5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

Of the current 60 national parks in the United States, I’ve been to 20 of them over the years. In 2017, there were a record 84 million visitors to national parks, with the majority of visitors going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. 28 states plus the United States Virgin Islands and the American Samoa Territory have national parks, and California has the most, with 9 parks, just edging out Alaska’s 8 national parks.

Honestly, one of my favorite national parks isn’t the most-visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s my opinion that this park is the most visited simply because of its geography, which isn’t to say it’s not a nice park. The fact is it’s fairly easy for many people on the east coast and parts of the midwest to get to this park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So what are some of my favorite national parks in the United States? I’ll limit it to my top five here in no certain order and explain why I love them so much, along with some descriptions of each park. The website for all of the US national parks is here.

  1.  Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of California. Some of the most famous features include granite formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, and giant sequoia trees.There are a ton of options for things to do in the park including bike rentals, mule and horseback riding, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, rafting, and rock climbing classes. There are over 800 miles of trails so you can take short walks as well as longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. There is a free shuttle bus system but if you prefer to drive, most locations with Yosemite Valley are easily accessible by car. Just know that during the busy summer months, the park gets extremely crowded and finding parking can be difficult. Another option is to take a tour bus to Glacier Point in the summer and fall to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country. I personally love Yosemite National Park most because of the giant sequoias but I also love the waterfalls and the rock formations.
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One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii and is one of the more unique national parks. Where else can you walk through an enormous lava tube? There are several day hikes, backcountry hikes, and ranger-led hikes as well as scenic drives. If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is Volcano House, which also operates Nāmakanipaio Campground, or there are several vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in Volcano Village just outside the park. This park was recently closed from May 11, 2018 to September 22, 2018 due to volcanic activity that damaged roads, trails, waterlines, and buildings in the park. Some places are still partially opened, so if you’re going there in the near future, check the website first for closings.

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Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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The flora and fauna at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are so beautiful

3.  Bryce Canyon National Park is in southwestern Utah and its claim to fame is it has the largest collection of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) anywhere on Earth. There are a range of easy, moderate, and strenuous trails to hike with many of the shorter trails connected making it easy to combine trails. Ranger programs include geology talks, astronomy programs, full moon hikes and other hikes, and kids programs. During the summer horseback rides are available. You can camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge or find lodging at one of the nearby cities. We visited this park during the winter and the only way to describe that experience is “magical.” It may sound cheesy but this isn’t a term I use often to describe places I visit. The sky was overcast when we got there and it snowed lightly off and on the entire day, blanketing the hoodoos in snow. There weren’t many other visitors there so it was quiet and so utterly peaceful. Normally I can’t stand cold weather and snow but hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with the snow falling is one of my favorite memories of all time. You can find my post on Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
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Some of the many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park

4.  Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has to be one of the best-known national parks. Even if people haven’t been here, many people have at least heard of it and know that it’s famous for its namesake canyon. The canyon running through Grand Canyon National Park is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon has two basic sections, the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim is the most commonly visited of the two, and is open year-round. The North Rim closes for the winter months. Not surprisingly, the South Rim gets extremely crowded, even in the cooler months, and you need to make reservations for lodging in the park several months in advance. There are several lodges in the South Rim but only one lodge in the North Rim. You can also stay at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but reservations must be made via an online lottery 15 months in advance. There are trails, scenic drives, ranger programs as usual, but you can also take a mule trip or a river trip for something different. You can find my post on Grand Canyon National Park here.

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

5. Denali National Park in Alaska is special to me because of the wildlife and how the park manages to keep large parts of the park wild, meaning there are no trails in these areas and cars can’t drive on the road past a certain point. We took a transit bus that took us four hours into the park, then we hiked a couple of trails and took a return transit bus another four hours back out of the park, but there are options for shorter or longer bus rides or options if you don’t want to hike at all. The bus driver gave a great deal of history and information about the park and pulled over when anyone spotted animals so we could quietly observe them. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots. There is camping available in the park but we chose to stay just outside the park entrance. Another unique feature of this park is the employment of sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has working sled dogs. You can watch them happily pulling a cart during the warmer months during a Ranger demonstration. During the winter, the dogs patrol the park with Rangers on sleds. You can find my post on Denali National Park here.

