Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.
Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area
Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.
Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.
We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.
There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.
Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.
Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.
Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.
You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.
The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.
Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg
Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:
Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.
St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.
If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.
Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?
I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!
Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.
There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?
So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.
There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.
There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).
Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:
Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries
There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.
Some things to keep in mind:
Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.
Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.
“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).
Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?
I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.
I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.
We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).
I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.
Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.
It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.
Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.
Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.
I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.
What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?
I’d like to continue my tradition of re-capping my travels for the year and note all of the things I learned while I was traveling. As great as my travels were in 2018, I think they were topped in 2019. It was a truly wonderful year for travel for me, for which I am so grateful to have experienced. My family and I visited so many incredible places in just one year and it was a wild ride! Let’s begin! Grab a coffee or glass of wine first, because this one is going to take a while.
In February, we visited two islands in Hawaii, Kauai and Oahu. I had been to Kauai before but I still learned some things there. I learned how drastically different vacations to the same place can be given a person’s circumstances. When my family and I last went to Kauai, my daughter was not quite two years old. Our days were spent lazing around the pool and beaches with our daughter and my in-laws. My husband and I went hiking a couple of times while our daughter stayed back in the room with my in-laws.
Fast-forward to this year, where it was my husband and I along with our 13-year-old daughter and it was quite a different experience for all of us. We went zip-lining, snorkeling, and the three of us went hiking several times together. This was a much more active vacation and I saw a different side of Kauai than the previous one I saw 11 years ago. I also discovered shave ice for the first time, thanks for my daughter asking for it. Holy crap is that stuff good! I thought it would just be regular snow cones before I bit into it, but it was nothing like that. We learned to ask for our shave ice with sweet cream over and macadamia nut ice cream under. So, so good! My post on Kauai is here.
I also learned a few things on the island of Oahu. Previously, I hadn’t wanted to go to Oahu because I had heard how crowded Waikiki and Honolulu are. When I pictured Oahu, all I could see was the big city of Honolulu and crowded beaches of Waikiki. A co-worker of mine has been to Oahu several times and has always raved about it, so I decided to give it a try. Yes, Oahu has some definite crowded places, like Diamond Head State Monument and of course Honolulu is crowded, but Oahu is so much more than those places. By the way, I recommend still going to Diamond Head State Monument despite the crowds because you get some tremendous views of the area from the top.
We stayed on the east side of Oahu on a bay and it was absolutely perfect. Not only was it not crowded like other parts of Oahu, it was close enough that we could drive to most places within a reasonable drive. This was a valuable thing to learn about Oahu: you don’t have to stay in the crowded parts of the island. I also learned how to standup paddle board for the first time at the gorgeous Airbnb property where we stayed in Oahu. I learned I’m actually pretty good at SUP and since that vacation I have had so much fun paddle boarding at other places on our travels like Hilton Head Island and Wyoming but also back home on a lake near where I live. It’s become one of my favorite activities along with running, cycling, and hiking. You can find all of the details about my time in Oahu here.
In May, we took a short vacation to Delaware. This was my first time visiting Delaware and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been to states all around Delaware but honestly didn’t know much about Delaware. We were in the Rehoboth Beach area and I learned that it is so much cheaper to visit this area in May than during the summer months, plus it’s much less crowded. Although it wasn’t warm enough to get in the ocean, it was nice enough to walk along the beaches and also walk the trails at Cape Henlopen State Park. I learned there are several great restaurants and shopping in this area. Lewes, the first town in the first state in the United States, has some unique shops and restaurants as well.
While I was in Delaware, I also discovered a float tank a.k.a. sensory deprivation tank, which I used for the first time ever, and you can read all about here. I learned that I absolutely loved how I felt afterwards and it wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic or strange as I thought it might be. While I was in Delaware, I told myself I would look for float tanks when I travel again because even though there’s a place with float tanks sort of close to where I live, it wouldn’t be convenient for me to go there, but I haven’t followed through with that. I really need to get better about that because I felt like my recovery time from my half marathon in Delaware was quicker and I just felt great all over afterwards.
