and we arrived at our friend’s apartment around ten p.m. after a slow ride in the pouring rain.
I wish we could’ve stayed longer in this capital city, instead we woke up and were out of the door by nine a.m. Saturday morning leaving for Niagara Falls. I have to go back to check out the German Village and other cute areas.
We didn’t get to the falls until three p.m., but we parked the car to head straight to the Maid of the Mist. We had an absolute blast getting up close, personal, and soaking wet with all three of the waterfalls at Niagara.
We started with The American Falls, moved on to Bridal Veil Falls, then saw the main attraction, Horseshoe Falls. The Maid of the Mist was, by far, the best part of the weekend. (Click here to see more pictures and read more about our ride!)
After we changed our soaked shoes, we hoped in the car and headed to Canada. The Canadian side was much prettier than the American side. The view of the falls is better, but there are also grassy leisure areas and beautiful foliage all around.
We spent a few hours strolling the walkway around Victoria Park while watching the sun set. We then walked up the street and tried some beers at The Niagara Brewing Company before wrapping up the night watching fireworks over the falls.
We headed to our CouchSurfing host’s cabin about 10 miles from the falls. We crashed immediately after arriving, so that we could wake up early and drive back to Ohio for the next attraction on our road trip.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a wooded oasis outside of Cleveland, Ohio. We all wished we could’ve stayed long enough to hike and camp in this lush landscape, but we drove through the park and stopped at the notable viewpoints instead. Bridal Veil Falls, The Station Road Bridge, and Brandywine Falls are all stunning. We also saw the famous Cuyahoga Valley scenic railway and train!
We only spent a few hours in the park before heading to Cincinnati to watch the WEBN Labor Day fireworks show over the Ohio River. The next morning, we meandered back to Nashville, stopping at The Arc Encounter to see what the hype was all about.
We didn’t pay the hefty $50 fee to tour the recreation of the Biblical feat. We only walked around the outside of the massive boat and enjoyed the petting zoo. It was an incredible structure to see in person.
We finally made it back to Nashville, and that’s when it sunk in: We drove to Canada and back in one short weekend. It was quite the trip, and I am so happy to have gotten the last minute invitation. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!
Iceland is an island of natural contrast. An ancient ocean gnaws at young land, water and ice carve through volcanic rock, and sprawling green-fields are shadowed by snow-capped peaks. I could not have imagined how stunning Iceland would be nor could I have anticipated the wonder it would inspire.
It is estimated that the first land to emerge in the place we know as Iceland did so 12-14 million years ago. This new surface would continue to grow in spite of the raging ocean around it. Jagged island spires, iconic detachments of rock, and heavily weathered cliff faces are all evidence of the ongoing oceanic attempt to subdue this mass of defiant land.
The struggle between rock and water can be seen inland as well. The country’s glaciers and rivers are antithetical to the volcanic rocks they inhabit. The masses of ice grind away layers of rock as the oldest ice is forced down along the slopes, and rivers of melt-water simultaneously shape steep cliffs and mountainsides at every turn. These landscaping forces eventually provide the life-sustaining freshwater streams that permeate Iceland’s lowland areas.
Sheep and shaggy Icelandic horses enjoy the resulting green-fields. The expanse of pastures separate small coastal towns and feature the occasional farm, church, or community. Virtually all of these lowlands exist at the feet of towering mountain ranges. These behemoths are summer sanctuaries for persisting snow, and they shine like beacons in the sky for travelers.
Taylor, her sister Kendall, and I saw all of this beauty as we drove and camped around Iceland’s ‘Ring Road’ or Route 1. The route more-or-less parallels Iceland’s shoreline and encircles a majority the country. We did venture off the Ring Road to explore the Snӕfellsnes Peninsula and find puffins in Borgarfjarðarhöfn. The entire trip took eight days and nearly 1,000 driving miles. Here’s how we did it:
Day One: We arrived at Keflavík Airport and took a cab to the Airbnb where we were staying. We then took the bus to Reykjavik to see Hallgrimskirkja Church, the Sun Voyager Structure, Harpa Concert hall, get hot dogs at Bajarins Beztu Pulsur, and have drinks at The Lebowski Bar.
Day Two: We picked up our Kuku Camper and went snorkeling at the continental divide at Silfra. We then drove to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and cooked dinner under a midnight sun before camping at the Hellissandur Campsite.
Day Three: We went to see Kirkjufellfoss before catching Iceland’s first World Cup game at Laki Hafnarkaffi. After a tie game, we explored around Berserkjahraun Lava Field, admired the horses at Vatnsdalur, and called it a night outside of Akureyri.
Day Four: We started the day on the North Coast by walking through Akureyri before checking out some of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls, Detifoss and Godafos. We then swam in Stóragjá and walked through the sulfuric acid fields of Hverir near Lake Mytavn.