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One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
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A brown bear (grizzly) and one of her cubs at Denali National Park

I realize I may have left off some of what may be other people’s favorite national parks, but as I said, I haven’t been to all of them, just about a third, although my plan is to visit more over the next several years. Which national park(s) is/are some of your favorites and what makes them special? Which national park that you haven’t been to yet are you dying to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

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Some of My Favorite Museums Around the World

I’m a science geek; always have been. As a kid, I always loved going to science museums, even though my parents didn’t really take me to that many. I remember being in awe at Epcot Center, which really is just a big science museum, much of it hands-on. As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of raising a science-loving child, so I’ve taken her to many science museums all over the world in our travels. We haven’t just stopped at science museums, though. We also love art museums and history museums. I’d like to share a few of some of my favorite museums here.

The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has so many impressive displays you can spend all day here if you like science and natural history. I really enjoy the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet, Meteorites, Hall of Birds, all of the dinosaur exhibits, the hall of gems, Plants of the World, and those are just some of my favorites! There are two restaurants, a seasonal outdoor grill, and a picnic area open to all museum visitors on the ground level near the Sea Mammals. There is also a gift shop, coat check, wheelchairs (free), strollers ($3), a private nursing room, and free wi-fi. You can also get discounted admission if you have a City Pass or Go Chicago Card. Another great museum in Chicago is the Museum of Science + Industry and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. There are of course many other great museums in Chicago as well but these are two of my favorites.

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Field Museum in Chicago

Balboa Park is a museum-lover’s paradise, with 17 museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, California. I highly recommend the Explorer Pass if you plan on going to several museums in Balboa Park. A really cool and different museum within Balboa Park is The San Diego Museum of Man. Here you can see displays about monsters, our relationships with animals, the history of beer, take a California Tower tour, and learn the truth about cannibalism. Tickets to the Museum of Man are $13-$25 for adults or $10-$22, depending on whether or not you purchase just museum tickets or add on tickets to the cannibals exhibit or tower. I have a post on Balboa Park with more details that you can read here.

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Balboa Park

If you like museums, you can find plenty of them in New York City. Some of my favorites are the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum but there are nearly 100 museums in and around New York City, so there’s definitely something for everyone. The American Museum of Natural History has 45 museum halls, The Rose Center for Earth and Space, a giant-screen film, special exhibitions, and a space show. I recommend figuring out what you want to see before you go or you could get so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start. General Admission to The Metropolitan Museum of Art  includes exhibitions at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters and are valid for three consecutive days. The Guggenheim Museum general admission is $25 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For these museums plus many others and other places as well, you would save a ton of money on admission prices if you buy a City Pass if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing and will be here for at least a few days.

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American Museum of Natural History

Washington, D.C. is filled with museums primarily because of the Smithsonian Institution, comprised of 17 museums, galleries, and a zoo. And even better- it’s all free. Some of my favorites include the National Air & Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. These museums and galleries are enormous, too so you could spend hours in just one of them. If you only have one day in D.C. the tough part will be deciding where to spend your time because there are so many choices. Washington, D.C. is also a great place for children and is extremely family-friendly. I don’t recommend driving around the city but the Metrorail system is easy to navigate and affordable.

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My daughter’s first visit to Washington, D.C.

For something a little different, on the North Island of New Zealand is the Waitangi Treaty Complex, part of the Waitangi National Trust Estate where events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi are presented. You can experience kapa haka, a live Maori cultural performance and Maori artifacts and weapons. If you follow a short trail outside the visitor center, you’ll come to a Maori war canoe. This huge canoe is named after the vessel in which Kupe, the Polynesian navigator, is said to have discovered New Zealand. The canoe was built in 1940 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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Maori war canoe

Malta is a country that I fell in love with when I went a couple of years ago and part of that reason is how it’s absolutely steeped in rich history. That and its stunning beauty. For my family and me it was a no-brainer for us to get the Heritage Malta Pass which includes access to 22 sites and museums plus the Malta National Aquarium and the Citadel Visitor Center and is good for 30 days. Some of my favorite museums in Malta are in Valletta and include the Palace Staterooms, Palace Armory, and the National Museum of Archaeology. You can read more about these museums in Valletta here.