Later in May, I went to Peru and had one of the best vacations of my life. Our vacation started in Lima, where we flew into and took a taxi from the airport to a hotel for the night and spent a few hours walking around until we had to head back to the hotel for our quick flight to Cusco. That all worked out well, but I learned that one’s experiences in Lima (and really any city) can vary vastly depending on one single person- your taxi driver. So we flew from Lima to Cusco then Cusco to Arequipa and back to Lima (over a couple of week’s time). On our return to Lima the second time, our plan was to take a taxi from the airport to the Miraflores section, which is where we spent the night upon arrival in Peru, and by the way I had read this was the “best” and “safest” part of Lima. Our plan was to spend a few hours in this area having dinner and walking around the shops and neighborhood before we took another taxi back to the airport and fly back home. However, our taxi driver was a dishonest man and told us several lies during that drive to Miraflores. Long story short (you can read the full story here), the taxi driver tried to mislead us into paying him more money than what we had agreed to before getting into his cab (yep, no meters here) and at one point I was starting to fear for my life and wonder if we were going to have to jump out of the car before he kidnapped us.
Fortunately, the rest of Peru was amazing. I learned some things when we were in Cusco, the first of which is that when everyone says to allow a few days for your body to acclimatize to the higher altitude, you really need to listen and do that. I had planned on just taking it easy for our first 2 or 3 days in Cusco and didn’t plan anything for us to do those days. This turned out to be perfect for us and by the third day we were feeling so good we decided to go for a hike to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. Cusco is a city where you can easily just hang out and take in the sights and not overly exert yourself. That being said, I learned Cusco is crazy hilly and if you stay up at the top of the hill like we did, you’ll get out of breath just walking up the hill and going up all of those what feel like a million steps! It’s definitely easier to stay at the bottom of the hill, where the main square is, but it’s also more crowded and noisier down there. Pick which you’d rather have, peace and quiet or easier physically.
Another thing I learned in Cusco is taking a day trip to Rainbow Mountain is worth it and although it’s not quite a picture-perfect as some of the photos online, it’s still a colorful, unique area. This is a place where it pays to have acclimatized to the altitude first before coming here since the peak is at 17,060 feet. I also learned it’s a good idea to pay the extra admission to the adjacent Red Valley, which is every bit as beautiful as Rainbow Mountain but not as crowded.
More things I learned about Cusco: the heating systems aren’t like what we’re used to in the United States. The hotels and hostels may claim to have heated rooms, but I read online hotel reviews over and over about how the rooms were cold, especially at night, and we experienced this ourselves as well. We did at least have hot water, so that was extra nice. Also, there are a crazy amount of not just good but GREAT restaurants in Cusco. Before going there, I didn’t know Peru is such a foodie country, but at least in Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa, we came upon so many restaurants with not only some of the best-tasting food but also such beautiful presentations of the food! A final thing I discovered on our last day in Cusco was Avenida el Sol, a part of Cusco that I absolutely loved and wished I had known about sooner. It was full of cute shops, restaurants, and hotels and seemed like a place I would have liked to have stayed in. My post on Cusco is here.
From Cusco, we took a trek with Alpaca Expeditions and some of their incredible staff along with a family of four from Connecticut, where we camped in tents and ultimately ended up at Machu Picchu on the fourth day. Along the way, we met with and talked to some local families and school children, went to a local market, got to walk around the Salinas salt ponds, soaked in the Lares Hot Springs, saw alpacas and llamas up-close, and saw some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. This trek really emphasized to me that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. OK, maybe not “more important,” but certainly as important in this case. You can read about my Lares Trek to Machu Picchu here: Day One, Day Two and Day Three.
That’s not to imply that Machu Picchu wasn’t every bit as wonderful and awe-inspiring as you might think it is if you’ve never been, because it was every bit that and more. I learned that Machu Picchu is pretty much exactly what I had in my head as to what it would look like. What I was surprised by is Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers behind the ruins of Machu Picchu. We had decided to pay a little extra to climb up Huayna Picchu, and I was terrified going into it, to be perfectly honest. I had read that some of the stairs are crumbling and parts of it aren’t safe to climb, which is perhaps true. What I learned first hand, however, is there are cables to hold onto for some parts of the climb, which makes it a bit easier, BUT these cables stop just where you really need them in my opinion, at the very last part of the climb. I had to channel my inner strength for this part of the climb in particular to help overcome my intense fear of heights, and I learned that some of the stuff I had learned about overcoming fears really does work, like focusing on the task at hand. Let me tell you, I focused on climbing those steps up Huayna Picchu like nothing I’ve ever focused on before and I was able to get to the top without breaking down or just giving up (which has happened before to me when hiking in the mountains). I was so proud of myself and going back down seemed like a piece of cake after going through what I did to reach the top. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.