Day Five: We drove off the Ring Road to Borgarfardarhöfn to see hundreds of puffins before following the shore down to the Saxa Sea Geysir. An unplanned detour to the Gallery of Frevilli in Djúpivogur was an awesome stop before got soaked attempting to take pictures at the Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach. We warmed up with a good, hot meal from Hafnarbúdin before bedding down at the Haukafell Campground.
Day Six: On the East Coast we saw the greatness of the Vatnajokull Glacier first at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach, but later we climbed all over Svínafellsjökull - a tongue of this ice behemoth. We later hiked through Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park to Svartifoss before calling it a night in the town of Vik.
Day Seven: We woke up early to see Reynisfjara’s black sand beach and its hexagonal basalt columns. We then hiked to the abandoned Solheimasandur plane wreck and went chasing waterfalls at Skogafoss, Gljúfrabúi, and Gullfoss. The famous Geysir on the Golden Circle was our entertainment for a long while before making it to Selfoss for the night.
Day Eight: We started off early with a Lave Tunnel Tour of Raufarhólshellir. We then hiked to Reykjadalur for a quick dip in the hot river before our late evening reservation at The Blue Lagoon. Our last campground of the trip was at the Hafnarfjödur site once we'd had a burger from Holtanesti.
Just like that, our trip was over. Eight days in the most spectacular and awe-inspiring country can never be adequately described by words, but we tried our best in the links for each region we visited, where we stayed and ate across the country, and the tours we took. You can see all of them on the Iceland Page!
Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, and when a glacier melts, it creates a massive flow of water that tears through the ground beneath it. It seemed like there was a beautiful waterfall for us to see around every turn in Iceland. Some were big and powerful while others were tiny and unnamed. We only saw a small portion of the waterfalls across the country, but their beauty is still worth sharing.
Here are the waterfalls we saw, in order, while traveling the island on our eight-day road trip:
Our first day in the Kuku Camper took us to Pengvellir National Park where we snorkeled the continental divide and saw our first waterfall, Öxarárfoss. On our way around the ring road, we stopped at Pórufoss and Sjavarfoss before going to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to see Kirkjufellfoss.
We continued across the country and saw Godafoss in the northern region near Lake Myvatn.
We continued on to Europe's most powerful waterfall, Detifoss. After a day of Glacier Hiking, we hiked up to Svartifoss. It was my favorite waterfall because of the basalt columns behind the gushing water.
Thanks to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we stopped at Skogafoss to get close to this lush, green waterfall. We were able to get much closer to John's favorite waterfall, Gljúfrabúi, after we waded through narrow canyon walls. Our last waterfall was Gullfoss and its accompanying rainbows that stretched down the river.
Iceland's rich landscape provides a great home for several different types of wildlife. We drove around the country for eight days and were lucky to see the diversity of the country's landscape and wildlife. The lush countryside is full of farm animals like fluffy sheep and Icelandic horses, while the island's coast is full of birds, seals, and occasionally whales.
When we picked up our Kuku Camper, we were warned about seemingly suicidal sheep. We were told they will jump in front of cars in a panic. Sure enough, when some sheep hear a car, they just start running. Sometimes that means they run away from traffic, and sometimes that means they run into traffic. We were also warned that if we hit one, we would have to pay the farmer €500, so we made sure to always keep an eye out for them.
Pinterest and friends who had visited Iceland informed us that Icelandic Horses are prominent as well. We stopped several times to see and pet the horses along the ring road, but it turned out that we didn't need to. Several of the campsites we stayed at had barns and stables on the premise!
Our first encounter with marine life was at Ytri Tunga Beach on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We sat and watched roughly ten seals play in the icy Atlantic Water and relax on the beach. Alongside the seals were squawking seagulls fishing in the waves.
Kendall, John, and I were treated to an unexpected penguin sighting in the Snæfellsjökull National Park. A crowd of professional and amateur photographers were taking pictures, and we had to see what had captured their attention. I tried to snap a few, but I didn't get any great pictures from that distance.
As as general rule, the northern region of Iceland provides a greater chance of seeing wildlife. There are less people and colder temperatures, and it is the perfect summer nesting ground for Arctic foxes and puffins. The Arctic fox is an elusive animal and is difficult to find unless you're in the West Fjords. We did not go that far north but we did get to see one fox during our trip. It scurried across the road near the Saxhóll Crater around 1 AM.
We did get to see hundreds of puffins, though, in the northeast corner of the country. The cliff sides of Borgarfardarhöfn is the summer nesting ground for thousands of pairs of puffins every year. We went on a cold, rainy day early in the morning, so we were some of the only people on the viewing platform.
