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.
What do you think of when you think of Nebraska? Farmland? Prairie land? Corn fields? Something else? Never really thought about it? Omaha, Nebraska and in fact the state of Nebraska isn’t exactly one of the most-visited areas of the United States. For those of you that don’t know, I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states and I recently ran the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Omaha, Nebraska. Nebraska was my 47th state and I was happy I had chosen a race in Omaha for my race in Nebraska. The city surpassed all of my expectations.
I read in a book (Judgmental Maps) in a bookstore in Omaha that Omaha is the “least Nebraska-like city in Nebraska.” I’ve only been to Omaha, so I can’t speak about the other cities in Nebraska. All I know is I really liked Omaha and was constantly surprised at just how much I liked it. There are so many restaurants with delicious food, all kinds of museums, and outdoor activities like a top-notch botanical garden for starters. It’s easy to quickly fill-up your days here. Omaha certainly gets a bad rap by people who have never been here, unjustly so in my opinion.
Just some fun facts before I go on. Omaha is on the Missouri River and is the largest city in Nebraska. The headquarters for five Fortune 500 companies are in Omaha including well-known Berkshire Hathaway. CEO multi-billionaire for Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffet calls Omaha his home at least part of the year. The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha is known for having the largest indoor rainforest in the world. The NCAA College World Series has been held in the city of Omaha for more than fifty years till present date.
So before I went to Omaha, I chatted with a local to get some suggestions for places to eat and things to do. He sent me a long list, way more than I could ever do in the few days I was going to be there but it was good because I had plenty of options. I’ll share here some of the things my family and I did and also some of the things that came recommended but we didn’t do. I realize Omaha, Nebraska isn’t at the top of most people’s list of vacation places, but honestly, I would go back if given the opportunity. There are several things we didn’t have time to do that I would enjoy doing. Who knows when you might find yourself in Omaha, Nebraska, and when that happens, you’ll have a long list of places to choose from!
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a botanical garden, Lauritzen Gardens. I would imagine the gardens are especially beautiful in the spring and fall but thanks to a conservatory, you can even visit the gardens in the dead of winter, if you choose to do so. The gardens are on 100 acres and include several diverse areas like an English Perennial Border, Rose Garden, Tree Peony Garden, Woodland Trail, and one of my favorites, the Model Railroad Garden. A Japanese Garden is currently being constructed. There are even different types of garden areas within the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory. I also loved the sculptures and art work within the gardens.
Also mentioned earlier is Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. This zoo has the world’s largest indoor desert under the world’s largest geodesic dome, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit, and North America’s largest indoor rainforest complete with waterfalls. In addition to all of those area, there’s the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Hubbard Orangutan Forest, Cat Complex, Butterfly and Insect Pavillion, Expedition Madagascar, African Grasslands, Asian Highlands, to name some. Owen Coastal Shores, a one-acre new home for sea lions with a $275,000-gallon pool, will be opening in spring 2020. There’s also a train, tram, skyfari, and carousel if all of that wasn’t enough. You can find ticket prices, hours, location and much more information on their website, Omaha Zoo. One good thing to know is prices vary based on season, so they’re cheaper in the winter and fall than the summer. Another plus, outside food and beverages are allowed.
The Fontenelle Forest Nature Center including the Raptor Woodland Refuge is just a short drive (10-15 minutes) from Omaha, although it’s in the nearby city of Bellevue. This is a great place to walk on trails in Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods with a wide variety of ecosystems from wetlands to oak savanna to prairie to deciduous forest. For those wanting more adventure, there’s Treerush Adventure Park with zip lines, bridges, and swings. Fontenelle Forest invests heavily in conservation efforts in activities like habitat restoration and erosion control and volunteer opportunities.
The Old Market is known as Omaha’s arts and entertainment district. There’s so much here you might want to find out what’s here first before you go or you could be wandering around aimlessly for quite some time. Here’s where you can find information on everything to do, eat, and shop plus hotels and business services: Old Market. I found the area architecturally-pleasing and enjoyed checking out some of the cool buildings. There are several art galleries along with all of the pubs, coffee shops, and so many restaurants. Two of our favorite restaurants here are M’s Pub and Upstream Brewing Company. For a stroll down memory lane, The Imaginarium is absolutely stuffed with all of the dolls, collectibles, games, and about a million other toys that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. No joke, I even got lost wandering around in this store and had to go back out and come in again to find my family.
