My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Days Two and Three

If you missed the first part of this series, you can catch up here: My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Day One

On our second day at Yosemite, after a filling breakfast of oatmeal with added nuts, chia seeds, and dried apples, we all packed up our backpacks and rode in a van provided by Lasting Adventures about one and a half hours to get to May Lake. I had never heard of May Lake before but found it to be absolutely stunning with trees and mountains surrounding the crystal-clear water.

We only had a short one mile hike to our campsite from the trail head where the van dropped us off. This was a good opportunity for everyone to get more of a feel for hiking with our backpacks. We were told to periodically tighten or loosen straps and see what felt better. As we all found out, it takes some getting used to carrying 35+ pounds on your back (I never got a firm estimate from Bella or Savannah on how much weight we were carrying but it felt like at least 35 pounds to me if not a solid 40 pounds).

Not a bad place to sleep for the night and the views are pretty incredible

As soon as we reached our campsite, the first thing I did was take off my backpack. Then we all set up our sleeping areas, meaning we laid out the Tyvek sheet first then placed the sleeping mat on top, and our sleeping bag on top. We were told everything should be “tidy and neat.”

After a simple lunch of salami and bagels with a view of May Lake, a few of us went with Bella to hike up Mt. Hoffmann and the rest of our troop stayed back with Savannah at the campsite. We were told the hike to the top of Mt. Hoffmann is 6 miles round-trip and the view from the top was great. What I wasn’t aware of at the time is that the elevation of May Lake is 9270 feet and there’s a 2000 feet elevation gain to the peak of Mt. Hoffmann. Oh, and did I mention some of the steepest parts of the trail are covered in decomposed granite, which is notoriously slippery?

See a trail here? Neither did I. Good thing we had Bella to guide us up Mount Hoffmann!

The trail definitely had some incredible views of May Lake and the surrounding area and I was doing pretty well trudging along, trying to keep up with Bella and our fast and fearless girls until we reached the very last part to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann, where I looked down and saw a sheer drop on one side. My fear of heights got the best of me and I announced that I was good where I was; I didn’t want to continue any further up.

Bella found a safe spot for me and our troop’s other chaperone, who said she was happy where we were as well and she would stay with me. I wasn’t sure if she was just saying that to make me feel better but I welcomed the company either way. We watched as the brave girls from our troop continued up the vertigo-inducing steepest part of the trail to the peak with its views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome and took in the views until they joined us shortly later.

When we got back to our campsite, we all changed out of our hiking shoes and enjoyed the refreshingly cold water of May Lake. After the intense hike to Mt. Hoffmann, the water felt great on my tired legs and feet. I could see the girls enjoying the views of the lake and mountains all around us and one kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed, I thought.

After a dinner of ramen noodles fortified with mixed dried vegetables we all collected wood for a fire (May Lake was one of the few places in Yosemite where a campfire was allowed because of recent wild fires and extreme drought in California). Bella really had the fire going and it was just what I needed to take the chill off the air. Because we were so high in elevation, it was considerably cooler here than where we started in Yosemite Valley. We were treated with mugs of hot cider and played a rousing game of Balderdash before turning in for the night.

The many views of May Lake

Day 3 was slated for our longest hike yet, at just around 7 miles. There was a lot of downhill hiking but also plenty of uphill to round things out. With the heavy backpack it was intense and we were all glad when we made it to the campsite. Bella and Savannah told us we would have incredible views of Half Dome from here. They even joked (or perhaps they were serious) that since there was no toilet at this campsite, unlike the previous ones, we could have the best view around when squatting to do our business.

One little note on that subject. I had peed in the wild many times when hiking or camping but I had never been without a toilet when I had to poop, not even on my epic multi-day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Believe it or not, the group we were with in Peru even had portable toilets for us spoiled Americans. There would be no portable toilets here. Bella and Savannah briefed all of us on the proper way to poop in the wild, which I’ll share here.

First you need to gather your supplies: a trowel with a blade that’s six inches long, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a Ziplock bag to put your used toilet paper in. That’s it. The significance of the six inches for the trowel is that’s the Goldilocks spot for burying human excrement; too shallow and animals can and will dig it up, too deep and it’s not at the ideal depth in the soil for getting properly broken down and decomposed.

OK, so to poop in the wild, first find a spot approximately 200 feet from water sources and trails. Next, you dig a hole six inches deep with your trowel. Then you do your business, put the used toilet paper in your Ziplock bag, and use the hand sanitizer before covering the hole back with dirt using the trowel. The trowel should never touch anything but soil so it won’t need to be sanitized. That’s it! You just pooped in the wild!

Now back to day 3. As soon as we reached our campsite and set up camp, we went to a nearby creek where some of us just stuck our feet and legs in and others fully immersed themselves. As before, the water was quite chilly but refreshing especially after a challenging hike with a pack.

Our view for dinner on day 3- pretty nice, huh?

We had a delicious dinner of rice, soy curls and soy sauce. I had never had soy curls before but thought they were good enough to make a note to myself to look for them at the stores when I got back home. Also, if you haven’t caught on by now, almost everything we ate was dehydrated to save on space and weight. I learned on this trip that dehydrated food has come a long way since I had it many years ago, both in the taste and variety available now.

Bella and Savannah cooked our dinner at what they referred to as the “bluff,” with amazing views of Half Dome directly in front of us. We were hoping to see a bright pink sunset against the granite but it was too cloudy for that so we got a muted pink sky instead, still beautiful. Later, we were rewarded with a night sky full of stars and some shooting stars were thrown in for our added pleasure. Our entertaining guides captivated us with folklore stories about the constellations while we all sipped our hot cocoa.

Not to imply that our sunset wasn’t absolutely gorgeous because it was as you can see!

This was one of the chilliest nights we had experienced, with temperatures in the 40’s, but our sleeping bags kept us warm, and we slipped off to sleep to the sound of utter silence. A few of us were lucky enough to witness the Perseid meteor shower late that night.

To set the scene, this campsite was really deep in the wilds of Yosemite, with no other humans in sight. If I had been hiking in that area by myself without our guides I never would have even known it’s a designated campsite. Also, there was a bear in this area known to swipe bear cans and throw them over the cliff, knowing they would break open when they hit the bottom, spilling out their contents and providing dinner for the bear.

To be continued…

State and Local Parks Plus Daytrips From Duluth, Minnesota

When I was planning my first trip to Minnesota I knew I wanted to spend some time in the northern part of the state that is surrounded by Lake Superior. As I saw it, there were a couple of options: 1) Stay at a campground at one of the state parks in the northern part of the state or 2) Stay in Duluth and have the best of both worlds with easy access to the state parks plus be able to go to museums and do some shopping in the Duluth area. I chose the latter and was so glad I did in the end.

For many runners, Duluth is the site of the famous Grandma’s Marathon. I personally know some people who ran it and they all raved about not only the race course but the area in general and how beautiful it is. By the time I tried to register for the half marathon portion of Grandma’s Marathon this year, the race was full so that wasn’t an option for me. No problem, I would just spend some time in Duluth after my race in Lake City instead (Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state).

First of all, I don’t claim to be an expert on Duluth or the state parks there or really anything Minnesota-related but I will give you a recount of my experience there. I stayed about four days in Duluth and hiked in state and local parks, went to some unique museums and a mansion, and ate some incredible meals. Oh, and had all.the.ice cream. What is it with Minnesota and ice cream shops? I tried on several occasions to find a bakery for some baked goods but was unable and ended up going to an ice cream shop instead because I found out there was no shortage of them. I wouldn’t have thought there would be SO many ice cream places in such a northern state but at least in my case, that seemed to be what I found.