The last wildlife we saw in Iceland were a majestic couple of reindeer. We were not expecting to see any on our trip, then we spotted these two on the side of the road. It really capped off an already great day outside of Vik.
We loved watching these animals interact in their natural environment, and going to Iceland in the summertime allowed us to see more animals than we would have otherwise. If you leave the city of Reykjavik, it might be impossible to not see some of Iceland's wonderful wildlife.
Iceland has some of the most interesting geology. From glaciers and volcanoes to black sand beaches, there is something different on each side of the country. During our eight day trip around the outskirts of the country, we stopped at several beaches to see different wildlife and environments of every coast we visited.
Ytri Tunga was the first beach we visited. We sat on the shores and watched seals play around in the crashing waves, while birds circled around overhead cawing and diving for fish.
Saxa Sea Geysir near Stöðvarfjörður was our next viewpoint of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunetly, you must go at high tide to see the geysir in its full glory. We were not so lucky, but the water crashing against the jagged rocks was a spectacle all its own.
Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach was one of our favorite places in Iceland. We had the black pebble beach to ourselves for what felt like hours. We chased the monstrous sneaker waves up and down the shoreline as we took pictures of all the bones, shells, and other interesting things they carried onto the shore.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and The Diamond Beach were unlike any other beach in Iceland and might be the only of its kind in the world. Large chunks of the nearby Vatnajökull Glacier have broken off into the lagoon and washed ashore on the black sand beach.
Vik's Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach was the last beach we visited in Iceland. The hexagonal basalt columns, sea caves, and nearby cliffs make this one of the most interesting beaches to explore in Iceland.
When we started to head down the eastern coast of Iceland, we knew that our eight day road trip was coming to an end. Our plan was to do the most popular regions at the end of our trip to avoid weekend crowds and maybe save the best for last. While the last few days of our adventure did not trump previous regions or experiences, we had a blast hiking across glaciers, playing on black sand beaches, and marveling at waterfalls.
Our trip down the east coast began with us waking up at the Haukafell Campground next to a 'tongue' of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. It excited us to see more of the glacier at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon where large chunks of ice have broken off and washed ashore. These fragments give the appearance of, "diamonds on the beach." The contrast between the ice and black sand made The Diamond Beach the most unique beach we visited.
We got to see much more of the glacier on the Glacier Hike Tour that we booked through Troll Expeditions and Guide to Iceland. We spent 90 minutes learning about the glacier’s makeup while hiking around the top of 800 year old ice. We even got to taste the ancient ice.
After the tour, we stayed inside Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park to see Svartifoss. This was one of my favorite waterfalls because of the hexagonal columns that frame the flowing water. We cooked a late night dinner in the parking lot before making it to our campsite for the night.
The Eastern region may have been one of the smaller areas we explored, but it was definitely one of the most eventful and unique. It may be the only area in the world where you can hike on top of a glacier then hike through lush vegetation to a gushing waterfall less than five miles away.
There was no doubt in our minds, as we were driving south, that the Eastern region's popularity is well deserved. Little did we know, we were on our way to another region of Iceland deserving of similar popularity and renown.
We stayed at the Vik Campsite our first night in the Southern region so that we could get to Reynisfjara Beach as early in the morning as possible. Our plan worked, because we had the giant basalt columns and black sand beach to ourselves for a little while that morning.
Next to this marvelous beach is Dryhólaey Cliff. We checked it out quickly before hiking out to the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. The wreckage was subject to our investigation for a long while, before we hiked back to continue our day in Vik.
Two quick stops off the Ring Road would conclude our time in the Vik area. Grandurinn Cave was a fun side stop, while the closed Eyjafjallajökull Volcano shop gave us a quick history of the local eruption in 2010. We continued southeast to hit some of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls.
We saw the 'Walter Mitty Waterfall', Skógafoss, before visiting Seljalandsfoss and its hidden neighbor Gljúfrabúi. The rainbows over Gullfoss were the perfect icing on the proverbial waterfall cake. We ended an already jam-packed day with a different kind of water feature.
On the Golden Circle lies, Strokkur, a geyser that shoots water 30 meters into the air roughly every 10 minutes. It erupts more frequently and higher than Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. It was very fun to sit and watch the geyser boil up and shoot steaming water right over our heads.
The next day we had an early morning reservation for a tour of Raufarhólshellir Lava Tunnel. We stepped back in time almost 5,000 years as we followed our tour guide into the tunnel. We spent roughly an hour inside the tunnel learning about the formation and current state of the tunnel. It was a very unique, intriguing experience.
After our tour, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and a warm cup of coffee from Kaffi Kraus. The good meal helped prepare us for our hike to Reykjadalur and the hot river. The hike was gorgeous, and we recommend that you set aside a few hours to really enjoy this spot. We hiked the hour long route but didn't stay long once we'd arrived. We had a reservation at The Blue Lagoon and could not imagine missing it.