If you like art museums, Joslyn Art Museum is a great one and even better, admission is free. The museum is divided into distinct sections including one for special exhibitions, American Art, American Indian Art, Asian Art, Modern and Comtemporary, just to name some. One of my favorite sections was the Asian Art area but I really enjoyed the other sections as well. There are also sculpture gardens outdoors and the Discovery Garden, an interactive outdoor space. For small children, there is an interactive hands-on experience, Art Works, with nine activity stations.
The Durham Museum is a history museum in one of the coolest spaces I’ve seen for a history museum, Union Station. When you walk in, you’re surrounded by the massive former train station complete with bronze statues made to look like former train passengers and workers and interactive displays. There’s also a gift shop and soda fountain where you can order drinks like an old fashioned phosphate (I had to ask what that was because I had no idea), milkshakes, sundaes, ice cream sodas, malts, sandwiches, and other snacks. Most of the museum is actually downstairs, where you can find many different exhibits like the original Buffett Grocery Store that opened in 1915 in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood, replicas of a former home, teepee, and a collection of things like coins, maps, and documents of historical significance. One of my favorite things we did there was walk through a train car that was decorated for Halloween, complete with skeletons, lights, plenty of spiders and spider webs, and other fun decorations.
Also in the Durham Museum when I was there were also two temporary exhibits, Louder Than Words: Rock, Power & Politics that has interactive displays, photography and artifacts to look at how music has both shaped and reflected our society on things like civil rights, LGBTQ, feminism, war, censorship, political campaigns, political causes and international politics. I liked checking out which musician or band was singled out and associated with each president, from Eisenhower through Trump and reading about the influence they each had on one another. My family and I had already seen the second current exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? so we didn’t spend much time checking that one out but it’s a good one as well. This exhibit encourages visitors to examine race from the perspective of biology, history, and personal experiences.
About 35-45 minutes from downtown Omaha in Ashland is the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. If you’ve been to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. and enjoyed the section there with aircraft, you will likely enjoy this museum. It’s an affiliate with Smithsonian and home to the U.S.’s largest collection of Cold War aircraft and artifacts. There’s a flight simulator, children’s learning center, and enormous collection of aircraft in 300,000 square feet.
For something a little different, there’s the Czech and Slovak Educational Center and Cultural Museum. According to this website Nebraska has “the largest number of Czech farmers of the first generation (born in Europe), or one-fifth of all who live in the United States.” At the museum, you can find a cafe with traditional kolaches, a gift shop, monthly movie night and conversational Czech language gatherings.
The Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters has local history and also offers free admission. Here you can learn about the migration of Mormons from Illinois to Utah. Winter Quarters is just one of 90 temporary settlements utilized by the Mormons along the Missouri River in Nebraska and Iowa. Although this was meant as a short-term home, many people established businesses here and published a newspaper. You can see many artifacts, paintings, photographs, and play around with an interactive map.
My daughter is way too old for children’s museums but had we gone to Omaha when she was younger, we definitely would have visited the Omaha Children’s Museum because it looks like a really fun place for young children. There’s a Super Gravitron ball machine, Zealand, Imagination Playground, a science and technology lab, art studios, a grocery store, car repair center, splash garden, carousel and train, plus more. In addition to permanent displays there are special exhibits and special events.
In addition to the ones in Old Market that I talked about earlier, we also went to Spezia’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant with a brunch on Sunday. I could eat to my heart’s content after the race, so it was wonderful! There were so many delicious options to choose from from healthy options like salads, fruits, and vegetables to pastas and deserts and many things in-between.
Some of the many restaurants that came recommended but we just didn’t have time to go to include: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, and the Drover all for their steaks and meats; Benson Brewery and Zipline Brewery; Hook and Lime, a Taqueria and Tequila bar; Lo Solo Mio and Spaghetti Works for Italian; Oasis Falafel for Mediterranean food; eCreamery, Coneflower Creamery, and Ted and Wally’s for ice cream; Cupcake Omaha, Olsen Bake Shop, and Petit’s Pastry for bakeries.
Now are you convinced that Omaha, Nebraska is a pretty cool city with tons of things to do and really great restaurants? Of course this just scratches the surface of the highlights, too!
Have you been to Omaha, Nebraska? If so, what did you think of it? What did you see and do?