Parks in and Around Duluth

There are some of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen in this area that you can easily do a day trip from Duluth to reach by car. I’ll start with the ones that are the closest and work my way out geographically.

Lester Park is within Duluth city limits and is bigger than it first seems when you pull into one of the parking lots. There’s an area just a short walk from a parking lot where we saw kids playing in the water, which would be a nice respite on a hot summer day. I later learned the names of the bodies of water we saw: Lester River and Amity Creek. There are also picnic tables and grills scattered around and several mountain bike trails in addition to over nine miles of trails. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/lester-park/

Congdon Park is also in Duluth and has a bit of a story behind it. If you go to Glensheen Mansion you will know the family that lived there was the Congdon family so if you’re like me you will wonder if there is a connection. Indeed there is. It seems Chester Congdon was building his estate, Glensheen Mansion in 1908 and discovered the city was using Tischer Creek that runs through what is now Congdon Park as an open sewer. Mr. Congdon gave Duluth the land and paid for the development of the park on the grounds they would stop using the creek that ran through his property as their sewer. Although Congdon Park is small, there are some small waterfalls that run along the trail and it’s really quite peaceful despite being so close to a neighborhood. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/congdon-park/

Although this is just two parks, Duluth has 83 (!) parks that includes dog parks, a disc golf park, Lester Park Golf Course (public), community parks, tennis courts, and a wide range of other parks and what they offer. I encourage you to check some out when you’re staying in or near Duluth. The city of Duluth has a wonderfully extensive webpage with their parks and a search engine you can use to search by amenities. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/

Jay Cooke State Park

Jay Cooke State Park is about 10 miles southwest of Duluth and is one of the most-visited state parks in Minnesota. Established in 1915 with a donation of land by the St. Louis Power Company, this park is over 9,000 acres and even has a gorge at one part of the park. There are cabins and campsites but swimming is not allowed because of the currents. Vehicle permits are required and can be purchased at the entrance.

Some of the best trails at Jay Cooke State Park include the following:

Silver Creek Trail, aka Hiking Club Trail, a 3.5-mile loop with some hills and bare rock. You will cross a swinging bridge, climb a short section of rock, and follow a grassy path through the trees. There are views of the St. Louis River and Silver Creek.

Carlton Trail Trip, a 5-mile loop that is steep with rugged terrain, bare rock, and packed dirt. Although this trail isn’t for everyone, it will give you great views of the St. Louis River and pass by an old cemetary and through a shaded forest.

CCC Trail, an easy 1.8-mile loop on grass that is mostly flat. Start behind the River Inn and stop at the benches near scenic points along the St. Louis River before heading into the forest. An alternative is to start from the kiosk at the back of the River Inn parking lot and work your way that way, saving the river views for the end of your hike.

Thomson Dam Trip, a 2 mile one-way, out-and-back trail with some hills and paved. Hike up the Forbay Trail and follow the Willard Munger State Trail west toward a trestle bridge. Explore the rocky river gorge in the area before heading back the way you came.

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry Falls State Park is about 40 miles from Duluth and 13 miles from Two Harbors, the closest “city” of any size in this area. You’ll want to stop in Two Harbors for gas and food for the largest selection of both. Park at the Gooseberry Falls State Park visitor center and pick up a free map of the park that includes all of the trails. As they mention on the park map, if you only have an hour to spend here, walk the short distance from the visitor center to the Upper and Middle Falls or take the longer 1-mile Falls Loop Trail. As you might imagine, the waterfalls are the highlight of this park. Swimming is prohibited in the Upper Falls but I saw plenty of people swimming and cooling off in the Middle and Lower Falls.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is about an hour from Duluth (48 miles) and just north of Gooseberry Falls State Park. The lighthouse was in service from 1910 to 1969 and is supposed to be one of the most visited and photographed lighthouses in the US. In the summer for a fee you can walk inside the lighthouse and go up the steps of the lighthouse and walk around the grounds with the Fog Signal Building, three keeper’s houses and the Visitor Center. There are some pretty extensive trail systems that go through this park including the Gitchi-Gami State Trail that you can take 8.5 miles to get near the Middle Falls waterfall and spot parts of the Upper and Lower Falls from Gooseberry State Park. There is also the Split Rock River Loop Trail that connects with the Superior Hiking Trail which stretches along the North Shore, from Duluth to Grand Portage.

Tettegouche State Park is about 60 miles from Duluth and takes a little over an hour to drive there. This was the most northern park we went to in Minnesota and it was my favorite of all of the parks we went to. The views reminded me of Maine especially at Acadia National Park with the sheer cliff faces overlooking the water with wonderful hues of green and blue from minerals. My favorite trail was the Shovel Point Trail and at only 1.2 miles out-and-back, that might not seem like it’s so difficult. However, there are 300 stairs on this trail, making me huff and puff going up, but the views were most definitely worth it, even before we reached the top. You can hike this from the visitor center with no permit required, as is the same with the Cascades Trail (ending at a waterfall) and the High Falls Trail. You can drive down to the trailhead parking lot for High Falls Trail and cut the length of the trail in half, from 3 miles to 1.5 miles, but you’ll also have to purchase a permit to park at the trailhead parking lot.

Tettegouche State Park

We didn’t do all of this hiking in one day but we did hike the last three state parks in one day (Tettegouche, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Gooseberry Falls) and while we were tired at the end of the day, it is completely doable if you’re already in good hiking shape. If you’re not much of a hiker, you could still visit all three of these parks in one day and just spend more time at the visitor centers and do some short hikes. As always at any park whether it’s a national or state park I’ve found the people working at the visitor center to be helpful and usually you can pick up a map of the area including the trails. This time was no exception to that!

One Brief Mention of Food– as I alluded to above, you’ll find the best selection of restaurants in the town of Two Harbors. We ate at Black Woods Bar and Grill, which I later found out also has restaurants in Duluth and Proctor, and greatly enjoyed our food there . There’s a nice outdoor patio area as well as indoor seating. We also happened upon a food truck around lunch time in Two Harbors and picked up some great grilled cheese and ham sandwiches (but fancier with brie and another cheese that I’m forgetting, apple slices, and gourmet bread) and made-to-order donut holes.

After all of this hiking, we were ready for some time doing other things, though, so in my next post, I’ll talk about what we did and saw then!

Have you been to Duluth or the upper part of the state that borders Lake Superior? If so, where did you go and what did you do?

Happy travels!

Donna


Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota in a Minute Plus a Meetup!

My vacation and first visit to Minnesota was supposed to happen in June of 2020 after running a half marathon for state number 49 of my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Thanks to COVID, my remaining three half marathons in Iowa, Minnesota, and New Mexico got all changed and moved around. Instead of running a half marathon in St. Paul in June last year, I ended up running a half marathon this past June about an hour from Minneapolis and St. Paul in a small town called Lake City (you can read all about that here: Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state).

Conservatory at Como Park

Because the race was an hour from the twin cities, I decided to just spend the day that I flew into MSP in that area then drive and stay in Lake City until right after the race then drive to Duluth to do some hiking there (which deserves a post of its own). I knew that a travel blogger who also has a podcast with her husband live in the Minneapolis area so I contacted her to see if we could meet up and she said they were available for lunch the day I would be flying in. Her website is The Travel Architect (https://thetravelarchitect.wordpress.com/).

She recommended a spot for lunch called Red Cow that had some delicious burgers and the four of us had a lovely lunch with plenty of travel talk and some science talk since her husband is a science teacher and my daughter just finished taking chemistry. It was great to finally meet in person after following her blog and their podcast for so long. They were both exactly as I expected, which is to say they were both fun and engaging and it was a nice way to start out my trip to the land of 10,000 lakes.