Even though our trip was coming to an end, we had big smiles on our faces as we left the the Southern region. We had planned our trip perfectly and saved an area jam-packed with gorgeous attractions and guided activities for last. We returned to the Capital region of Iceland with innumerable memories of natural splendor and joyous friendship.
The further north you go in Iceland, the more sparse the towns and people get. At the same time, the landscape becomes more beautiful and open. After a very busy few days on The Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we were ready to view the wildlife and geography that the northern region had to offer.
We started our few days in the northern region in the town of Akureyi. The town has brightly colored buildings that pop in contrast to the mountains that surround them. The harbor had a cruise ship docked, so the streets were packed. We did not give this picturesque, little fishing town the time it deserved. We parked, walked straight to the church, and looked at a few of the surrounding streets. We were in a bit of a hurry to see as many things as possible that day.
Our next stop was Godafoss. Its turquoise waterfalls and mossy cliff faces makes it one of the prettiest waterfalls we saw on our trip. When we arrived, we stopped to take pictures on the bridge with a smaller waterfall in the background, but the real masterpiece is hidden behind massive canyon walls. We walked along the trail and were able to get much closer to the fall than we initially expected. When we started to get a little wet from the mist, we called it quits and hopped back in our Kuku Camper to drive toward our next destination.
Lake Myvatn held an unexpected landscape. We started by seeing a grassy, green lake that was surrounded by hills. These turned out to be crater lakes! Further down the road, we swam in a slot canyon grotto before visiting Mars on Earth at Hverir. It was the most unique place on the Island that we visited.
Close to the Lake Myvatn area is Viti Crater. We stopped for a quick picture, but the wind was blowing like crazy, so we decided against walking along the edge. It was a very cool spot that we wish we could’ve had more time to learn about and explore, but we had another waterfall to see.
Detifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It has 500 cubic meters of water falling over its 150 foot drop every second. We came in on the west side of the river where there is a nice pathway and viewing platform. If you come in on the east, you can walk right up to the raging water. We were truly impressed with the overwhelming size of this waterfall.
We drove quite a long way off of the ring road to see puffins at our next stop in Borgarfardarhöfn. The hour or so journey up the mountain was narrow and gravelly but absolutely worth the pictures we got. You can see more of my pictures in our gallery, here.
When we got back on the Ring Road, we attempted to see the Saxa Sea Geysir which actually isn't a geyser at all. It’s a rock formation that blasts water into the air. Unfortunately, we didn't go during high tide, so we had a hard time finding the formation. We think we saw it, but we don’t actually know if it was the correct place.
We continued down the coast and stopped in the town of Djúpivogur to see the Eggin í Gledivik sculptures.These sculptures of Iceland’s native bird eggs are very interesting, but we ended up stopping at The Gallery of Freevilli for the most interesting stop of our trip. We looked at the collections of gemstones, bone, and carvings while talking to the owner, before we hopped back in the car for another one of our favorite stops on the trip.
Hvalnes Nature Preserve was an unexpectedly fun and interesting shoreline. For almost an hour, we stumbled around on the black gravel beach, looked at the washed up shells and carcasses, and ran from sneaker waves. We laughed so hard at one another as we tried to run from the waves. It was our favorite beach on the trip if not our favorite spot overall.
After all of our excitement on the beach, we had worked up quite an appetite. We stopped in the 'langoustine capital of the north', Höfn, in Hornafirði Fjord. We had some lobster rolls and deep fried hot dogs at Hafnarbúdin. After the great meal, we spent the last bit of our time in the northern region at our campsite in Haukafell.
Our two days in the northern region of Iceland were jam packed with things to do and places to see. We came across waterfalls, beautiful wildlife, stunning landscapes, and delicious food. Though northern Iceland is not as popular as the southern region, there is no doubt in my mind that it is just as wonderful, diverse, and intriguing as any other region.
The Snӕfellsnes Peninsula is not on Iceland’s ring road, but it is well worth a detour. Taylor, Kendall, and I had planned to explore this peninsula from the first day of planning. Not only would we visit our first hot spring, we would visit our first Icelandic national park, see seals in the wild for the first time, and stand atop a volcanic crater for the first time.
Our first stop was once a small hot spring called Landbrotalaug. The wind cut cold, but steeping in the hot water could not have been more relaxing and comfortable. The spring can become crowded, but luckily we did not have to wait to hop in at 6:30 on a Friday evening. We could not spend too much time at the spring, but the short dip was an intoxicating experience.