The end of September is when fall foliage starts to appear in the eastern states in the US, beginning in the more northern states and moving down south as time passes. If you can plan a visit to the New England states for the upcoming weeks, you should be able to see some of the colorful leaves before they fall off the trees for the winter. As you might imagine, some places fill up quickly in the autumn months, so make your plans now while there’s still time.
Growing up in West Virginia, I always loved when the trees turned from green to wonderful shades of yellow, red, and orange, but on the flip side, I somewhat dreaded it because that meant winter was coming. Nonetheless, regardless about how I feel about winter, West Virginia is a perfect place to enjoy the fall foliage. Many people flock to Bridge Day, which is West Virginia’s largest festival held on one day and one of the largest extreme sports events in the world. Bridge day is held every year on the third Saturday in October on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County, coinciding with peak fall foliage in the area. Thousands of people come to this festival to watch as BASE jumpers from around the world jump off the bridge and rappellers go up and down the catwalk. There’s also plenty of things for spectators to do including run a 5k starting on the bridge and ending in Fayetteville. This is just one of many areas in West Virginia you can visit in the fall to experience fall foliage. Others include Huntington, Charleston, or one of the state parks would be a great option as well!
North Carolina also has plenty of places to visit if you want to see some gorgeous fall foliage. For those of you that don’t know, North Carolina can be divided into three basic parts: the mountains on the west, the central area known as the Piedmont with the capital of Raleigh, and the coastal region on the east. Most people that want to see fall foliage will focus on the mountains in the western part of North Carolina. Western North Carolina is an outdoor-lover’s paradise, with many fun cities to go camping, hiking, fishing, and whitewater rafting. Some of my favorite cities in western North Carolina are Asheville (see my posts: Camping in Asheville, North Carolina;and Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina), Boone, and Blowing Rock.
I’ve visited all of the New England states for half marathons, and I have been to three states in the fall, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. I was in a small town about an hour outside Boston, called Newburyport and loved that part of Massachusetts. The nice thing is you can still do plenty of things in Boston and easily pop over to the quieter areas like Newburyport when you want a break from the traffic and congestion. Rhode Island is one of my favorite states I’ve ever been to and I feel like it’s one of the most under-rated states. I went to Newport and we drove all over that area, stopping in some tiny towns to visit art galleries or local shops. There are also mansions such as The Breakers and Marblehouse that you can tour plus gorgeous beaches all around that area (although it’s definitely not peak beach season there in the fall but that just means they aren’t as crowded). We were in some tiny towns in New Hampshire for the half marathon that most people wouldn’t come to visit, so I can’t speak as much about that, but if you’re in the northern part of the state like I was, it’s a short drive over the Canadian border to Montreal, which I absolutely loved (see my post: Montreal, a City Unlike Any Other).
Some other states you might not think of when you think of fall foliage are Indiana and Arkansas. I visited both of these states in the fall when I was running a half marathon there, and found I enjoyed both places more than I expected I would. Most people think of Indianapolis when they think of Indiana, home of the famous Indy 500 races, but I was in a small town on the border with Kentucky and the Ohio River called Evansville. The Evansville Half Marathon perfectly coincides with the West Side Nut Club Festival, now in its 98th year (!) and also more recently a taco festival and music festival also occur around the same time in October. Here are links for more information: Evansville Half Marathon and Nut Club Fall Festival.
For my half marathon in Arkansas, I ran the Cotter River Half Marathon, which I absolutely raved about. This was in November, which is a perfect time to enjoy the fall foliage in Arkansas. Although there are some options for things to do and places to stay in the Cotter area, I decided to drive to Hot Springs after the race and spend a few days there. Hot Springs can be a bit touristy in parts, which I usually don’t like, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hot Springs much more than I thought I would. My family and I went to one of the local bath houses and had several extremely affordable treatments done and we hiked all around the National Park there. For more on the race, see my post, White River Half Marathon, Cotter, Arkansas-44th state and for more on Hot Springs, see my post, Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I know I left off some places to enjoy fall foliage in the United States because that would be way too long and I haven’t been everywhere, so now your turn, where are some of your favorite, perhaps off-the-beaten path places to enjoy fall foliage that I didn’t mention here? Do you live in a state where there is no substantial fall foliage? Do you travel to see fall foliage?