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Palace Staterooms in Malta

Of course I have to include Italy here because it is also filled with some impressive museums. I had the pleasure of visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice some time ago and loved not only the history of the area but also the art everywhere and of course the food. My favorite of the three cities we went to is Florence so I’ll start there. The Pitti Palace is absolutely enormous and houses several museums and galleries and the Boboli Gardens outside. The Uffizi Gallery is the oldest museum in modern Europe, dating to 1581, and yes, it is impressive and definitely worth going to. You can find Michelangelo’s David (along with many other prestigious work) at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Probably some of the more famous museums near Rome are technically in another country, Vatican City. The Vatican Museums are an enormous collection (about 7 kilometers) of museums and galleries and include the hugely famous Sistine Chapel. I was surprised to find the Sistine Chapel was smaller than I expected, but there’s a definite aura of tranquility that surrounds the space. Finally, in Venice at the popular St. Mark’s Square you’ll find Doge’s Palace. The combined entrance ticket to the St. Mark’s Square Museums grants access to the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of Biblioteca Marciana.

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Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens

Honestly, that just touches the tip of the iceberg for me but I should probably leave it there although I could easily add more places.

What are some of your favorite museums in the United States or elsewhere? Have you been to any of the ones I listed here or would you like to go someday?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

The Truth About Traveling with Kids

We’ve all seen the photos on Instagram of the smiling, seemingly happy children fully engaged in an activity when the photo was taken, stunning landscape background all around. I’ve even got some of those photos, like the ones of my daughter with the Andes Mountains behind her in Chile, or the ones of her splashing and playing in the water of the beaches in Greece, or ones of her laughing it up in Hobbiton in New Zealand.

What you don’t know is that on the drive to Hobbiton, my daughter was complaining about having to go there and asking if she could just sit in the car instead of going to some “stupid” place where she wasn’t going to have fun anyway. Nor do you see my daughter complaining to me and my husband for over an hour straight about pretty much anything that had been bothering her that school year but not one thing in particular as we hiked around the stunningly beautiful natural park in Chile with the Andes Mountains all around us. She ended up loving Hobbiton and Chile by the way, in case you’re wondering how those turned out.

In fact, for probably any place in the world my daughter has been, from Hawaii to San Diego and Aruba to New Zealand and everywhere else including 42 states of the United States and the ten countries she’s been to, at one point or another, there has probably been crying, complaining, whining, and/or general unhappiness coming from her regardless of where we were. I’ve even said to her, “Look around you. It’s gorgeous here. Seriously, why are you complaining so much? Most kids would love to be here doing this!”

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

The fact remains, traveling can be hard on kids. Traveling disrupts kids’ sleeping schedules, despite my husband’s and my strict adherence to our daughter’s nap and sleep schedule. When anyone, child or adult, isn’t in their own bed, they don’t sleep as soundly. I fully understand this and try to take it into account when my daughter is being whiny and is in a bad mood while we’re traveling and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Traveling can also put you out of your comfort zone and for kids they may not be able to fully understand how this effects them. For example, if you don’t speak the language where you’re traveling, not only is everyone around you difficult to understand, you can’t read street signs or menus in restaurants, and you can’t even unwind by watching TV if the shows are all in another language. The food is likely different from what you’re used to and often meals are on a different schedule than back home, such as a much later dinner. I remember my daughter in tears in Munich, Germany when she had to eat yet another brat, until we discovered just how good the Italian food is in Munich, and from then on she had pizza and all was good.