Our next stop would be a quick trip to Ölkelduvatn (or mineral spring) to fill up our water bottles. The spring contains calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, fluorine, chlorine, sulfate, bicarbonate, and carbon dioxide in astronomical amounts. The water tastes like very strong carbonated water without the fizz. It is suggested that you leave 200 Icelandic krona (~$2) in a payment box for using the spring. Taylor and Kendall didn't care for the taste, but I was able to finish what we collected.
The Ytri Tunga beach is known for hosting its very own seal colony, and we had to stop to see if they were lounging on the shore. After parking, we walked westward along the beach to where a few more visitors had been enjoying the company of seven skeptical seals. The seals were a joy to watch, although their playfulness would often be disrupted by glances to be sure that we hadn’t moved any closer. Chances are supposedly best to see the seals in June and July, and we were all glad to have made the stop.
Our plan was to stop for the night in Arnarstapi, but we were quickly informed that there were no spots available. We decided, instead, to view the Gatklettur rock arch and keep pushing onward toward Snӕfellsjökull National Park.
The next stop we made was at the Londrangar basalt cliffs where we were drawn to a group of photographers shooting a group of huddled penguins. Once we’d marveled at the unexpected sight of penguins and struggled to take pictures from the far distance, we had a quick parking lot meal and headed for the last stop of the evening.
One of the windyest stops of the entire trip, Saxhóll Crater was an uncomfortable but beautiful location. A short climb up a set of metal stairs around 1:30 AM took us to the very top of the crater where we could see the interior of the caldera and miles of the surrounding landscape. One of my favorite activities in Iceland was attempting to mentally simulate the history of each landscape we encountered, and this ancient lava spout was one of my favorites to try to wrap my head around.
Wrapping my head around the next attraction wasn’t as difficult, but the beauty of a waterfall and mountain combination is something special. Some of the most iconic Icelandic pictures frame Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellfoss. Kirkjufellfoss alone may not stand out among the many Icelandic waterfalls, but the two in concert are exemplary of Iceland’s beauty.
The final geological wonder we came to on the Snӕfellsnes Peninsula was the Berserkjahraun Lava Field. The remains of four local volcanoes blanket more than five square miles of area. Seemingly every inch of the once destructive lava flow now hosts a pale green moss. The incredibly soft moss is totally antithetical to the jagged rocks that are its home.
A few of our most unique sights were complements of the Snӕfellsnes Peninsula, and the tour of Iceland would not have been the same without it. From hot springs to seals and an expanse of escaped magma, this detour was full of wonder and beauty. A campsite may be few and far between at times, but a breathtaking view of our Earth’s magnificent features never was.
Our eight day trip through the land of fire and ice started in the capital city of Reykjavik. Iceland is a country of only 300,000 people, but its tourism industry is absolutely booming. As we wandered around the city on a Thursday afternoon, the streets were filled with people, and every store we went into was overflowing with tourists.
We started our day at the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church. Even though we were being pelted with cold rain, we stood outside in awe at this house of worship's architecture. The inside of the church was just as beautiful as the outside. The large chapel was filled with sounds from giant organ pipes. The sounds bounced off the high-arched ceiling and stained glass windows as a church member played.
After we sat and took in the beautiful notes, we went back outside to see the statue out front. Viking history and memories of Leif Erickson are found all over the country, but it is especially prominent in the capitol city. After reading the commemoration to the country’s most famous explorer, we headed to the Sun Voyager Structure to see more monuments to explorers.
The abstract, stainless steel structure is on the Atlantic Ocean and symbolizes the native roots for exploration and discovery. The Sun Voyager was created to encompass the idea of new lands yet to be found and the promise of home, freedom, and progress. From the structure we could see the Harpa Concert Hall which was our next stop.
The modern design of the Harpa Concert Hall stands in contrast to the historic city that surrounds it. The design of the façade is very meticulous and strategically planned. The more I read about the architecture behind the oblong hexagonal sides, the more interesting the building became. They were created to mimic the basalt columns that are famous to the country, and each polyhedron fits together perfectly.
Some panes seem to be random, but they are strategically placed to reflect sunlight in different ways during different times of the day and year. Unfortunately, you cannot see the inside of the concert hall without purchasing a tour. There was an upcoming performance, so we weren’t able to see the concert hall itself.
We had worked up quite an appetite by this point, so we went on a hunt for what we had heard were Reykjavik’s best hotdogs. After a quick walk around the Old Harbor, we found the small station that is Bajarins Beztu Pulsur, and we were so glad we did. Our bellies were filled with cheesy hot dogs and coca cola just as celebrities like Anthony Bourdain's, Bill Clinton's, and Princess Diana's had been before.
At this point, we had done almost all of the things to do in the city that I had seen online, but we kept strolling around looking at street art and brightly colored buildings. We were glad we kept wandering, because we stumbled upon the Arcade & Toy Museum. The entrance is underground and barely visible from the street. For a small price, roughly $10 a person, we played old-school games like Pac-Man, Galaga, Street Fighter, and pinball for 30 fun filled minutes.