I was listening to a Marathon Training Academy podcast during one of my long runs (as I often do) and the hosts Angie and Trevor were answering questions posed on their Facebook page. One of the questions asked was, “What’s a funny thing that happened to you on one of your runs?” I started thinking about some funny things that have happened to me during my runs, and my thoughts just kind of spiraled after that.
I began to think about not only funny things that have happened during my runs but also strange or maybe just things that stood out to me on my runs. I couldn’t think of a lot of things that I would call funny but I have seen some strange things on my runs. I’m lucky enough to have run in all but four states in the United States plus several countries in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Europe. Over the years I’ve seen my share of some bizarre things.
Last year when I was running in Grand Cayman Island, I came across the famous shoe tree, which I snapped a photo of and also an interesting statue in front of house I ran by. I also had to get a selfie with one of the “Caution- Iguanas on Road” signs, which I found amusing for some reason. I never saw an actual iguana on the road, whether I was running or driving, if you’re wondering but I suppose they must be on the roads to warrant the signs (probably more so at night).
In the town where I used to live, I came across a woman who came running out of her house and yelled at me to not run on the side of the road but to run on the sidewalk. This actually happened a few times since I often ran by her house. Once I even stopped to yell back, “The road is softer for running than the concrete sidewalk and it’s perfectly safe here!” but I doubt she heard me or even cared if she did hear me. I was running facing traffic, which at the time, there was barely any traffic anyway.
Regarding animals, I’ve seen the usual horses, cows, and so many deer, some with babies, plus way too many dead animals on the side of the road I would ever care to see including cats, dogs, squirrels, snakes, lizards, and birds. I’ve also been chased by dogs on runs (mostly in WV) but only bitten by one when I was a kid; never as an adult. Fortunately I’ve never run upon an animal that could do real harm to me like a cougar, bear, moose, or elk.
Once, near my home, I ran past a single adult-size running shoe, which really struck me as strange. Sure, I’ve seen many infant or child-size single shoes, presumably from children riding in strollers who kicked one off unbeknownst to the parent pushing them, but one adult shoe? This was on the corner of a sidewalk near a busy intersection but not really close enough that it could have fallen from a car passing by. I never figured that one out.
Certainly not strange but definitely note-worthy to me was when I was running along the beaches (not actually on the sand but on walkways overlooking the beaches) in Hawaii and Gran Canaria and Tenerife (Canary Islands) and regularly saw dozens of surfers out in the early morning hours. That was so much fun to watch them as the sun was rising in the sky.
Another favorite memory is running along the part of New York City where the chanceries (embassy buildings) of consulates from other countries are, known as Embassy Row. I loved comparing the buildings for all of the different countries. Of course I had to run in Central Park the first time I went to New York City, which I’ve done a few times since the first time. I’ve seen many parades in Central Park and so many other runners; it’s a popular spot.
Earlier this year when I was running through a neighborhood I’d never run in before, I started smelling a strange smell, kind of like burning plastic. Suddenly I came upon multiple fire trucks, police cars and other emergency response vehicles parked along a cul-du-sac. It turns out there was a house fire but luckily everyone in the house got out in time and no one was injured, as I gathered from a couple of neighbors who were out talking about the fire.
When I was in Key West, Florida, I ran past the southern-most point in the continental United States, or at least the buoy-shaped marker for it.
One day several years ago when I was running on a Saturday morning, I saw a police road block ahead. Suddenly a car came up beside me and made a sharp u-turn to avoid the road block, coming so close to me they almost hit me. I had to jump as far as I could off to the side to avoid getting hit. I’ve always wondered why they were in such a hurry to avoid the road block.
This summer I ran by a display of multiple skeletons that you would normally see displayed for Halloween, in someone’s front yard. I don’t know if they leave them up year-round, but since it was so many months past Halloween and too early for them to be for this year, this must be a year-round display for these people. Strange. I wonder what their neighbors think. I’ll also have to remember to go by when it’s close to Halloween to see if there are even more decorations out.
I’m sure there are others but that’s all I can think of for now. Your turn- what are some funny, strange, or just memorable things you’ve seen on your runs?