When we went to Arequipa after we left Cusco, I learned an important lesson. If you have a limited amount of time in a place and have your heart set on doing a specific trek or visiting a specific place, make reservations in advance. I thought it would be best to wait to make reservations for Colca Canyon, the big reason why many people visit Arequipa in the first place, until we got there, but due to multiple reasons, we were unable to visit Colca Canyon. Of course I was disappointed, but we found plenty of other things to do in Arequipa and it ended up being even better than I thought it could have been. Still, I wish I had pre-booked the overnight trek to Colca Canyon. You can read all about Arequipa here.
Some final thoughts on Peru in general: traffic in Peru is some of the most insane I’ve ever seen anywhere. Don’t even think about renting a car here. I wouldn’t recommend renting a motorbike or scooter either because the traffic is so crazy. Dress in layers as the temperatures can and do vary throughout the day. Learn some Spanish before you go and I mean learn as much as you possibly can because many people don’t speak English at all and you may not have cellular coverage or Wi-fi to use Google translate.
In July, we went to Wyoming, starting in Thayne where I ran a half marathon and moved on to Jackson for a few days and eventually to Yellowstone National Park, where we spent several days. One thing I learned is that the Jackson Hole area is worth spending more than just a couple of days or especially just a day trip from Yellowstone like some people do. Grand Teton National Park is NOT part of Yellowstone National Park but in fact a separate entity and should be treated as such. I learned you really should take at least 3-4 days to enjoy Grand Teton National Park, and 4-5 would be even better if you like to hike. I also learned that it’s worth renting a paddle board to do stand up paddle boarding on String Lake and Jenny Lake in the park for the day if you’re into SUP like me. My post on Grand Teton National Park is here and water activities (including rafting down the river, which I highly recommend) here.
I learned there’s no possible way to see all of Yellowstone National Park if you’re only going to be there a week or less, so you might as well not even try. It’s an enormous park so the best way to see it is to choose a part of the park for a day and focus your time there, then choose another part of the park and spend a day there, and so on, otherwise you’ll spend half of your day driving from one part to the next. I learned Yellowstone gets crowded during the summer months so it’s best to get an early start in the morning to see the geysers, hot springs, pools, and canyon. It’s also best to make reservations for a hotel within the park as early in advance as you possibly can, because the rooms fill up months out. I also learned it’s possible to get away from the crowds, just by going on some of the trails that are a bit farther from the most popular areas like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic. I have two posts on Yellowstone, one on general info and learning your way around and another with more specific tips.
In August, I visited Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, which was a return visit for me but I still learned some things. As I mentioned with Hawaii how it was a return visit but we had very different experiences because our daughter was so young the first time, Hilton Head Island was the same for us. The first time we went, our daughter was young, so we mostly hung out at the beaches, did some shopping, and went to the lighthouse. However, this time when we went, we rented bikes and rode them all over the island, my daughter and I ran, my husband and I rented stand up paddle boards, and we still visited the white sand beaches of course. I learned that Hilton Head Island is another place where you can have anything from a relaxing, laid-back vacation to a more active vacation, depending on your current lifestyle and choices. You can read about my family’s adventures in Hilton Head Island here.
Our final vacation of the year was in a place I had heard good things about from a couple of people I know but it’s far from what I’d call a popular vacation spot, Omaha, Nebraska. I chose to run the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Omaha for my half marathon in Nebraska, which was in October. This turned out to be a fantastic time of year to visit the area because of the autumn leaves and it was still warm enough (most of the time anyway) to comfortably walk around and visit the cute shopping/restaurant area called Old Market. I learned Omaha, Nebraska has a surprisingly large number of good restaurants and unique shops, along with some fun museums and a great botanical garden. We especially liked the Durham Museum, the Joselyn Art Museum, and Lauritzen Gardens, which you can read all about plus much more here. I learned that Nebraska may be listed as a “flyover” state, and while I can only speak from my experience in Omaha, it’s a place I would definitely return to, given the opportunity.