When our time was up, we walked across the street to check out some heavy metal punk music that we could hear from the other side. The sounds were coming from the underground Punk Museum, but since we had just paid for the arcade games, we chose not to pay the entrance fee. We kept walking around and stumbled upon the last thing on our loosely planned itinerary, The Lebowski Bar.
We only stayed at this great, cult movie themed bar for a few beers then went back on a quest for an inexpensive bite to eat. Weirdly enough, we ended up in The Irish Pub, because it was advertising cheap fish and chips. That’s all I wanted for dinner, and we decided it was time to head to our Airbnb and get a good night’s sleep after filling up on good beer and decent food.
Before we caught the bus home, we grabbed desert at the Volcano Crepes food truck at the bus stop. We topped our night off with a Nutella, chocolate, banana, and strawberry crepe. We got on the bus and knew our trip was going to be great if it were anything close to our day in the city.
Chattanooga is a city that I often take for granted. It’s only two hours from Birmingham and is full of hiking, climbing, and other things I love to do. When my friend Mackenzie suggested we go for a weekend, Katie (another friend) and I couldn’t pass it up. On Friday, after work, we hit the road toward the quaint mountain city.
A lot of my trips include minimal, last minute planning, but it is always a good idea to book an Airbnb a few days ahead. We were lucky enough to snag two bedrooms at The Beautiful 1930 House in North Shore. Mackenzie had never stayed at an Airbnb, so she was able to save $$$ using this code: www.airbnb.com/c/taylorc1809.
The Airbnb was our first stop in the ‘Noog. We met our hosts for the weekend, unpacked our bags, and got ready for the night out. They gave us great advice and told us to try the burgers at The Tremont Tavern for dinner.
We enjoyed each other’s company at the Tavern, until we decided to venture further downtown. The first bar we tried out was The Honest Pint. It wasn’t quite what we were looking for, so we walked around the block to The Bitter Alibi. It still was a bit more relaxed than we wanted, but the décor and design of the building appealed to our intrigue and convinced us to stay for a beer. We decided to call it an early night so that we could be up early enough for pancakes at Aretha Frankenstein’s.
Taking my friends to my favorite restaurant in Chattanooga the next morning made me very happy, and kicked the day off in the best of ways. I had to explain that the pancakes are always worth the wait, but I didn’t have to explain anything once our bellies were full.
We crossed the Georgia line to go to Rock City next. The combo pass for Rock City and Ruby Falls is the best deal if you have time to see both. We had no idea what to expect from the waterfall and overlook, but it turned out to be so much more than we could’ve imagined!
The history of Rock City is extremely interesting. It was originally inhabited by Native Americans, but it is known now as the birthplace of miniature golf! The 700 acres of Fairyland Gardens were once a private residence and golf course, but now they are home to a carved-out walking trail that leads to the famous Lover’s Leap and High Waterfall. Standing here, you can see seven states: Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia!
The trail also runs through attractions like the Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village. We were so surprised by how much we enjoyed Rock City, and we all agreed that it was our favorite attraction of the weekend!
After about two hours of exploring, we started toward Ruby Falls. We arrived to a very long and unexpected line of people that ended in the parking lot. It turns out that buying a ticket in advance gives you no advantage in the entrance line. Our estimated wait time was 45 minutes, and the estimate was nearly correct. Before we knew it, we were standing in the elevator and whizzing our way underground.
Like most caves, there is an incredible history to its modern exploration. A young Leo Lambert grew up exploring around Chattanooga and was looking for a cave when he stumbled upon Ruby Falls. He romantically named the falls after his wife and reportedly could not wait to show her. Now, millions of people come to see America's largest commercial, underground waterfall.
Surprisingly, our tour was really crowded. We were there in the late afternoon on a rainy Saturday, but I felt as if we were constantly stopping to allow another group to pass. I would suggest trying to go earlier in the day, because the line was even longer than before when we were leaving! After our tour, we were ready for dinner, so we headed back to Tennessee.
Tony’s Italian Restaurant is where we devoured hearty bowls of pasta and had a few brews. We were all too tired to do anything afterwards, so we went back to the Airbnb to get some rest for another day of adventures!
My girlfriends and I consider brunch to be a weekend requirement, and this weekend’s brunch would be at one of my favorite Chattanooga bars. The Flying Squirrel was a perfect stop before the Aquarium, because it has great grub and mimosas.
We thought we had acted like children at Rock City the day before, but our excitement inside The Tennessee Aquarium was at a fever pitch. There were two main exhibits to explore: The Ocean Journey and The River Journey. We started with the Ocean Journey.