My meetup in Minnesota!

The original plan after lunch was for my daughter and me to go standup paddleboarding at Bde Maka Ska Park but when we got to the lake it felt too windy for that so we decided to just walk around the lake instead. It was a beautiful sunny day albeit breezy and there were some people on the water in small sailboats and kayaks but I noticed no one was braving the wind on a SUP.

After a quick break for ice cream at Bebe Zito Ice Cream (known for their unique flavors), we went to Como Park in St. Paul and it was even bigger than I expected. There is an area with kiddie rides and carnival games, both a mini golf and regular golf course, a lake, and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. After getting tickets online (free but you still had to arrange in advance as they weren’t allowing walk-ins) for the Zoo and Conservatory, we spent the next hour or so wandering around the grounds. The gardens were some of the best I’ve seen and I especially enjoyed the Japanese Garden area.

More photos from Como Park, windy Bde Maka Ska Park, and the first of many ice creams in Minnesota!

By now it was starting to get into the early evening hours and I knew I had at least an hour drive ahead of me to get to Lake City for the next phase of our Minnesota vacation so that ended our time in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was brief, hence the minute reference in my title but it was most definitely enjoyable.

Have you been to Minneapolis or St. Paul? If so, what did you do and what did you think? Have you ever had a meetup with someone you follow online?

Happy travels!

Donna

How to Avoid Falling Into the What If’s of Travel

There are so many things that can go wrong when I travel I’m sure if I stopped to think about them all, I’d never travel. My flight could get cancelled, my flight could get delayed and I’d miss a connecting flight, my airplane could crash, I could get mugged in the city where I’m traveling to, I could get sick or injured while on vacation, I could lose my passport/drivers license/money, a natural disaster like a hurricane/earthquake/tsunami could happen while I’m on vacation, and on and on. These are all non-COVID-related things, too. COVID-related things that could happen add another layer of complexity.

Some of the things I mentioned above have happened to me while on vacation or even before I went on vacation. Flights have been cancelled and delayed but I dealt with that and was still able to travel. I’ve gotten sick and others with me have gotten sick, although fortunately nothing too bad that some drugstore medicine and rest in the hotel room wouldn’t take care of. Major events have never happened to me while on vacation, however.

I think most of us fall into two types of people when it comes to travel: those that are willing to take the leap of faith that even when things go wrong on vacation, everything will work out in the end and those that are too afraid and unwilling to travel because of the unknowns and things that can go wrong. For this post I’m not talking about travel during the pandemic, because that changes things too much beyond the ordinary. I’m referring to non-pandemic-related travel.

I went to some remote parts of Chile and am so glad I did!

One of the best things you can do to put your mind at ease before you travel is do some research. As the Scout motto by Robert Baden-Powell states, “Be prepared,” you should be ready to act on any emergency so that you are never taken by surprise. This means not traveling to the Caribbean during peak hurricane season or if you do so, be willing to endure the consequences should a hurricane strike while you’re there. It could also mean not venturing to an area of a city known to be unsafe while you’re traveling or studying up on local customs for an area you’re traveling to, especially for international travel. You can also bring some supplies with you like anti-diarrheal pills, Bandaids, antibiotic cream, and others so you don’t have to make a drugstore run when you really don’t feel like it. Do your research to see if you need specific immunizations for the place where you’re traveling.

Another thing you can do to protect yourself is to buy travel insurance. There are many types ranging from insurance that covers major catastrophic events (like hurricanes) to ones that just provide basic health insurance to ones that cover your luggage should it get lost by the airline to complete total insurance that covers everything from cancelled airfare, hotel, rental car, and any other travel-related expenses. As you can imagine, the more that’s covered by the plan, the more money it will cost. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each plan and decide which one is a better fit for you. Some “high risk” activities are also not covered under some travel insurance plans, so if you plan on going skydiving for example, know that anything that should happen as a result likely won’t be covered under most plans unless you buy insurance specifically for that.

Hiking in this remote section of Austria was incredible!

Being prepared is only the first step, however. You can be the most prepared person ever but if you never decide to take the plunge and actually travel, what good is it? You have to make plans to travel and follow through.

If you’re the type of person that’s naturally cautious or hasn’t traveled that much, start out small and build your way up. To put it in runner’s terms, you wouldn’t go from running a couple of miles a couple of days a week to running a marathon; nor should you go from barely traveling to traveling to a remote place in another country.

I’ve traveled to many off-the-beaten-path places but I built up my comfort level over time. I didn’t go to Europe until I was 32 years old and even then it was to the popular cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome in Italy. Even though I absolutely loved Malta when I went there a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to go to the remote sections there in my 30’s. I did a typical progression for my international vacations of going to places like Italy, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and progressing to Germany, Austria, Greece, New Zealand (a long flight but easy transition for Americans), and finally visiting countries that are “harder” for Americans like Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, and Peru.

Hiking in the Canary Islands was otherworldly.

Just like most things in life, if you throw too much at yourself (or life throws it at you unexpectedly) at once, you become overwhelmed, either physically or mentally depending on what it is. But if you gradually see that you can in fact handle difficult things in life, you get better at adapting when difficult things are thrown your way. For example, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to communicate efficiently to the Spanish-only-speaking people in Chile, especially in the remote sections I was going to, but when I got there and saw time after time that I could communicate well enough to the people and understand well enough what they were saying to me, I felt more and more comfortable. Not that it was easy and not to imply I’m a very good Spanish speaker, because my Spanish is really not that great, but the point is it was good enough and that’s all that mattered.

I think if you’re traveling to another country you should have a certain level of street smarts in order to stay safe. Unless you grow up in an inner city, most people don’t learn street smarts until they’re adults. For me, I began to become street smart in college. I was told where the “bad” neighborhoods of my college town were and not to go there alone at night. I learned to look over my shoulder when I was walking by myself and pay attention to my surroundings even during the day. I took self-defense classes and was taught self-defense moves by a military guy I was dating. When I visited Washington, D.C., I learned more of what not to do and as I traveled more and more, I picked up more street smarts. It’s a difficult thing to teach someone, however, and it’s really more of a skill set you just acquire over time, except for defense moves, which I recommend everyone learn.

In the end, all of what I’m saying is this: do your research to be as prepared as you possibly can be and gradually build up your confidence level by increasing your discomfort level little by little. If you do both of these things, you should find yourself more comfortable going to places that were previously too scary to you. Because really isn’t that the bottom line for questioning everything travel-related, the unknowns scare you? While there will always be unknowns before every vacation, if you can reassure yourself that things will usually work out in the end, that should put your mind at ease and allow you to experience the vacation of a lifetime.

Have you traveled to a place that you were initially nervous about going to? Do you like to travel to off-the-beaten-path places or to places where you feel comfortable?

Happy travels!

Donna

Peacocks, Dolphins, Manatees, and So Much More In and Around Clearwater, Florida

My one and only vacation out of my home state of North Carolina during 2020 was to the St. Petersburg area of Florida, which you can read about here: A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, and here More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida. If you didn’t read the posts and don’t want to, St. Petersburg is on the western part of Florida where the Gulf of Mexico is, hence cities here are often referred to as “on the Gulf side.” Last year I primarily stayed in St. Petersburg but I knew I would be back to explore more of the area because I loved it so much here.

When I was trying to figure out where to go for my daughter’s spring break in 2021, I considered Portland, Oregon and the coast of Oregon, different islands in the Caribbean, Savannah, Georgia, and some other places but ultimately I knew Florida was the best choice given the circumstances. I knew I could get a cheap, direct flight to Tampa, Florida with Delta, who I also knew was still blocking off middle seats. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I also knew I wanted to go back to see some of the cities just north of St. Petersburg, including Clearwater and Tampa. For reference, here is a map of that part of Florida:

See where all of the blue marks are? Those are all places I labeled in my Google map that I used last year and this year. The big cluster includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Bradenton. Just north of the cluster is Crystal River.