So, this has been my longest blog post yet, but it was undoubtedly one of the most action-packed travel years for me to date. Honestly, 2020 will pale in comparison, but I know every year can’t be like this one. Besides, it’s not like a contest where we have to go to “bigger” and “better” destinations to top the previous ones. We just happened to have a year crammed full of some amazing destinations. As I stated earlier, I’m so grateful to have been able to go to these places with my husband and daughter. I feel like I learned so much from our travels in 2019 and that is truly priceless.
Where did you travel to this year? What were some of your favorite places? Tell me about them!
I was recently talking to a friend about traveling and she asked me, “You’ve traveled pretty extensively. What’s something that’s happened that caused you to feel out of your comfort zone?” I immediately thought of my two weeks in Chile a couple of years ago. There were times where my family and I were the only English-speaking people around and there were several days where we had no cell phone coverage or even Wi-Fi when the Wi-Fi went down for the whole town for a few days. We had to rely solely on our knowledge of Spanish and hope for the best.
My friend asked me if we ever felt unsafe or scared in Chile and I replied, “Never. Not a single time.” While I felt out of my comfort zone and even a bit frustrated at times, I never feared for my life or anything remotely like that. I always knew deep down that everything would be fine in the end, and it was. That’s largely in part to the extreme kindness of strangers in Chile. We literally had people hand us their cell phones in restaurants and walk away from our table while we used their phones to pull up Google maps or look up other information after we explained to them (in our shaky Spanish) that we couldn’t use our cell phones.
All of this of course leads to many stories to tell others later. Despite posting several things about Chile, there are many stories I never told, until now. Now I’d like to share some of the stories that happened to my family and I while we were in Chile and I hope you enjoy them.
To give a little background, we were in three separate areas of Chile, beginning in Santiago for a couple of days, then to Valparaiso for four days, and to Punta Verde in the O’Higgins region for a week. I feel like our adventures got more and more intense as our vacation went on. There weren’t many stories to tell from our time in Santiago that I can recall. We stayed in a super-nice 5-star hotel that my daughter still talks about, which if it was in the United States would have cost more money than we likely would have paid. We took our own walking tour of the city based on blogs and other information I had read about Santiago. Not much unusual happened, though. Probably our biggest adventure was driving from our hotel to get out of the city. The traffic was some of the worst we had encountered anywhere, but my husband handled it like a pro and got us out of the city (and the rental car) unscathed!
When we drove from Santiago to Valparaiso, there were two options to get there, one was a toll road and one was not. I decided we should take the “more scenic” non-toll road. It turns out they were doing major construction on part of that road, parts of which were not paved, and all of that slowed us down considerably. Then my husband noticed how low the gas in the tank was. We thought we were going to run out of gas on this deserted road where we hadn’t passed another car let alone seen a gas station in a very long time. We had no cell phone coverage and besides who on earth would we even call? Fortunately we came to the end of the construction, got back on “regular” paved highway roads near civilization, and came to a gas station just as we rolled in on fumes and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Valparaiso is a beautiful coastal town in Chile and our Airbnb there was HUGE with three big bedrooms and a large living room all with balconies overlooking the ocean below. There was a slight issue with the heat, which I had to talk to the host about over the Airbnb messaging site, but once we got that figured out, it was all good. I didn’t realize prior to going to Chile that most apartment buildings and houses there don’t have central heating because it’s too expensive. Our apartment building was heated by hot water than ran through the walls and floor boards. Once the Airbnb host told us how to turn the hot water pipes for heating on, we were able to stay comfortably warm there.
One very sad story about Valparaiso and the other parts of Chile that we were in is due to the huge epidemic of stray dogs everywhere. One day while we were walking around Valparaiso, a friendly black dog started following us. She followed us a long time, turning when we turned, stopping when we stopped, and so forth, until we ultimately reached the gate for the funicular (if you don’t know, a funicular is sort of like an outdoor elevator that goes up the side of a cliff or mountainside usually) to the apartment building where we were staying and we had to say goodbye to her. We named her “Chile.” Shortly after we got back from our vacation in Chile, we adopted a black dog whose foster mom had named “Millie.” This puppy did not in any way resemble a “Millie” to me but I didn’t want to drastically change her name because she was already answering to Millie. We named her Chile (although not pronounced like native Chileans pronounce their country, “Chee-lay” but more like the pepper, “Chil-ee” so it would still sound similar enough to her former name so as to not confuse her).