The escalator took us up to the top, and we started with lemurs and safe-to-touch stingrays. The butterfly exhibit was really cool, because we could get up-close and personal with the beautiful beings. We were able to get a few butterflies to land on us, but Katie did not like having them on her hands. We finally passed them off to some kids and kept walking down The Ocean Journey.
I have never seen someone’s face light up like Mackenzie’s did when we approached the penguin exhibit. We could have spent hours watching these little guys jump in and out of the water, but we needed to move on and let others enjoy the view. Sharks, turtles, and tons of fish were housed all throughout the Tropical Cove. Our last exhibit in The Ocean Journey was my favorite.
The River Journey starts the same way the Ocean Journey did. You take a couple of escalator rides up to the top where an open exhibit--themed after the Appalachian ecosystem--allows you to touch sturgeons instead of stingrays. We made our way through The Mississippi Delta and on to the River Giants exhibit. Giant sturgeon, stingrays, and catfish are on display here from all over the world.
We spent about 3 hours exploring the entire aquarium and had worked up a bit of an appetite. Puckett’s is just across the street from the aquarium and is one of Mackenzie’s favorite BBQ restaurants. We enjoyed a savory bite before we hit the road back to Birmingham. Our first weekend girls’ trip is in the books, and it couldn’t have been more successful!
John and I seem to work together best when we plan a trip at the very last minute. We booked our reservations for Cloudland Canyon State Park less than 24 hours before we departed just like we'd done for our trip to The Great Smokey Mountains. Our reservation for a 'walk-in campsite' was ideal for the weekend, because they are all within one half mile of a parking area and conveniently connected to the West Loop Trail (we didn't know that until we got there)!
After work on Friday, John and I hit the road from Birmingham to the northwest corner of Georgia with our pup Maria in my newly purchased Subaru Outback. We got to the parking lot of the walk-in campsite area around 7:30 p.m. and were nestled in our tent before nine. We would need a good night's rest to prepare for the hike ahead of us.
The West Rim Loop Trail was once ranked as a 'top ten hike in the U.S.' by Backpacker Magazine. The 4.8 mile “lollipop” loop trail lies atop the western edge of the canyon and provides incredible views of the ravine below. Naturally, John and I had to check it out, and it did not disappoint. A short connector path leads to the trail from the walk in campsites.
The flat and grassy 'Walk-In Campsite Connector Trail' follows the same stream that flows through the walk-in campsite area. We connected to the loop and were welcomed to our first viewpoint after a short climb up a boulder littered slope. As we traced the western rim of the canyon rim, the views continued to become more stunning. All of the main viewpoints have large stone platforms with well maintained railings, but various clearings allowed us to see the entire canyon from nearly every angle. The further south we hiked, the more clearly we could hear the water flowing below us.
Once we had crossed over Daniel Creek, we connected to the waterfall trail and began our descent of over 1,000 stairs. The Waterfall Trail is fairly short at just 1.8 miles, but it is more difficult than its length may imply.
John and I chose to go to Cherokee Falls first when the trail came to a 'T'. After about a half mile descent, we arrived at a great opening where the falls had made a nice, wide pool. We didn’t stay long, since we were expecting rain and wanted to make it to Hemlock Falls as well.
Descending further downstream of Daniel Creek lead us to the less trafficked Hemlock Falls. We barely made it down to the viewing platform before the rain started to drizzle on us. Maria and I ran up ahead to snag some pictures before the three of us took shelter under the platform we had just walked down from. After a 30 minute rest, we hopped back onto the trail and continued back to our campsite. The Waterfall Trail is rated 'strenuous', but John and I had no problem finishing this trail and the 'moderately strenuously' West Rim Loop Trail in 4 hours, including a 30 minute rain break!
When we made it back to our tent, we set up our Eno Hammock and relaxed 'til the sun started to set. The rain was persistent throughout the night but our Eureka! Apex 2 tent kept us, Maria, and our gear warm and dry. Even with the rain, we had an easy, fun, and relaxing weekend in the mountains!
Mardi Gras is a huge tradition down in New Orleans, Louisiana, that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city for the celebratory weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. I had always told myself and my friends that I would never go, but John and I recently had a blast at Mardi Gras in Mobile, and my friends pestered me for weeks to join them. I was sold.
Our host friend’s house was just off of Tchoupitoulas Street and practically on the parade route, so we didn’t have to go far to see the Mardi Gras action. Our hosts had been invited to a neighbor’s tent, so shortly after we arrived Friday night, we were walking down the street to enjoy some drinks and music before the parades.
I discovered that the only people excited to see the approaching Krewe of Morepheus were those of us who had yet to experience Mardi Gras. We had a blast making fools of ourselves to be showered with beads, toys, and trinkets. We all agreed that the marching bands were our favorite feature when they were actually performing.