So the plan for this year was to start off in the Clearwater area including Safety Harbor and stay a few nights, drive almost 2 hours north to Crystal River and spend one night and much of the next day, then drive south to Tampa and stay a few nights. Last year I had wanted to go to Clearwater and go to the beach there as well but there just wasn’t enough time. This year, I made it a priority and was glad I did.

Clearwater

I’ll start with Clearwater here. First I should note that there’s Clearwater the city and Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is on a barrier island with soft, white powdery sand and packed with restaurants, hotels, and shops. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where they rehabilitate injured dolphins and sea turtles is on the barrier island as well. Clearwater the city spans the entire east-to-west portion of this part of Florida, so there is the intercoastal waterway that eventually becomes the Gulf of Mexico on the west side and Old Tampa Bay on the east side. In other words, you’re never far from water views in Clearwater.

Restaurants in Clearwater

One restaurant we loved in Clearwater is Shnookums BBQ, just on the edge of Clearwater bordering Belleair. Belleair is full of mansions overlooking the water and has a tiny unmarked park called Hallett Park. I got our BBQ to go and drove the short distance to Hallett Park, where we ate dinner overlooking the water and cityscape. It was an absolutely perfect evening. If you enjoy Vietnamese food, Pho Bowl Clearwater (in an unassuming strip mall) is some of the best Vietnamese I’ve ever had.

Parks in Clearwater

Now to the part about peacocks. One afternoon, we were walking around Kapok Park and decided to walk over to Moccasin Lake Nature Park, only to find out the nature park was closed on Mondays. However, in the neighborhood beside the nature park, I spotted several peacocks in front of someone’s house. The male was in full display mode showing his feathers off and slowly walking around while several females just lounged in the front yard. I had seen peacocks before but always in parks in Hawaii and never just in front of some random person’s house.

We later went back to Moccasin Lake Nature Park on a day they were open and saw the peacocks inside the park. One peacock was sitting on top of a fence, which is when I learned they must hop the fence to go back and forth between the park and neighborhood. There were many trails with beautiful big trees and lots of shade. We walked to a pond and saw several turtles in the water. There is also an indoor area where you can touch or hold the animals they have chosen specifically for this. On the day we were there, they had two different snakes and a snapping turtle. My daughter held both of the snakes and we both got a science lesson from the very chatty and friendly worker there.

Safety Harbor

The population of Clearwater is around 115,000, which isn’t a huge city by any means but by comparison, Safety Harbor with around 17,000 people is a much smaller, quieter town. We stayed in a hotel in Safety Harbor and it was great but if you want close and easy access to a beach, I recommend staying in Clearwater instead. What you do get in Safety Harbor is a cute little downtown area with some amazing restaurants and a few waterside parks.

Restaurants in Safety Harbor

If you’re a big coffee fan like my daughter is, you’ll love Cafe Vino Tinto, a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. There is a small outdoor seating area and everything we had from breakfast burritos and biscuits to Thin Mint Lattes, Chai Tea Lattes, S’mores Lattes, and London Fogs were all delicious. The Sandwich on Main has amazing sandwiches, some made with homemade Portuguese bread. As a huge fan of real Hawaiian shave ice, imagine my excitement to discover a place that comes pretty close to what you usually can only find in Hawaii, Sno Beach. I had dragonfruit mojito and my daughter had rose shave ice, both with sweet cream over. Another restaurant that was excellent is Water Oak Grill, a seafood restaurant where my daughter had soft shell crab for the first time and loved it. My shrimp and grits were every bit as good as I’ve had in Charleston, SC, which is saying a lot because they set the bar there.

Parks in Safety Harbor

Safety Harbor may be a small town but it has several great parks, like Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, Philippe Park, Mullet Creek Park, and also not really a park but Safety Harbor Pier. Now for the part about dolphins. In the nearby town of Oldsmar is Mobbly Bayou Beach Park. We went here one morning after it had rained the night before, thinking we could possibly spend some time at the beach.

When we saw how tiny and soaked the sandy beach at Mobbly Bayou Beach Park was, we decided to just walk around. I heard a strange noise coming from the water so we went to get a closer look, just in time to see a dolphin jump out of the water. Then I saw more dolphins, all playing in the water, spinning and flipping around. In all, I counted four dolphins, which we watched with delight for several minutes before they retreated further away from us. There is a trail system at the park, so we walked around on the trails for about an hour before we headed back.

Day Trip to Tarpon Springs

Just a short 30 minute drive from Clearwater lies Tarpon Springs with its downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tarpon Springs is probably best known for its historic sponge docks and Greek influence. The city was first settled by Greek sponge divers in the early 1900’s.

My first impression was that the area was much bigger than I expected and immensely more touristy than I thought it would be. We went into Tarpon Springs Sea Sponge Factory and discovered all of the different sizes and shapes of sponges as well as soaps and other skin products. There were dozens of other shops selling sponges and soaps in addition to the usual kitschy touristy items. After a while they all seemed to blur together.

There is no shortage of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants but I knew I wanted to stop at Hella’s since it’s known to be one of the best in Tarpon Springs. It was super busy and like a mad house but I guess there’s a method to their madness because the pastries we got were crazy good. After sitting to enjoy our afternoon desserts, we decided we had had enough of Tarpon Springs and drove back to Clearwater.

A couple of things we did not do but I heard are worth checking out are: Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary, taking a cruise around the area, Safford House Museum (a restored Victorian mansion with tours), and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with stained glass and a Grecian marble altar.

Crystal River

The main reason to drive 2 hours to Crystal River was to swim with manatees but the area has some other fun activities that I’ll also go over later. Although Crystal River isn’t the only place in Florida to see manatees, it was the closest for us coming from Clearwater. Manatees are migratory animals and spend their winters from November through March in the warmer waters of Florida.

Our time in Florida was during the last week of March and first few days of April so I knew we would be at the tail-end of the migration, meaning we might not see a single manatee. I booked our snorkeling trip to swim with manatees through Bird’s Underwater (technically Famous Bird’s Underwater Manatee Dive Center) for the first trip of the day at 6:30 am, knowing we would be more likely to see manatees during the early morning hours rather than later in the day on either their 11 am or 2 pm tours. We had driven to Crystal River the day before and spent the night there so we would only be a 5 minute drive from the dive center.

We left with two groups of other people so there were 6 people on the pontoon boat plus our guide and captain besides us, but there was plenty of room for everyone to stay relatively distanced from one another. The boat ride was relatively short, which is a good thing because my daughter tends to get motion sickness, but she was fine the entire time.

Sadly, I forgot to bring my waterproof case for my camera, so here are some of the manatees we saw later at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park (note, the manatees are not fenced-in even though you can see part of a fence)

We were warned by our guide on the boat ride out that visibility had been extremely poor the past four days and in reality we might not be able to see any manatees or if so the water might be cloudy and murky. Great. However, when we got to a spot where a manatee had been seen by another tour group, we all zipped up our wet suits (that we had put on prior to boarding the boat), pulled down our snorkel masks (my daughter and I had brought our own, which given COVID seemed like an even better purchase than I realized when I bought them before the pandemic), and gently eased into the water.