Hilton Head Island may not be the first place you think of when you think of vacation destinations in South Carolina. It seems like Charleston gets all of the glory in that regard. However, Hilton Head Island was voted best island in the continental United States by Travel + Leisure readers in 2019. You can read about the top 10 islands in that list here. Plus, Hilton Head Island was in Southern Living’s list of “11 Trips Every Mother-Daughter Duo Should Take in 2019,” which you can find here. Hilton Head Island has received many other accolades as well, such as #6 in U.S. News and World Report’s “15 Best Family Beach Vacations,” (the full list is here). And on, and on.
I first visited Hilton Head Island way back in the late 90’s and have since been back a few times. Very little has changed over the years, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion. When you have a place as special as Hilton Head Island, change isn’t necessarily helpful or desirable.
Hilton Head Island is small, at just 12 miles long and 5 miles across but it packs a punch with paths suitable for cycling, running, or walking. There are 6 miles of bike lanes, 117 miles of shared-use pathways (108 of which are paved), and 24% of streets have bike lanes or paved shoulders. Access to plantations is limited to residents and guests but you can purchase a day pass for Sea Pines Community, for example. Visitor passes are $8/vehicle, plus $1/bike on car (if you’re transporting a bicycle on your car into the community). You can not ride a bike into Sea Pines nor can you walk into the area.
Things to Do
If you enjoy outdoor activities, Hilton Head Island is full of things to do besides go to the beach (more on that later). There are over 30 golf courses, at least a dozen or so places to rent bicycles not including ones that some hotels provide, 10 or 12 places to rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards, plus several fishing and boat tours.
Since I tried stand up paddle boarding for the first time in Hawaii (My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected), I’ve loved it and in addition to going on Sundays when I’m home, I also try to go paddle boarding when I’m on vacation. I had a great time in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, so of course I checked to see if there were any places to rent boards in Hilton Head and was happy to see there were a few places that rent them.
We rented stand up paddle boards from Soul SUP Paddleboard Hilton Head. You can rent boards by the day or week, take a yoga class, take SUP lessons or a tour, or buy a board from the laid-back and friendly people here. You save some money if you pick up the boards yourself but they will deliver to you for an extra fee. They provide everything you need to secure the boards to the roof of your vehicle if you will be transporting them on your own and my husband and I found it to be easier and quicker than transporting inflatable boards plus we just prefer hard boards to inflatables.
If you’re unfamiliar with the area, you should ask someone at Soul SUP about current water conditions and get recommendations about safe places to paddle board. We went to the Rowing and Sailing Center at Squire Pope Community Park and the Broadcreek Marina-Freeport Marina areas and saw about five dolphins, many different birds, and fish (and no alligators!) the day we went out paddle boarding. Just be sure you don’t fall into the water where there are oyster beds (I’ve been told they scrape you up pretty badly).
As I mentioned earlier, Hilton Head Island has paved pathways all over the island, making it easy to find a safe place to run and cycle. I literally walked out my hotel door and got on a path less than a tenth of a mile away and went out on a run. One thing that I should mention is this is the south, which means during the summer months it gets extremely hot and humid. By 9 am one morning on a run, it was 86 degrees with a real feel (taking into account the humidity) of 98! These pathways are sometimes shaded but not always. If you’re into running on the beach, I’ve heard the beaches here are nice for running, but personally I don’t like running on the beach and don’t even try anymore.
We rented bicycles from Bubba’s Bike Rental, and we had a coupon for 2 free bikes for the day from them, but I’m not sure I would have chosen them otherwise. They have “iffy” reviews online. There are many bike rental companies to choose from, though. Our bikes were delivered to our hotel and picked up at the hotel when we texted them that we were done with them, so it honestly couldn’t have been any easier. The bikes weren’t the greatest- they didn’t have gears and had only foot brakes (my husband said his brakes were awful) plus the seats weren’t that comfortable, but they did get us where we wanted to go. Luckily Hilton Head Island is pancake flat, so we didn’t have to worry about hills (because of not having gears).
You can also visit Harbour Town Lighthouse, which is open every day from 10 am to sundown. Admission to climb the lighthouse is $4.50 per person and children 5 and under are free. We did this on a previous visit and got great views of the area from the top of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is located in Sea Pines Resort and there are many shops and restaurants as well as fishing tours, boat cruises, and watersports so you can easily spend a full day here.