Our group went from seven strong to only three almost instantly after arriving to Bourbon Street. My two girlfriends and I went to The Beach in hopes of finding the rest of our friends. We searched but couldn’t find them in the crowd. Naturally, we had a drink and started dancing.
We found our group later that night as they were calling an Uber to go home. My girlfriends and I hadn’t had enough, so we stayed and danced until nearly two in the morning. There was nothing afterward that could’ve been more satisfying than a greasy but delicious slice of pizza from the nearest daiquiri bar pizza.
Miraculously, everyone was feeling well during breakfast the next morning. We enjoyed La Boulangerie from the front porch of our friend’s house and watched the parade crews get their floats ready. Once we had finished our meals, we followed the crowd until we were back in the same spot we had been the night before.
The Krewe of Iris was approaching, but so was the rain. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay at this parade for long, but it allowed us time to plan our next move.
We knew that we wanted to head to Mid-City to see the Krewe of Endymion and meet up with some more friends from college. The rain continued to pour, but luckily, we had a friend drive us to the parade to meet our friends. We claimed a spot right on St. Charles Street for the Krewe of Endymion’s parade.
The Krewe of Endymion’s was by far the best parade we saw in New Orleans. Some floats had full-blown LED screen displays. This Krewe must spend thousands of dollars on their floats. The floats were extravagant and the queens who rode them fit right in.
The Queens wear massive headdresses called collars that have to be wired to the actual float so that the Queen doesn’t topple over. Their dresses alone cost upwards of $10,000. The pressure to not sweat must be unbearable! The parade goes on for over six hours. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be unable to move for that long.
The parade was nowhere near over, but we decided to leave around 6 p.m. when the rain picked up again.
We Uber'd down to Frenchmen’s Street so that we could eat and hit up some bars.We picked Adolfo’s above The Apple Barrel Bar. After sharing a plate of buttery clams, the remaining five of us ordered the same delicious fish entrée and were put into a food coma. We somehow managed to pick ourselves up from the table, move across the street to Café Negril, and listen to some live reggae music.
Two more broke off from the group, and the same two girls from the night before and I were the only ones out. This didn’t stop us from continuing the party. The balcony at The Blue Nile was calling our name, and we heard live jazz and knew we had picked a great place when we got to the stairwell. Sadly, this was our last stop for the Mardi Gras weekend. Once the band stopped, we decided to stop too.
The next morning was a quick shuffle out the door to beat the 11 a.m. parade that would block off our road home. We said our goodbyes over king cake and packed up our bags. I feel like I enjoyed my first New Orleans Mardi Gras experience so much, because it was spent with really great friends and the rain reduced crowd sizes.
Our weekend was nothing as crazy as I had mentally prepared for! I think the enjoyable weekend has prepared me for the craziness that is every other year and convinced me that I could come back for a “real” Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras (also known as Carnival) celebrations take place all across the world in accordance with the religious Lenten Season. America’s Mardi Gras roots lie in the port city of Mobile, Alabama. The city’s Southern Live Oak trees and buzzing nightlife make for a fitting Mardi Gras setting that Taylor and I couldn’t pass up.
We caught our first parade of the weekend at the corner of South Broad and Canal Street after a short walk from our Selma street Airbnb. The Mobile Mystics, Mobile Mystic Revelers, and Mobile Mystical Friends were showing off their floats as bystanders yelled and reached for Moon Pies, Oatmeal Creme pies, various trinkets, and unnumbered types of beads.
Local high school bands, dance groups, and community organizations marched and entertained between floats. Occasionally, a customized go-kart or truck would fill the space between floats with loud music and revving engines.
Once the parade finished, Taylor and I walked on broken beads down Government street to find a place to socialize before our next parade. We stopped into O’Daly’s Irish Pub and found seats on the patio. A Mardi Gras concoction later, a Talking Heads song lured us into the Brick Yard. We enjoyed the bar’s fantastic playlist and friendly atmosphere until it was time to hit the streets for the next parade.
The Maids of Mirth, Butterfly Maidens, and Krewe of Marry Mates made their way down the route and had the Mobile crowd buzzing with excitement. Many more people than earlier in the day were crowded against the parade barriers, and they were a much more lively bunch. The crowd had gathered for a reason. The floats were more impressive, seemed to be larger, and were carrying a more diverse array of goods to be thrown into the crowd. The late parade is a must if your goal is to truly experience Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration.
The short weekend in Mobile couldn’t have provided a better feel for the city’s Mardi Gras tradition. Taylor and I got to spend time among the people of Mobile, and we ran into out-of-towners who were drawn to the celebration. While New Orleans may be known for its Mardi Gras celebration, the people of Mobile have a historic tradition of their own to claim.
Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read!