After Valparaiso, we drove to Punta Verde in the O’Higgins region. Our adventure began on the very first day there, as soon as we drove up to the resort. The guard at the gate spoke no English at all and our broken Spanish wasn’t enough to communicate to him that we were staying there. We were in what I’ve read called “The Lake” region because of Lago Rapel (Rapel Lake), which apparently is quite packed with visitors during the warm months. Since we were there during the shoulder season and it was a bit cooler, literally no other guests were staying at this resort when we pulled up. The guard seemed to be completely baffled as to why this English-speaking family was trying to get onto the resort this time of year.
Eventually, the guard called a friend of his who knew someone who spoke some English. The English-speaking person’s name was Claudia, and this guard’s friend brought Claudia to our rescue, who communicated to the guard that we would be staying at the resort for a week, and thus needed a key to our apartment and to be allowed entry into and out of the resort while we would be staying there. Claudia showed us around the apartment, which was a large three bedroom unit with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bathrooms, and sunroom. She told us to make ourselves at home and gave us her phone number if we needed anything (even though we had no cell phone coverage there so we would have to have a local call her if we needed to talk to her). Claudia told us no one else in town spoke English so we would pretty much be on our own as far as communicating with others.
I should note here that I had several years of Spanish in high school and college and I’ve brushed up on my Spanish several times before visiting a Spanish-speaking country including this trip to Chile. My husband has been teaching himself Spanish for the past several years and our daughter has had Spanish in school since she was in preschool. At the time of our visit to Chile, between the three of us, our knowledge of Spanish was usually enough to get by even when the person spoke no English. I learned many years ago that less is better when you’re trying to communicate in another language so I would try to keep my questions or answers brief and to the point. Usually the person was able to figure out what we were trying to say and/or we were able to figure out what they were trying to say, although there were exceptions like the guard at the gate of our resort in the O’Higgins region. Still, we are by no means what I would call fluent in Spanish.
We had so many adventures in the O’Higgins region that I’m sure I’ll forget some of them. One funny story happened when we went to the Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva, a national park. We hadn’t seen another person hiking all day and were surprised when my daughter said she saw other people hiking on the trail we were on. As we got closer to the people, she realized it wasn’t human legs she was seeing but cow legs. It wasn’t people in front of us, but rather a couple of cows. What we thought were hoof prints from horses on other trails earlier that day that we also thought must have been carrying riders on these supposed horses turned out to be hoof prints from cows that were grazing randomly in the park. Several times we had gotten turned around on the trails and had decided to follow the hoof prints since surely it was horse prints so surely it must have been part of the trail and the way we should go. We were of course very wrong since we had instead been following cows wandering around aimlessly. Somehow we figured out where to go on the trails and didn’t end up getting too far off trail to get truly lost.
I’m going to back up a bit, though. Just getting to the Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva was an adventure. My husband had downloaded Google maps of the area when we had Wi-Fi so we would have it offline and he thought it would be a relatively easy drive to the park from our resort. That is until we had to take a traffic detour. Somehow, my husband still figured out how to get us there just using his awesome sense of direction and by studying his offline map. Driving to other places in the O’Higgins region was often an adventure as well. Once we came upon what looked like a big wooden gate to a personal property that was closed but our GPS was telling us that was the way we needed to go. There were a couple of men standing outside the gate. When we asked if we could go through, they opened the gate and let us in, no questions asked. Once we were on the other side, we quickly realized this was not the right way to go, and drove back the way we came and my husband had to study the downloaded map once again to figure it out on his own.