Just the simple act of flying to another state or country can be exhausting for families with children. I still remember my daughter having a total meltdown when we were standing in a security line at an airport, although I couldn’t tell you which airport. What I do remember is one of the nicest TSA agents I’ve ever met motioning to me from afar and showing me that she was going to let my family and me through a quicker line. I breathed a sigh of relief in knowing that even a few less minutes of standing in line would mean I could get my daughter to our gate that much quicker. Inevitably, my daughter was either tired or hungry then.

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Mad in Maine? Look closely and you’ll see the arm crossed over her chest, the scowl on her face.

Lack of sleep and hunger are the two things I know without a doubt will make my daughter cranky. When I’m traveling, I always make sure I bring a variety of snacks with me in my carry-on and since she was old enough, I’d put snacks and gum in her carry-on as well. So I’m pretty well-prepared on the hunger-side of things, but covering the sleep-side gets much harder. If we have an early-morning flight to catch, I can try to have my daughter go to bed early, but if you try to go to sleep an hour or two before you normally, do, can you easily fall asleep, or do you just lie there for an hour or so? Maybe this isn’t such a good example if you’re sleep-deprived, as many people are, but if you already get enough sleep, it’s difficult to go to sleep early.

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have gone to great lengths to make sure our daughter stays on her routine when we’re away from home. Once when I was at Disneyland with my daughter by myself for one day and my husband was joining us for the second day, I remember standing in the long line to board the “Nemo” submarine, and my then-two-year-old was sound asleep lying on my chest, while I was holding her. Fortunately, she was able to get her nap in and wake up just in time to board the submarine, so it all worked out, but the second day, I remember taking her to an indoor building that was quiet where not a lot of people were coming inside, and letting my daughter take a nap with her head in my lap. After that, she was good to go for a few more hours after dinner and then back to the room in time for her bedtime.

Another thing many parents don’t mention is the early bedtimes. Surely my husband and I aren’t the only parents in the world who have returned to our room so that our daughter could still go to bed at a reasonable hour, at least within an hour of her bedtime. Yes, we skipped the late-night cocktails, certainly the bars and clubs, the late-night musicians, and even the late-night fireworks at places like Disney when our daughter’s bedtime was well before then. We could have arranged for a sitter to watch her but honestly, I just never felt safe having a stranger come into my hotel room or airbnb property at night to watch my daughter while my husband and I went back out. Our solution was to just grab a bottle of wine while we were out and bring it back to the room so he and I could relax and unwind after our daughter had gone to sleep.

My daughter has also lost countless articles of clothing, bathing suits, flip-flops, bathroom articles, and who only knows what else while traveling. Of course we only know about some of the more obvious things like that entire outfit we must have left behind because a nice woman from the hotel where we stayed in New Orleans called to see if we would like her to ship the clothes back home to us for example.

We’ve also had to buy new clothes while on vacation for our daughter, like that time when we were driving through the Alps in Austria and she got car sick and threw up all over the rental car and herself. We were too far from our room to go straight back for a change of clothes so we had to find a children’s clothing store and figure out what size to buy her since the sizes were all different from those in the United States. Once we were back at the resort later that day, my husband had to try to figure out how to ask for something to clean the car out with even though his German was terrible. Everything worked out in the end, but these aren’t things a lot of people (most likely no one) would post on their Instagram accounts.

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Sad in South Dakota. My husband captured this photo in beautiful Custer State Park.

Speaking of getting sick while on vacation, my daughter once threw up in an airplane bathroom and it was apparently so bad they ended up closing off that bathroom for the rest of the flight. When my daughter said she felt sick because of the turbulence during that flight, my husband went with her to accompany her to the bathroom. We’ve had several turbulent flights since then, including ones where she got sick in the little white bags provided in the airplane seat backs but never anything quite that bad has happened again on a flight.

So, in summary, over the years, we’ve dealt with tantrums, crying fits, and general meltdowns. We’ve lost many items, most of which we didn’t even know we lost. My husband and I have foregone late-night concerts, cocktails, and other late events while traveling. Finally, we’ve dealt with motion sickness and other sicknesses along the way (colds, etc.).