The water was crystal clear! We could all easily see the gentle giant as it glided along the bottom of the Three Sisters Springs, munching on sea grass and reinforcing its nickname “sea cow.” Honestly, I could have stayed in the water watching this manatee all day. It was extremely calming and relaxing. I was glad to have the wet suit because even though the water is a constant 72 degrees and may seem warm, I was chilly at times because I was gently gliding in the water, not swimming. We all watched a video on proper and improper treatment of manatees before boarding the boat and one of the things they covered was not to swim near a manatee because you could accidentally kick it. Instead of having snorkeling fins, we all crossed our feet at our ankles, bent our knees, and using a pool noodle, used our arms and hands to gently move around.

We also saw some fish but other than manatees there wasn’t much in this part of the water, which was fine with me. We ended up spending a total of three hours with Bird’s Underwater, including getting wet suits, watching the video, snorkeling, and going to and from the springs in the boat. I was more tired than I realized when I got back into the boat and was told we had to head back to the dive shop.

Parks in and around Crystal River

After we had gone back to the hotel, showered, gotten dressed and checked out, we went to Crystal River Archaeological State Park. At the park we saw remnants of a prehistoric ceremonial center, burial mounds, and remains from the area’s earliest settlement. Admission was just a few dollars (I think $3) that I left in an envelope at a stand in the parking lot. Crystal River Preserve State Park is right beside the archaeological park, but we didn’t go there.

Just about 20 minutes south of Crystal River in Homosassa is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We picked up sandwiches from a grocery store and ate lunch in the park overlooking the crystal clear water, but there is a cafe onsite where you can buy sandwiches and other snacks and drinks. This park has several rescued animals such as flamingos, bald eagles, a 61-year-old hippo that we saw pooping in the water (much to the delight of the young boys near us), a black bear, foxes, alligators, and manatees.

The manatees at this park have free-range to swim in the spring or make their way to a river that feeds into Homosassa Bay and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a rehabilitation center just for manatees if they are sick or injured. I’ve been to many different zoos, aquariums, and other places where they have rescued animals but this was one of the coolest.

After we left Homosassa Springs, I drove back down to Tampa which took about an hour and a half. I think I’ll end here and pick up on another post solely on Tampa, since it deserves a post of its’ own.

Have you been to Clearwater or this part of Florida? Have you swam with manatees? Ever wanted to? Please share!

Happy travels,

Donna

My Whitewater Rafting Story and Things to Consider Before You Go

Growing up in southern West Virginia, I had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting a handful of times when I was in high school. The first time I went, I was absolutely terrified but I was with a reputable tour company and everything went smoothly. By the end of the day, I was converted. I ended up loving it so much I went again the following summer and again after that a couple of times over the years.

In southern West Virginia, you have several options when it comes to whitewater rafting. You can either go rafting down the New River or the Gauley River. In general, the New River is a bit tamer while the Gauley is the most extreme and has the most technical rapids. To break it down even further, there’s the Upper New River, Lower New River, Upper Gauley River, and Lower Gauley River. The Upper New has class I-III rapids and you only have to be 5 years old to participate. The Lower New has class III-V rapids and you need to be 10 years old or at least 90 lbs. The Gauley River is dam-released and you can only go whitewater rafting here in the Fall. The Lower Gauley has class III-IV rapids and you have to be at least 12 years old. The Upper Gauley is the most extreme of all with class III-V rapids and you have to be at least 16 years old.

After I got my bachelor’s degree at West Virginia University, I moved to Tennessee to go to graduate school. One summer while I was there, my boyfriend and I decided to go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. I had been down the New River in West Virginia several times by this point, with rapids up to class V. If you don’t know anything about the ratings for whitewater rapids, the scale goes from I to VI, with the latter being the most extreme in the world. As far as I’m aware, commercial rafting trips will only take customers up to class V rapids. However, the class rating is only part of the story. For example, there is a rapid called “Mickey’s” in the Ocoee River in in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee that’s class IV but has a part where your options are going down a 5-foot ledge drop into a deep hole or a rocky descent down a 4-foot ledge. Many people have died here, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Anyway, we decided to go whitewater rafting and by this point I felt fairly confident in my ability since I had been multiple times by now. The rafting company we made reservations with had several people that were going out rafting that day, and they divided us into three groups on three different rafts. We all had life jackets and helmets, watched the safety video, and got the run-down in person by one of the guides when we were getting ready to get into the rafts.

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Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

The raft I was in happened to be the “lead” raft that day, with the other two rafts following behind us. It was a beautiful summer day, with the temperature warm but not excessively hot. The water felt nice when we hit our first rapid, a fairly easy one to get us warmed-up. The guide told us at the beginning that no matter what, we should always keep our paddle in the water and hold on tight to it, as it could be used as a flotation device if need be. There were some rapids that we went through where my paddle wasn’t even touching the water because the raft was so high into the air and above the water, at least the part where I was sitting.

Everything was going along swimmingly, that is until our raft got hung up on a rock in an area where there was a rapid. We couldn’t move forward and we couldn’t go backward, despite all of us in the raft trying to paddle furiously and our guide trying to move us along. Then, all of a sudden a gush of water swept into the raft and pulled me out of the raft into the river. Everyone else remained in the raft still stuck on that huge rock except me.

Because of the rapids, I was pushed further and further down the river. I would get sucked under the water, then thanks to my life jacket, I would pop back up so I could take a quick breath. It was like I was in a pinball machine, getting bounced along from one rock to another but somehow I kept holding on for dear life to my paddle. I was furiously looking for something, anything to grab but there was nothing. I tried to swim to get out of the rapid but the water was too powerful. It was as if I was a rag doll getting tossed around the river. After a while of this going on, I thought I was going to die right then and there on the river.

Then all of a sudden I saw a rock covered with moss sticking just a bit out of the water and I grabbed onto the moss and held on for dear life (literally). By some miracle, I was able to hold onto the moss while the river rushed over me, pushing and prodding my lower body. Someone in a kayak yelled out to me to hold on and said he was going to throw me a rope. I yelled out that my legs were giving out and at that very second, the water pushed me away, sending me even further down the river.

I was able to grab the rope, though, and the man in the kayak pulled me safely to shore. We waited for my raft to catch up to us and I was told to get back into the raft to finish out the trip. In hindsight, I should have insisted that someone from their company pick me up in a bus right there, but like a little lamb, I got back into the raft and finished out the trip down the river. It was like I was in shock for the rest of that time because I don’t remember any of it. They later told me I went down a quarter of a mile down the river by myself before the kayaker could catch up to me. I also later found out that the river was abnormally low that day we went rafting and that’s why our raft got stuck on the rock (and we kept getting stuck on other rocks that day). In fact, the water was so low that we shouldn’t have gone out that day, but the rafting company took us out anyway.

Bruised from my hips down to my toes but otherwise OK, I was shaken mentally more than physically. Honestly, I’m lucky I didn’t break something or drown. At the time I told everyone that I would definitely go whitewater rafting again; however, once my brain and my senses came back to me, I decided perhaps I really didn’t want to chance going through that again. I was pretty sure my whitewater rafting days were over. In more recent years I’ve thought about going whitewater rafting down the Snake River but when that opportunity came up in Wyoming, I chose to go down a calm portion of the Snake River and skip the part with the rapids.

My previous rafting trips in West Virginia show that things can go smoothly and not every experience is like mine was in Tennessee. A time or two when I was whitewater rafting in West Virginia, someone in my raft or another raft with our group got sucked out of the raft, but a guide was able to grab them right away and pull them back in or the person was able to pull themselves back into the raft quickly. They were fine and no one thought anything of it. Still, bad things can and do happen when people are whitewater rafting. People die going whitewater rafting all over the world all the time.