Where to Eat
Some of our favorite restaurants include:
Skull Creek Boathouse (mostly seafood, brunch buffet on Sunday with made-to-order omelets plus tons of other foods, water views, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Sandbar Beach Eats (by Coligny Beach)
Hilton Head Brewing Company (good BBQ and beer, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Relish (Asian and Southern food, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Thai Smile (fantastic pineapple curry and Som Tum)
Many restaurants in the area have outdoor seating areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dog-friendly. Just call ahead if you want to bring your dog with you, to be sure.
Where to Stay and How to Get Here
In addition to many Airbnb properties, there are a huge range of hotels, including the more expensive Westin, Omni, Marriott, and even a Disney-owned resort, to more affordable but still nice hotels like Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn, right down to simple, no frills motels. There are also a huge number of time shares in this area. As you might guess, places directly on the beach are more expensive but usually offer perks like a kitchen, swimming pool, bicycle rental, among others.
If you’re driving here, you can take US-278 East from mainland South Carolina directly into Hilton Head. There is the Hilton Head airport, but flights are limited. A better option might be to fly into Savannah, Georgia, which is just 40 minutes from Hilton Head. Speaking of Savannah, you may want to consider a day trip to Savannah if you’re spending several days or more in Hilton Head or add on a few days to spend in Savannah since a day would just skim the surface of this beautiful town.
Unless you plan on spending your days lazing by the pool and walking to the beach and back to your hotel (which is fine if that’s what you like), I recommend a rental car if you want to see more of the island. There is a trolley service, The Breeze, that charges $1 per person per destination, but it only goes between Coligny and Shelter Cove, and only from 1 pm to 10 pm. Uber and Lyft are also transportation options if you don’t want to or can’t rent a car.
I would be remiss to not mention some of the beaches of Hilton Head Island. Think powdery, soft sandy beaches, many with dunes. Some of my favorite beaches on the island are Folly Field Beach Park, Driessen Beach Park, and Coligny Beach Park but there are many other beaches. There is free parking at Coligny Beach Park and a shopping area with restaurants and a grocery store by the parking area, plus there are restrooms and a splash area for kids. Both Driessen and Folly beaches have paid parking spaces, but it’s very reasonable (we paid $1/hour at Folly and $1 for two hours at Driessen); just pay at the kiosk with cash or credit card. Driessen has a children’s playground and a long boardwalk to get to the beach, which can be a pro or con depending on your point of view. Both Driessen and Folly beaches have dunes and restrooms plus sprayers to wash the sand off. Leashed dogs are only allowed on the beaches before 10 am and after 5 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day but any time the rest of the year. All of the beaches I’ve been to on Hilton Head Island have been clean and safe. They do get crowded during the summer months especially on weekends, but they’re big enough that they can handle pretty large crowds of people without feeling too crowded.
Hilton Head Island is one of my favorite beach destinations, especially on the east coast. The water is warm during the summer and even into the fall, the sand is soft, and the area is clean and safe. September after Labor Day is a great time to go because it isn’t as crowded and it’s a bit cooler but still warm enough to get in the ocean. October would also be a good time to visit. Have you been to Hilton Head Island or do you want to go there? What are some of your favorite beach areas in the United States?
After I visit a new country, I always like to reflect on what I learned during that visit. Inevitably there are things I should have done differently, things that surprised me about the people or places, and things that I can say I would never do again but I learned something from the experience. Peru is no different and here I would like to share some of the things I learned while I was there.
During the two weeks I recently spent in Peru, I found myself surprised on many occasions. This wasn’t my first time to South America, but it was my first time in Peru. I’ll share some of the things I learned in this beautiful country so that you can learn from some of my mistakes or just be wiser than I was and be better prepared. Peru was undoubtedly the hardest vacation to plan for of all the places my family and I have been, although we have never been to Asia or Africa and I imagine those places would also take a lot of planning by an American. I wrote up a post while I was in the midst of planning, which you can read here Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Here are just some of the things I learned while in Peru:
Peru is an extremely poor country so don’t expect your accommodations to be like what you typically find in the United States. That being said, there is a range of accommodations from hostels for just a few dollars per night to hotels that cost a few hundred dollars per night. The accommodations also vary widely based on what city you’re in.
Machu Picchu is every bit as stunning and special of a place as you have in your head from all of the photos we all see online. However, it does get crowded, especially as the day goes on, even with the recent restrictions on daily admissions. Get there as early as you possibly can, which you’ll likely do anyway if you’re traveling with a tour group. Pay the extra admission to climb Huayna Picchu. It’s worth every penny and every second of the elevated heartbeat that you will have climbing it. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.