There was also the small local market in Punta Verde that we discovered sold warm, freshly made rolls every evening. We stood in line with the other locals to get some fresh baked bread and other food to make for dinner. There weren’t that many restaurants in town and the one at our resort was hugely over-priced so we only ate there once or twice. Even after our vacation and we had returned home we still talked about that fresh bread we used to pick up for dinner every evening during our last week in Chile. I remember the first time we went to that market, everyone turned around to look at us when we spoke in English to each other. We still got stares and people turning around to look at us when we spoke English on subsequent visits, but we didn’t think anything of it. Presumably not many people go there that speak English, and certainly not during the off-season. They weren’t doing that to be unfriendly or rude but they were undoubtedly surprised to hear us speaking in a language none of them knew.
As I said, there weren’t that many restaurants in town. One evening we went to what was supposed to be a restaurant and that turned into an adventure. We pulled up to what looked like an average-looking house in the area and wondered if we were in the right place, but there was a sign outside with the name of the “restaurant” so we went in. Immediately I noticed how cold it was in this house. They must not have had heat or perhaps it was turned down to save energy but I really didn’t want to eat dinner in my coat. A man greeted us and was very friendly and obviously happy to have some dinner guests, so we thought we’d at least see what they had to offer. We asked to see a menu and were told they had chicken, chicken and rice, and chicken another way that I’m now forgetting but our choices were chicken, chicken, or chicken; no menu necessary for that. What I can only assume was the man’s wife popped her head out of the kitchen, getting ready to cook us our dinner. I told my husband I didn’t feel comfortable eating at these people’s house/restaurant and we should go but I didn’t want to seem rude. My husband told him we had changed our minds and would be leaving and the disappointment on the man’s face was palpable. Who knows, maybe that would have been a fabulous chicken dinner, but the microbiologist in me just wasn’t willing to risk getting Salmonella or Campylobacter, not that you’re always safe in a true restaurant, but still.
Similar to Valparaiso, there were stray dogs all over the place in the O’Higgins region and it was heartbreaking to me as a huge animal-lover. When we left the resort to drive back to the airport in Santiago, we had some leftover food from the refrigerator that we had brought with us in the car but not for us to eat. I brought the food to give to stray dogs that we would inevitably see along the way to the airport. When I would spot a stray dog along the side of the road ahead of us, I’d tell my husband to pull over, quickly leave some of the food for the dog, and we would drive on. We did this the entire drive back to Santiago, which was about 2 hours. I was able to stretch out the leftovers and gave the last little bit of food to a dog I saw when we were nearing the rental car place by the airport.
That pretty much ended our adventures in Chile. If you’d like to read the full posts about my time there, you can find them here:
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you probably already know I love to hike so I’m going to diverge from my usual Friday running post and write about hiking today. I feel like I’ve always loved hiking in the mountains. Growing up in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia probably sparked my love of hiking mountains. I have fond memories of visiting several state parks in West Virginia as a kid. My love of hiking has only intensified as an adult. I recently wrote a post on hiking tips that you can find here: Hiking Tips for the Beginner.
Recently, I took a four day hike through Peru, ending in Machu Picchu, and it was undoubtedly some of the best hiking I’ve ever done. To be totally honest, however, we were all completely spoiled by hiking standards on this trek. We had porters to carry all but a small daypack, a cook to prepare all of our meals, and a guide to lead us (although he was more often than not lagging behind with one of our fellow hikers on horseback who was not dealing well with the altitude, but he would yell up ahead if we were in doubt of which way to go). My point is, we were far from self-supported thru-hiking (more on that in a second). If you’d like to read about my trek to Machu Picchu, the posts are here: Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One, Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Two, Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Three.
Fastest Known Time attempts (also known as FKTs) are well-known in the hiking community. The people that hold the record for FKTs are another caliber entirely than us mere mortals. FKTs have been set for the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and a surprising 840 more routes in the United States alone, as well as many others around the world.
Heather “Anish” Anderson still holds the record for female self-supported FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail that she set August 7, 2013. Self-supported means you never enter a vehicle along the trail and don’t have a dedicated support crew, but you may use mail drops, facilities in towns along the way, and the kindness of strangers. She walked from southern California to the tip of Washington in a record 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes. Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home is a recount of Anderson’s journey for reaching this FKT record.
At 206 pages including acknowledgements, this was a quick read for me. There are 36 chapters plus an epilogue, so I found it easy to read a chapter or two before bed. I felt drawn into her story and enjoyed the bits of back-story she included, which allows the reader to better understand Anderson’s history and why anyone would want to attempt an FKT in the first place.