What is my point in all of this? To scare you away from ever bringing your children on vacation with you? In fact, the opposite. I would like to encourage everyone to bring their children with them on their travels, but to acknowledge that bad things will happen. Bad things happen all the time to families, whether we’re traveling or at home. There’s no reason to think that just because you’re traveling, nothing bad will happen, so I just implore everyone to be realistic and realize that not everything is going to be perfect. Your children will not always behave perfectly, they won’t always enjoy themselves, they will get sick at times, they will lose things, and you as a parent will miss out on some things if they weren’t with you.

All of that being said, I can’t imagine traveling without my daughter. I’ve had so many teachers tell me from pre-school all the way up to middle school how traveling has enriched her life. As is the case with life as a parent, you take the good with the bad, and travel is no different. If you know that going into it everything will not be perfect, you can roll with the punches, so to speak, more easily. I think just knowing that other parents are going through the same thing you are or once went through it also helps.

Do you all travel with your children or do you prefer to leave them at home? No judgement here if you don’t travel with them! I completely understand it’s expensive to bring children and much more complicated in many ways.

Tell me about your travels with your children or about traveling with your parents when you were a child. I’d love to hear some stories!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to  hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Seavey’s Sled-Dogs and Seasick in Seward, Alaska

The drive from Denali National Park (you can read about Denali National Park here) was a long one, at about 6 1/2 hours, but fortunately it was a beautiful drive. Since we drove from Anchorage after spending a few days there, the drive to Seward was at least partially familiar to us. We had driven along part of Turnagain Arm from Anchorage so we got to enjoy the views of that section again, which was one of the most scenic parts of the drive. The drive along the Seward Highway is definitely one of the best road trips you can take.

The part of Alaska where Seward lies is called the Kenai Peninsula. There are close to 20 glaciers in the Kenai Peninsula, so if you don’t see a glacier here, you’re not trying very hard. We decided to break up the long drive to Seward by stopping at Byron Glacier. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek. We attempted to cross the creek but found it impossible without getting our shoes completely soaked and I was concerned about slipping and falling in with my camera, so we decided to just cross the rocks facing the glacier to get as close as we could that way.

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Byron Glacier area

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). It’s a short 15-20 minute easy hike and you get to hike through a forest and along a gravel river bar. There are markers along the trail to show the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years. It really puts things into perspective when you hear about glaciers getting smaller by being able to see just how far Exit Glacier has receded over the years.

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Exit Glacier is much smaller now than it used to be but is still impressive

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. We were forewarned that the water could be rough so my daughter, husband, and I all took motion sickness prevention medicine. Unfortunately my husband and daughter were sick pretty much the entire six hours. My poor daughter threw up for about 5 1/2 hours straight despite having medicine, three kinds of ginger candies/chews, and ginger ale. My husband had two different kinds of medicine and was still sick although not as bad as our daughter. I was the only one of us three who actually enjoyed the boat tour, which is sad because it was a truly awesome experience for me.

On the boat tour, we got to see sea otters, humpback whales, sea lions, puffins, common murres, bald eagles, and some glaciers, with Holgate Glacier being the best. Our captain was great and she gave interesting commentary along the way and pointed out all of the places and animals of interest. When we saw three whales that were interacting with each other very close to our boat, the captain took some time to let us hang out and watch the whales until they stopped surfacing on the water. We saw other whales along the way as well.

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Photo op from the boat tour with a piece of the glacier

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Mitch Seavey is a three-time Iditarod champion, with the record for the fastest time in 2017. If you’re not familiar with the Iditarod, it’s a sled-dog competition that goes from Anchorage to Nome. The race began as a way to get the locals more interested in dog sleds when interest began to decline due to increased use of snowmobiles. It’s so intense that mushers must have qualifying races just to enter the Iditarod. There’s big money for the winners, though, with recent previous champions winning anywhere from around $50,000 to $75,000. Why the variance? To give an example, total prize money in 2018 was $500,000 and was divided up among all of the 52 finishers. In 2017, the person in 21st place received $11,614 but in 2018, the 21st finisher  received $1,049, with more of the total prize money going to the first finisher.