So what can you do to help ensure you’re not one of the those unlucky people? You can do your due diligence and check out the company you’re thinking of going rafting with in advance. You can also check the river where you’ll be rafting to see if there’s a history of people dying there when rafting. Your company should make sure everyone wears a life jacket and a helmet. If they don’t, find another company. Finally, you can check the river conditions that day and make sure the water isn’t abnormally low or high. If your gut instinct is screaming at you not to go, listen to it and don’t go.

Whitewater rafting can be an exhilarating experience or a terrifying one. If all goes as it should, you should be pumped up on adrenaline because you’re having so much fun. Most of all, you should feel like your guide and the company you’re trusting your life with will protect you and watch out for your best interests, not just trying to line their pockets.

Have you been whitewater rafting? Do you want to go? If so, where?

Happy travels!

Donna

Fun in the Sun in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

I’ve been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina many times. My first time was with my mother and brother when my brother and I were both teenagers. Since then I’ve been all up and down the Outer Banks, which stretches from Corolla in the northern tip, down to Kill Devil Hills/Kitty Hawk/Nags Head in the middle, and Hatteras and Ocracoke in the southern portion. At one point or another in my life, I’ve been to every portion of this series of barrier islands.

This summer I had a trip planned to Kitty Hawk after winning a story contest with the prize being two free nights at a hotel on the beach in Kitty Hawk. Even with the pandemic in full force in North Carolina, we were able to have a great time and relax a bit. Everyone we saw in public was wearing a mask, there was hand sanitizer everywhere we went such as at our hotel, shops, and restaurants, and the beaches are wide and long enough it was easy to socially distance from other people.

Like I said, this wasn’t my first time to the area but it was my daughter’s first time to this particular part of the Outer Banks. I wanted her to see the Wright Brothers Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge State Park in particular. I also wanted to take her to some of the locally owned restaurants and little beach shops. Most of all, I wanted to allow her to have a nice, quiet, relaxing weekend and have some fun before all of the stress of high school started.

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My daughter’s first time in the Outer Banks (l) and 2020 Outer Banks vacation (r)

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a fun place to spend an hour or two, more if you want to try hang gliding. It’s the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast and covers 426 acres. You can go sand boarding, fly a kite, watch the sunset, go hang gliding, or just walk along the dunes. There are three very short trails, one of which has brochures at the trailhead. Most people just wander around and end up watching the people trying their hand at hang gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites, the only company that offers hang gliding lessons on the dunes.

Every time when I’ve been to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, I’ve just walked around taking in the views. It’s always been quiet and serene and the dunes are large enough that even if there are several other people there, it can feel like there’s hardly anyone else but you. The dunes seem like they go on forever but it is fairly easy to reach the point where you see the end where they meet the ocean. You can get great views of the surrounding area from this vantage.

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Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Wright Brothers National Memorial

The Wright Brothers National Memorial is impressive whether it’s your first or fifth visit. If you’re not familiar with the history behind the memorial, Wilbur and Orville Wright forever changed the world with the first successful powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The two brothers lived in Ohio but chose this area of North Carolina to test out some theories about flight they had beginning in 1900.

This is another place in the Outer Banks where you can spend an hour or two just walking around. For some reason, the memorial seemed even bigger to me this visit. There is a great visitor center that serves as a museum that’s full of historical information and photos but it was closed due to the pandemic. You can check out the First Flight Boulder and the Flight Line with boulders that mark the first flights on December 17, 1903. It’s funny to see the first three boulders clustered together and then the fourth boulder noticeably further from the previous boulders. I can imagine the Wright brothers’ excitement when they were able to fly to that fourth boulder.

There is also an area with reconstructed 1903 Camp Buildings where the Wright brothers lived and worked during the summers of the three years they spent there. After their successful flights in 1903, they returned in subsequent years but abandoned the camp site in 1911. Now you can see a reconstructed hangar and living quarters of the brothers. While I was checking it out, a park ranger pointed to the bunks at the top part of the living quarter and said the brothers were so excited when they figured out how much more comfortable it was to sleep in the top part of the wood cabin than on the ground. I didn’t think to ask why until later so I’m not sure if it was simply a softer place to sleep or an escape from the inevitable ants and other bugs on the ground.

As always, the National Park Services website for the Wright Brothers National Memorial is full of information for planning a visit or if you’re just interested in the history, which you can find the link for here.

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What about the beaches?

If you do a  Google search to ask what are the best beaches in the Outer Banks, it’s likely Kitty Hawk will come up as one of the best. Honestly, I don’t see much of a difference in the beaches whether you’re in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Nags Head. The sand is consistently the same golden color and the beaches are wide and long in all three areas. There are some pretty decent waves, though nothing like you see in the Pacific Ocean. Nags Head does have Jennette’s Pier, the longest public pier in North Carolina, which sets it apart from the other nearby beaches.

Since the Outer Banks consists of more than just Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head, I should also mention a few of the other beaches in the Outer Banks. From Rodanthe southward including Avon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke there are unincorporated communities and villages most with only a few hundred residents. This area is quiet and not full of chain restaurants or hotels so if you like to really get away from it all, this is a great area for that. Just north of Kitty Hawk, you’ll come to Southern Shores, Duck, and much further north is Corolla, where the wild horses are.

My daughter’s first trip to the beach was to Duck, North Carolina, as shown in the first photo above. Duck is known to be one of the most dog-friendly beaches in the Outer Banks, but that wasn’t why we chose that area. Honestly, a co-worker of mine had a condo there and was renting it out at a good price so we decided to check out that area since we hadn’t been that far north. It seems to be a bit more expensive than Nags Head and the surrounding cities and caters more to the upper middle-class and upper class. However, the beaches are pretty much like what you see as you go south along the Outer Banks, just quieter.

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A word about the food

The Outer Banks is full of seafood restaurants, as you can imagine, some are over-the-top cheesy and touristy, like Dirty Dick’s Crab House (a chain restaurant), plus plenty of chain restaurants specializing in fried seafood, but there are also plenty of locally-owned BBQ restaurants like High Cotton and Pigman’s. We stumbled upon a wonderful small Italian restaurant, Josephine’s Sicilian Kitchen after an Asian fusion restaurant we had plans to eat at turned out to be closed, even though their website said they were open (no doubt COVID-related). So you see you can find much more than just seafood restaurants if you do just a little looking around (not that I don’t enjoy seafood, it’s just good to have options).

We also discovered the closest thing we’ve been able to find to true Hawaiian shave ice at Booty Treats Ice Cream and Shave Ice. I had a coconut shave ice with cookie dough melt-in ice cream sprinkled on top and my daughter had banana shave ice with chocolate melt-ins and we both loved our choices. Another of our favorite ice cream shops is Kill Devil’s Frozen Custard and Beach Fries. I had been here before a long time ago and it was still as good as I remembered. They have a huge selection of sundaes, malts, floats, milkshakes, hurricanes, but also have some pretty good sandwiches and are well-known for their fries so come with a big appetite!

Accomodations and Day Trips

There are plenty of options of where to stay, depending on if you’re coming by yourself, with a friend, family, or group of friends or family. You can find by far the biggest selection of places to stay in the middle part of the Outer Banks- Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk. This goes for hotels, Airbnb properties, and house rentals. Likewise, you can find the biggest range in prices of accommodations in the middle part. Because there are fewer options in the northern and southern sections, the prices tend to be higher in general.

There’s not much reason to get too hung-up on where you choose to stay because you can also easily drive from the southern portion of the Outer Banks to the northern portion in a day. Say you decided to drive from the Hatteras Lighthouse to Corolla to check out the wild ponies. It would take about 2 hours each way, notwithstanding traffic along the way. Still, that would be a pretty fun way to spend a day. Another option is to drive to Roanoke Island, which has historical sites and the North Carolina Aquarium. Say you were staying in Duck and drove to Roanoke Island for the day, that’s only a 45 minute drive each way. The point is, if you’re going to be in the Outer Banks for at least a few days, it’s easy to check out more than just the city you’re staying in, and there’s so much to see in this area, I encourage you to do so.