By no means is this written as a manual for anyone who might be interested in hiking a trail like the Pacific Crest Trail, which by the way is 2655 miles from Mexico to Canada, passing through the Sonoran & Mojave deserts, and then over the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The PCT crosses California, Oregon and Washington, and passes through 24 national forests, 7 national parks and 33 wilderness areas. This is simply Anderson’s story and some of the things she encountered along the way on the trail.
One thing I should mention here is the “Anish” part in her name for anyone that may be wondering. She adopted the trail name “Anish” in honor of her great-great grandmother, who was of Native American Anishinabe heritage. Trail names originally began on the Appalachian Trail to keep all of the hikers straight from one another, by giving them unique nicknames which usually fit their personality or a quirky part of a hiker. Some people choose their own trail name while others wait until someone else gives them a trail name.
Anish grew up as an overweight child in Michigan who was often teased and by no means had an upbringing to prepare her for what her adult life was to become. However, she proves that she is in charge of her own destiny. In 2019 she was National Geographic’s National Adventurer of the Year. By then she had walked 28,000 miles on trails and had become one of 400 people who have claimed the Triple Crown of Hiking, completing the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails in addition to the Appalachian Trail in one calendar year. In 2015 she set the record for female unsupported FKT on the Appalachian Trail and in 2016 she set the record on the Arizona Trail.
I found myself cheering her on as I read the book, something it seems other hikers were doing when Anderson was attempting her FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail. She would sometimes go into towns along the trail and overhear other hikers talking about the “Ghost,” which she came to realize was herself. She would be there on the trail one minute and the next, she would vanish and be gone.
Even if you’re never going to attempt an FKT in your life but you enjoy a good day hike (like me) or even a multi-day supported hike (also like me), you would probably enjoy this book. I found the stories about Anderson’s encounters with animals like cougars and rattlesnakes to be frightening but her reactions to be totally empowering, although I’m not sure I would have been that brave.
In the end, I believe this book is about Anish finding her courage in life along the Pacific Crest Trail, and she just happened to finish in the Fastest Known Time for unsupported females.
I grew up hiking in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and as an adult I’ve hiked all over the United States from Maine to California and most places in-between. In Europe, I’ve hiked in the Spanish Canary Islands, Austria, Germany, and Greece, to name a few countries. Although there hasn’t been that much hiking in the various Caribbean islands I’ve been to, where there were mountains or even trails in natural parks or preserves, I’ve hiked them. Hiking in New Zealand probably afforded some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen just because it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen. In South America, I’ve hiked in Chile and Peru, which were also amazing places to hike and left me with an urge to go back and see more.
I know many people have done much more intense hiking than I have, just as others have done hardly any or no hiking in their lives. What I’d like to discuss here is more for beginners because I feel like that’s the group that I’d like to persuade. I understand for people that have never been hiking or maybe only gone once or twice, it may seem a bit daunting to go out on a several hour hike in the woods. I’ll cover things to do before you ever leave your house to go on a hike so you feel completely prepared and actually look forward to the amazing views you’ll see on your hike.
First off, choose a place to hike. This can be a state park near where you live, a national park you have plans to visit, or a place you’re going to visit soon on vacation. If you don’t want to hike up a mountain, there doesn’t even have to be a mountain in the area since many trails are along lakes, rivers, or other flat areas.
Once you have a place in mind, pull up the website for the area and see if they have a list of trails. I’ll give you an example to go on for better reference here. Say I’d like to go to Arches National Park in Utah (which I really would like to visit someday). Go to the U.S. National Park Service website for Arches National Park, then click on “Plan Your Visit” then “Things to Do” then “Hiking.” Under the hiking section, you will see all of the trails at the park, listed from easy, moderate, to difficult. There are trail names, round-trip distance, elevation and estimated time to complete, and descriptions. These descriptions are thorough and accurate so if it says a trail is difficult, you should believe it is and not go out there if you’ve never hiked in your life, even if you are in good shape physically.