Take a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. My family and I took the 4 Day Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions, which I highly recommend but there are other treks of varying degrees of difficulty and length. Meeting and interacting with the Peruvian school children and families is something so priceless it’s difficult to convey to others. The views along the trek are like scenes from some of the most epic movies you’ve ever seen, and completely incomprehensible until you’ve experienced them. Just go. Don’t worry if you’re not a “camper” or you don’t think you can do it (unless you have valid health reasons. Talk to your doctor first). You can find my posts on the Lares Trek here: Day One, Day Two, Day Three.
Areas in the Highlands region including Cusco, Aguas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo (all of which many people pass through one or more nights on their way to Machu Picchu) are cold at night and in the mornings. Depending on the time of year, they are also often rainy. There is usually no central heat in the hotels and hostels in this region either (despite what they might tell you at the front desk), so bring warm sleeping attire. I wore long-sleeve wool thermal underwear and wool socks to sleep in every night while I was in the Highlands (yes, even in my hotel room).
Temperatures and climate in Peru can vary widely depending on what part(s) you’re in so wearing layers is always advisable. Arequipa is a much warmer city than Cusco and much drier so (at least where we stayed) it was noticeably warmer than where stayed in Cusco. More information about Cusco plus climbing the famous Rainbow Mountain is here. Arequipa has a European feel to it and is a beautiful city with white stone buildings. There is a huge range of accommodations in Arequipa just like any other city. My post on Arequipa is here.
Traffic in Peru is more chaotic than any other city I’ve ever been to, which includes Greece, Italy, Chile, and other areas known to have aggressive drivers. Drivers are so aggressive especially in Lima and Arequipa they make New York City drivers look laid-back. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, pretty much anywhere at all. From all of the research I conducted, I read over and over that cars are sometimes stopped by robbers especially at night and even buses can get robbed like this. I’m sure plenty of people take buses all over Peru and are fine but we chose to fly over large distances between cities. We did take some buses with the tours we took, but the longest bus ride was 3 hours and most were during the day. Flights within Peru are very affordable and efficient (although some airlines more so than others).
Peruvians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, especially in the Highlands areas like Cusco and the surrounding rural areas. One evening in Cusco, we went into a small store to buy bottled water and the man working there ended up asking us where we were from, showed us his drawings, and told us he was glad we stopped by as he shook our hands in a friendly way. This was all in our broken Spanish since he spoke no English. Another woman that owned a small restaurant chatted with us while we waited for our take-away food and gave me 2 bags of tea for free to help with my stuffy sinuses, a bag full of extra bread, and an extra container of soup (she also spoke no English). There were many other warm and kind people we met along the way as well.
Unless you travel to Peru with a travel group, you really should have at least a decent grasp of Spanish. We found very few people who spoke English fluently even in hospitality sectors like hotels and restaurants and even on tours where the guide supposedly spoke English. It was far more common for the people we met to speak no English at all, regardless of their age or city. There is always Google translate when you’re really stuck but I wouldn’t rely solely on that.
The toilets in the rural areas are usually a hole in the ground that you have to squat over but in bigger cities you can find actual toilet seats. However, bring a roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times because there often isn’t toilet paper or soap. When there is a sink, it’s almost always just cold water (no hot water). However, we always had hot water in our showers at hotels everywhere we stayed, which was a welcome relief.
I would stay away from venturing out in Lima. We had a couple of bad experiences the second time we were there and we were told by someone who used to live in Lima and moved to Arequipa that it’s extremely unsafe and to stay away from the city. If you have to fly through Lima to get somewhere else, just spend that time at the airport. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the airport where you can easily spend hours. Although you may have a perfectly good experience, you just never know and it’s not worth risking it in the city. My post on Lima is here.
Finally, the food all over Peru exceeded my expectations as far as taste and presentation. Who knew Peru was such a foodie country? Everywhere we went, the food was exceptional and beautifully presented. Try a Maracuyá Sour, which is made with passion fruit and is a delicious variation on the pisco sour. Other Peruvian foods I really enjoyed are ceviche, Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef), Aji de Gallina (creamy chicken), Causa Limeña (potato casserole), and Pollo a la Brasa (roasted chicken).
Have you been to Peru? If so, where did you go and what was your experience like?