Have you been to the Outer Banks? If so, where did you go and what did you do? Is this a place you’ve wanted to visit but haven’t made it there yet?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 





Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux

Even though I’m sure I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park at least once if not twice before my recent trip, I honestly didn’t remember any part of it. Nothing looked familiar, none of the trail names sounded familiar, and no parts of it seemed vaguely familiar to me. Granted, my first visit would have been roughly 22 years ago and the other visit around 19 years ago, but still, I would have thought I would have remembered at least some of it. Then again, the first time I was with a friend of mine in high school and her family so I would have just been driven around by her parents, totally clueless about my whereabouts. The second time would have been a quick trip so I’m sure I didn’t spend much time in the area and certainly wouldn’t have had time to do as much hiking as I did this time.

I feel like I really didn’t give the park enough justice before when I was there but this time, I thoroughly got some hiking miles in and saw at least a big chunk of the park. That being said, Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers over 500,000 acres divided between Tennessee and North Carolina (so maybe just a little chunk of it). It is the most visited national park by far, with more than double the number of visitors at the second most visited park, the Grand Canyon. The elevation ranges from 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome; sixteen mountain peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.

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Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’m primarily going to go over the trails we hiked since that’s the vast majority of how we spent our time at the park. We spent five full days plus a partial day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and went to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on our first day. This was a good place to start because you can get a feel for the history in the park. Many years ago, log buildings were gathered from various places in the Smoky Mountains and preserved at places like this visitor center. We saw a historical house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, smokehouse, and blacksmith shop. The Oconaluftee River Trail is easy and short at 1.5 miles from the museum entrance. We were also excited to see an elk by the visitor center as we were leaving.

We also visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, on our second day. There’s a short and easy trail to Cataract Falls, but I felt like the waterfall was pretty small and disappointing (good thing it wasn’t a long, strenuous hike). One of the more popular trails we hiked is the Alum Cave Trail, a moderate hike of 4.5 miles. On this trail we saw Arch Rock and Alum Cave. After a quick lunch of sandwiches we had previously bought that morning, we hiked Chimney Tops Trail. This was listed as moderate and is only 3 miles, but it’s extremely steep with only a few switchbacks so it felt like we were climbing straight up the mountain. We saw plenty of rhododendron and wildflowers but not a whole lot else.

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Highlights from Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Trails

On our third day, we did the Roaring Fork Auto Tour. For this, you turn onto Historic Nature Trail, which merges with Cherokee Orchard Road. Our first stop was the Noah “Bud” Ogle Place, a historic house. There was a short nature trail behind the house that we took but somehow we ended up on a much longer trail, the Gatlinburg Trail, which we hadn’t planned on hiking and we ended up having to get back to the main road and walk back that way rather than backtracking, which would have taken much longer.

Next stop on the Roaring Fork Auto Tour was Rainbow Falls Trail. This trail is 2.8 miles each way, if you can actually find parking close to the trailhead, which we couldn’t, so we ended up hiking more like 6.5 miles total. There is a much smaller falls area just before (maybe 0.5 miles) you get to the actual Rainbow Falls. Don’t make the mistake of stopping at the first waterfall, as we almost did, but keep going until you see a massive waterfall.

After another quick lunch of previously purchased sandwiches, our next stop was the Trillium Gap Trail, also known as Grotto Falls Trail. This hike was pretty easy compared to the others in the area and is 1.3 miles each way. The waterfall was one of the best we had seen so far and absolutely worth the hike. We also saw a bear! It was slowly lumbering around the long line of cars, not paying any attention to any of the people. We were walking to our car when we saw it and it was far enough away from us that I wasn’t scared. That would come later during our second bear encounter.

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Sights seen along the Roaring Fork Auto Tour

There were historical sites next on the drive but we only stopped at Ephraim Bales Place. By now most of the historical sites seemed the same- small two-room log cabins, completely empty, with low ceilings and maybe one window (to save money on wood and windows). We probably would have stopped at the most “modern” of the historical sites on the drive, Alfred Reagan Place, but there were only three parking spaces and they were all occupied, so we skipped it.

The final stop on the drive is at Place of a Thousand Drips. This is a unique waterfall, as the flow of water splits into numerous channels, cascading around rocks and “creating a thousand drips.” There were several people climbing around the waterfall and of course my teenage daughter wanted to climb up. I chose to watch from the bottom and was glad for my decision when I saw so many people slipping and/or falling (my daughter was fine and never fell but said it was extremely slippery coming back down).

On our fourth day, we hiked Laurel Falls Trail, the most popular hike in GSMNP. It’s one of the few longish paved trails in the park, at 2.6 miles roundtrip. It’s an easy hike and the payoff is big, with a 25-foot waterfall that seems even bigger than that, after just 1.3 miles of easy walking. After lunch (yes, you guessed it, sandwiches we had previously purchased) we drove to Jakes Creek Trail, near the village of Elkmont in a historic district referred to as “Daisy Town.” The Little River Lumber Company logged the area into the mid-1920’s. Adjacent Daisy Town was an escape for the elite people of Knoxville. Currently, the park is restoring 19 of the former 74 homes. You can walk through some of the former homes, which we did before starting out on the trail. Jakes Creek Trail is 3.7 miles each way and runs along Jake’s Creek for a huge portion of the trail, giving plenty of water views and the sound of water flowing all around you as you hike. There was hardly anyone else on the trail, so it was quiet and peaceful.

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Jakes Creek and Laurel Falls Trail Highlights

Our last full day in the park was the most exciting, as you will see. The longest single hike for us was Ramsey Cascades Trail, at 8 miles long. We expected to have bathrooms at the trailhead, as was common at many other trailheads in the park, but alas there were none, and the tea we had at breakfast was running right through us. Maybe a mile into our hike, I found a huge boulder not far off the trail and told my daughter to go first while I waited for her, then I went to use the bathroom. As I was walking back around the boulder, my daughter said in an extremely calm voice, “Momma, there’s a bear.” Sure enough, there was a bear standing right in front of me maybe 4 feet away. My daughter started slowly walking away from the bear, going further up the trail. The bear looked at me, made a grunting sound, clawed at the tree in front of it, then slowly started walking away in the opposite direction from us. I slowly backed away and we continued on our way up the trail.

I kept checking to make sure the bear wasn’t following us, but it didn’t appear to be. When we passed people going the opposite direction from us, we were told a couple of times that they had seen a bear, but we never saw another bear on that trail. Finally after 4 miles, we reached the waterfall, which was an impressive one, at 100 feet tall. The trail was pretty intense towards the falls, with slippery rocks that we had to scramble over, but most of the trail was fairly easy, with gradual climbs. When we reached our car, we decided to dip our feet in the ice-cold water and it was so refreshing!

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Ramsey Cascades Trail (nope, no bear pics this time! We just wanted to get away!)

There are of course many more trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but those are the ones we chose to do. Some came recommended by the hotel staff where we stayed and others were ones I had researched on my own that sounded interesting. You can also easily just drive around the park, park at overlooks, and take in the views that way if you’re not really into hiking. I believe that’s what we must have done the first time I went with my friend and her family, as best as I can remember, but you obviously don’t get as much of a real feel for a place when you see it that way.

For information on camping, pets, history, wildlife, and all the information you could possibly want or need to plan a trip there, check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website by the National Parks Service.