More importantly, these dogs, Alaskan Huskies, which are a mixed breed usually combining the Siberian Husky with other working dog breeds like the Alaskan Malamute or Greyhound, are made for running. They clearly love to pull the sleds and get excited when they know they’re going to get to go for a run. There were 7 of us on our cart, which they use during the warmer months to keep the dogs in shape, and the dogs easily and happily pulled us through the woods. I really enjoyed hearing our musher’s stories along the way. He was as enthusiastic as the dogs were about dog sledding, and obviously loved what he did for a living. Before we got to ride the cart, though, we got to hold puppies! My daughter, who loves Huskies and wants one when she’s an adult, said this was her favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. The puppies were three weeks old and were absolutely adorable.

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Potential future Iditarod participant

Have you all heard of the Iditarod before? I had heard of it before but didn’t really know many of the specifics before going to Seavey’s Ididaride. It’s an interesting race with some hard-core mushers. Our musher told us how “great” it is to be out there on the Iditarod trail with your dogs and it’s 40 or 50 below zero. I can’t even imagine.

Happy travels!

Donna

Denali National Park in Alaska

Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.

Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).

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Grizzly bears (a.k.a. brown bears) in Denali!

When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.

Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.

Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.

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View from the Tundra Loop Trail

Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.

The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.

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Views from the Tundra Loop Trail

A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.

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Denali sled dogs in action!

We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.

Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

My Alaskan Adventures Begin in Anchorage

For those of you that don’t already know, I’m on a quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I chose the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage for my half marathon in Alaska. My family and I did not go the popular Alaskan cruise route so we could have more flexibility with our schedule and what cities we went to. That and the fact that my husband and daughter suffer from motion sickness, something that came back to bite them hard later in this vacation.

Our flight from the east coast to Anchorage was a long one, so when we arrived in the evening and it was still daylight despite being 9 pm, we were tired and ready to check in our hotel and call it a night. We stayed at Duke’s 8th Avenue Hotel because of the proximity to the race start and finish. I could literally walk just a few blocks from the hotel the morning of the race, which I always try to do if possible for a race. We also enjoyed having a two bedroom suite and full kitchen at our disposal. If you’d like to read about my race, state number 43, you can find it at Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state.

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One of our first hikes near Anchorage

I had planned on doing some hiking on Friday but take it easy on Saturday, the day before the race, and pack up and drive up to Denali National Park right after the race, so honestly, we didn’t do a ton while we were in Anchorage. We went hiking at the absolutely enormous Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska. We were very excited to see our first moose ever on our first full day in Alaska, despite having been to eastern and western parts of Canada, Montana, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and never seeing a moose at any of those places.

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Our first moose spotting!

Other than hiking in Chugach National Forest and seeing the moose, some of our favorite things from Anchorage include walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, driving along part of Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout. Even though the weather was pretty terrible when we were at Turnagain Arm, with strong winds and rain, we made the most of it, knowing our time in Anchorage was limited.

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Part of Tunagain Arm

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops. We went for breakfast at Snow City Café, and it was definitely worth the wait. I can see why it’s so popular! I had some hand-made pasta at South Restaurant the night before my half marathon and it was just what I was looking for and tasted delicious. Wild Scoops is known for its different flavors of ice cream, like the Sleeping Lady that I had, Earl Grey ice cream with local black currant swirl. It was unlike any other ice cream flavor I had ever had, but more importantly, it was one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had; very creamy and full of flavor.

We enjoyed our time in Anchorage and our first taste of Alaska. The weather seemed quite chilly to us southerners, who had just come from highs about 30 degrees warmer than in Anchorage, but it was a nice break from the heat for us, so we weren’t complaining. We just wore plenty of layers so we could be comfortable. As we left Anchorage, we were very much looking forward to heading north to check out Denali National Park for the second part of our vacation.

Have any of you been to Alaska or would like to go? Do you think you would take a cruise or just pick a few spots and either drive or fly between them if you haven’t been yet or did you do this if you have been?

Happy travels!

Donna