Just like runners gradually increase the distance ran, hikers should do the same and gradually increase in intensity and distance covered. Choose easy hiking trails to begin with and as you become more comfortable over time, work up to moderate and eventually more difficult trails. Remember that distance isn’t the only factor in the trail rating system. How quickly the trail increases in elevation and the general condition of the trail are also factors in rating a trail (if there are large areas of loose rocks going downhill especially, a trail would be rated as more difficult for example).
OK. So you have a trail or maybe even a couple of trails in the same park in mind and you’re ready to head out for a couple of hours to go hiking. Now what? First, check the weather for the day. Really, you should do this a day or so before you plan on going hiking. If there’s a good chance of thunderstorms you definitely shouldn’t be hiking in that. If there has been rain recently in the area, you should know that many trails will be muddy and slippery. That may be fine if you’re an experienced hiker but if you’re new, you probably shouldn’t go out under those conditions.
Next you need to pack a backpack to bring along on your hike. Here are some things you should always pack for a day hike:
fully-charged cell phone (download the area in Google Maps before you go out so you have it offline)
small first aid kit (that includes matches or a lighter)
printed map of the trail if possible for a back-up
bear spray if there are bears in the area or pepper spray
Also, familiarize yourself with the area you will be exploring as best as you can beforehand. If you are going to an area where flash floods are a possibility, you should be prepared for that and know what to do should one happen. Websites are great but speaking to a park ranger when you get to the park is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the park. Ask specifically about trails you were planning on hiking but also ask about other areas of the park.
Make sure you wear proper footwear for hiking. Many times I’ve been amazed at how many women wear flip flops and dressy sandals on trails. With so many great hiking shoes available now, there’s just no excuse for not wearing appropriate shoes on a trail. I personally like Merrell’s hiking shoes because they’re fairly light-weight, comfortable, have great traction and they’re not bulky like traditional hiking boots. While plenty of people go hiking in regular athletic shoes/running shoes/tennis shoes or whatever else you want to call them, they just don’t have as good of traction as hiking shoes unless they’re specifically trail running shoes, which would of course be fine for hiking.
You should also be appropriately dressed for your hike. This will be dictated partly by weather conditions, but you’ll be more comfortable if you wear “wicking” fabrics basically made to speed-up the evaporation of sweat from your clothes. Cotton, by the way, does not do this but actually holds moisture in the fabric. While it may sound crazy to some people, merino wool socks are great year-round (not just when it’s cold outside) as they are great at quickly evaporating moisture. A hat and sunglasses are also good for sunny days. Long pants will of course protect your legs better than shorts if it’s not too hot for pants. Layers are always a great idea especially if you’ll be going up in elevation since it’s cooler at the top of a mountain than at the bottom.
It’s a good idea to let others know where you’ll be especially if you’ll be in a more remote area, so let someone else that won’t be hiking with you know where you’ll be hiking and what time you will be on trail. Likewise, after you return, send them a quick message so they know you’re no longer hiking. Some parks also request that you sign in at a trailhead.
Sometimes a permit is required to hike a certain area. Check online as soon as you know you will be hiking in a particular area to see if you need a permit because some permits are only available during a certain time frame. There will be a link on the website for permits if they are necessary. Usually this is for longer, overnight hikes but some places do this to limit the number of hikers per day.
Keep your distance when (if) you see wildlife. If you come across a bear, moose, elk, or even deer and you’re pretty sure it doesn’t see you, slowly and quietly back away (facing the animal so you can still see it) the way you came until you’re well away from the area. What ever you do, don’t run! The animal will think you’re prey and chase you. If a mother has her babies near-by, she will be extremely protective of them and will be willing to fight you to the death. There’s a trail near where I work and several years ago a runner came upon a mama deer and her babies and made the mistake of approaching them. The woman was kicked in the face by the deer and was so badly beaten up that she looked like she had been in a boxing fight.
Finally, if you want to go hiking in a new place and want to take along your dog, make sure dogs are allowed first. Some places allow dogs on specific trails but not others and other places don’t allow dogs at all. Be extremely cautious about letting your dog off-leash on a trail even if you do it all the time near your home; you certainly don’t want to lose your dog in a huge park and/or a place you’re not familiar with.
Do you like to go hiking? Did I leave any other important information out? If you don’t like hiking, I’d be curious to know what you don’t like about it. If you have any questions for me about hiking, I’d be glad to answer them.