Have you been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? If so, did you hike when you were there? Any amazing trails I missed that you recommend? Did you see one (or two) of the estimated 1600 bears in the area?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

South Dakota- Memorials, National and State Parks, and Wild West

I realized the other night there’s something I need to fix here. I woke up from a dead sleep with the thought that I have done a disservice to South Dakota. I ran a half marathon there a few years ago and it was my 34th state as part of my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. You can read all about the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon here. However, I only recently realized I never wrote up a proper blog on all of the things to do in South Dakota. Now I will fix that.

On my journey to run a half marathon in all 50 states, I visited North Dakota first. No offense if you live in North Dakota, but I didn’t care much for Bismarck and the surrounding areas when I was there. It all seemed drab, uninteresting, and everyone there that we talked to kept talking about how much they dreaded winter coming even though it was only September. Maybe there are “better” parts of North Dakota, but this was my experience.

When it came time to plan my race and vacation afterwards (or “racecation”) for South Dakota, I expected the area to be similar to North Dakota since they are adjoining states. I couldn’t have been more wrong. South Dakota seemed like a complete 180 degree difference from North Dakota to me. There’s only one national park in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about a 2 hour drive from Bismarck, plus two national historic sites. However, there are two national parks plus four service sites in South Dakota:  Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Missouri National Recreational River, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park. That’s just the national parks and sites, too; there’s also the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and some fun wild-west towns.

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Badlands National Park

If you want to choose one place as your home base and take day trips to see as many of these places as possible, Rapid City is a good choice. There are a multitude of hotels and restaurants and you won’t have to do hours on end of driving in a day. 37 miles (about a 45 minute drive) from Rapid City is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore. There’s a restaurant on the grounds, gift shop, museum, cultural center, and more that you can read about on their website here.

After leaving the Crazy Horse Memorial, drive 16 miles to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. There is free admission to Mount Rushmore but you will have to pay parking fees. Carvers’ Cafe is the only dining facility in the park and it serves food typical in a US national park (sandwiches, burgers, salads, soups, chicken meals, desserts, and drinks). I also recommend visiting the Lincoln Borglum Museum at the memorial. One special activity is park ranger talks that accompany the sculpture illumination every year starting the Friday before Memorial Day. Although the park ranger talks stop mid-September, the sculpture is illuminated after sunset all year.  

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Mount Rushmore

For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend getting there early to make in-person reservations for a tour ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. You can only make online reservations for large groups and some tours sell out by 11 am. Surprisingly, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the busiest days so you actually might encounter smaller crowds on weekends. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences. It’s also a good idea to bring a sweater even in the summer because Jewel Cave is a constant 40 degrees F year-round.

Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota and is definitely worth a full day. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.

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Custer State Park

About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore. The only lodging and restaurant in the park is Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant.

If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of walking tours. Some people might think of the area as touristy and even cheesy but I found the museums interesting and worth checking out to learn more about the history of the area.

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Learning about panning for gold

This is just a sampling of some places to visit and things to do in the western region of South Dakota. There’s also Bear Butte State Park in Sturgis, Roughlock Falls Nature Area in Lead, George S. Mickelson Trail in Lead, and Fort Meade Recreation Area in Sturgis for some other great outdoor places to visit. Amazingly, this is all just one section of South Dakota. There are also dozens of other state parks, recreation areas, forests, and nature areas in the central, northeast, and southeast regions of South Dakota, which you can find on this comprehensive website.

Have you been to South Dakota? If so, are there places you visited that I left off here?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Long Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina- An Unexpected Surprise

Once things started opening back up during the COVID-19 crisis and it became clear that South Carolina was a safe choice to visit, I wanted to plan a road trip from North Carolina for a long weekend getaway. I’ve been to Charleston, South Carolina and all along the coast many times but I hadn’t been to many places inland. I had heard good things about Greenville so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do some exploring.

Greenville, South Carolina is on the northwestern corner of the state, about an hour from Asheville, North Carolina or 2 1/2 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s only the sixth- largest city in the state with almost 71,000 people, but there is plenty to do especially for a city of its size.

I knew we wanted to do as much hiking as possible, because that’s what we enjoy doing on vacation. On our first day, I knew we wouldn’t have much time for hiking, though, so a visit to Lake Conestee Nature Preserve was perfect. The Preserve is 400 acres on the Reedy River 6 miles south of downtown Greenville. There are both an evergreen forest and hardwood forest, wetlands, and wildlife from deer, raccoon, beaver, fox, river otter, and hundreds of bird species. Unfortunately, only paved trails were open due to the pandemic, but we were still able to spend a couple of hours walking around in the peaceful setting.

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Lake Conestee Nature Preserve

We arranged to spend the entire next day at Paris Mountain State Park, which is about 20 minutes from downtown Greenville. There is an admission fee for entry of $6 for adults and $3.50 for children. Tent or RV camp sites are available and there is a designated swimming area. However, we were there for the trails and there are 15 miles of hiking trails in the park.

We decided to hike the Sulphur Springs Trail first. It’s 3.6 miles and is labeled strenuous. There are several steep sections, deep ravines and running streams lined with mountain laurel and rhododendron. We saw a few waterfalls and came to a large dam. Since we like to pick up lunch at a grocery store and eat along the trails when we hike, this saved us time of not having to leave the park for lunch and re-enter, plus we had a nice view while we ate. Before the day was over, we also hiked several other trails including Lake Placid Trail, Mountain Creek Trail, and Turtle Trail. You can find all of the information on trails in the park here.

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Our third day was reserved for the Falls Park on the Reedy area. My daughter and I ran along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, an incredible greenway system consisting of 22 miles of paved trails along the Reedy River on a historic rail bed. We absolutely loved running here- there were trees and flowers everywhere and so many choices of directions to run (or biking is also a popular option). This was my unexpected surprise; I knew we would spend some time on the Swamp Rabbit Trail but I had no idea it’s as extensive as it is nor as absolutely beautiful as it is.

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The Swamp Rabbit Trail (just a tiny fraction of it)

After a 6 mile run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, we met back up with my husband and the three of us went to breakfast at a unique and tasty place, Coffee Underground. With our bellies filled, we walked around Falls Park on the Reedy and explored around there. You can hear the rushing falls as you walk around the numerous gardens and over Liberty Bridge, a suspension bridge built as a work of art.

Shops and restaurants are all within walking distance of the falls. There are no shortage of art galleries and one of our favorites is Open Art Studios, where we bought a small painting. They have a diverse collection of art at affordable prices. In fact, we enjoyed the Falls Park on the Reedy area so much we decided to go back on our fourth and final day in Greenville. On that return trip, we came upon a small arboretum and more gardens we hadn’t seen before. We also had a filling breakfast at Maple Street Biscuit Company, which is near the falls.

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Falls Park on the Reedy

A final place I’d like to mention is The Commons, a 12,000 square-foot food hall with open dining, outdoor seating, and is right by the Swamp Rabbit Trail. For food, you can choose from Automatic Taco, Bake Room, The Community Tap, GB & D (Golden Brown & Delicioius), and Methodical Coffee. We picked up some freshly baked goods from Bake Room, some beers from The Community Tap, and a kombucha from GB & D and sat outside with our dogs and enjoyed the beautiful day. There are also a couple of shops, Carolina Triathlon for people who like to run, bike, and/or swim and Billiam, a custom-designed denim shop.

Greenville, South Carolina may not be a top vacation spot for many people but I found it to be even better than I expected. It’s a place I highly recommend spending a long weekend in if you’re ever in the general area and are up for a road trip. Greenville has so many different places to hike, bike, run, walk, eat, and shop, I feel it has something for everyone.

Have you been to Greenville, South Carolina? Never heard of it but are intrigued?

Happy travels!

Donna