Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux

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

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

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Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

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Highlights from Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Trails

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

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

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

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Sights seen along the Roaring Fork Auto Tour

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

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

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

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Jakes Creek and Laurel Falls Trail Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Badlands National Park

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

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

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Mount Rushmore

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

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

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Custer State Park

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

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

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Learning about panning for gold

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

It’s Time for a Road Trip (Pandemic Style)!

For some reason, I’ve never written about taking a road trip but now seems like the perfect opportunity. With so much uncertainty about flying, even domestically, more and more people will be taking road trips once they feel comfortable traveling again. Every state has begun to gradually re-open businesses and that varies from state-to-state so check the specifics on where you’re going ahead of time. What does that mean exactly, though, and how might it effect you if you take a road trip?

A big part of why some people enjoy traveling to new places is to eat out at restaurants, whether it’s because they’re highly rated or they have unique food that might not be available where you live. Some states have begun to re-open restaurants so that people can eat inside but at limited capacities, some states allow people to eat at outside tables only, while others are still only offering food for to-go orders. Check with specific restaurants to get the most up-to-date information.

Some hotels have remained open during the pandemic but at reduced capacity, to limit how many people are staying in the rooms and to spread them out. Others have closed their doors entirely and they may plan on re-opening later this summer or this fall. Again, check with the hotel directly to get the best information for you. Some Airbnb property owners are allowing a few days to a week between stays, to ensure the properties get deep cleans and there is time between physical contact of the cleaning crew and the people staying at the property.

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Not my car. This was a rental we picked up in Las Vegas for a road trip to Utah. In February. Not a great choice for driving around the mountains in the winter, but fortunately it worked out.

Most state parks have begun re-opening although camping may not be available yet, or at a reduced capacity. I read some state parks are only allowing residents of the state to camp overnight. Public restrooms may also not be open yet, which is something to consider if you plan on spending a full day at the park. Likewise, national parks have begun increasing access and services in a phased approach. Check the website for the specific park you want to visit for complete details.

While outdoor spaces have begun re-opening, indoor businesses like museums are still mostly closed, although some states are a bit more strict than others. I suspect more and more museums will begin to open over the summer, with limited capacity and most likely requiring all patrons to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer upon entry. Like with everything else, check the specific museum you want to visit well in advance so you are prepared when you get there. I also suspect there will be timed entries for tickets, as the days of long lines and dozens of people all bunched-up around the ticket office is something we won’t see for quite some time.

Not to sound like Debbie Downer, with all of the limitations and restrictions, though. On the contrary, I think at some point people are not only going to want to venture out of their homes more, they’re going to want to venture out of their home towns more. People will want to travel again and for most people, taking a road trip will be the path of least resistance. As long as you or no one traveling with you has any symptoms of COVID-19, I encourage you to take a road trip. Get out there and discover a park you’ve always wanted to go to, climb a mountain, take that cycling trip you’ve talked about doing, or just visit your friend that you’ve known for 20 years but haven’t made the time to visit for a while.

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Just because I thought it was a cute photo and was taken while we were on a road trip!

If you have dogs and will be taking them with you, I have a post on traveling with dogs by car, which you can find here:  Tips for Traveling with Dogs.

Do you have any road trips planned for this summer? If not, did I spark something in you to start planning a road trip? Tell me about it!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Dreaming of Travel- If You Could Travel Anywhere, Where Would You Go?

Even before the pandemic and wasn’t able to travel, I would sometimes daydream about travel. Do any of you do that (perhaps more so now than before)? Something I was reading recently prompted me to think about the following questions. If you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve never been to, where would it be? Let’s pretend we don’t have COVID-19 to worry about. Of course all expenses would be paid for and you’d have plenty of vacation time to take from work (plus all other logistics would be taken care of). On the flip side, if you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve already been to, where would it be?

For me, I’ve been to 47 states in the US already so that leaves only 3 that I haven’t been to, so my options for states I haven’t been to are pretty slim. Still, I would choose New Mexico, which I have plans to go to in November. My other options are Iowa and Minnesota, by the way, and I am excited about going to them too (yes, even Iowa that doesn’t get much travel love). I really enjoy hiking in the mountains and New Mexico has plenty of great hiking plus I hear the food there is fantastic.

So now what state would I go to that I’ve already been to? That’s a really tough question for me. I absolutely love California and would happily go back there given any opportunity. I still haven’t been to Monterrey or Big Sur and am dying to go to that part of California. I would love to go back to Yosemite, Napa Valley, San Francisco, or San Diego as well. Oregon is another state that I loved and am dying to go back to spend some time in Portland and the coast. Or there’s Washington, where I’d love to go to some of the islands off the coast like Whidbey or Bainbridge Islands. I’ve been to San Juan Island in addition to Seattle and loved both of those parts of Washington. I’m also dying to go to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. I was going to run a half marathon there until I found out how hilly it is and then I decided to run a race in Boise instead, and we spent some time there after the race. Oh, then there’s Utah with its many national parks. I’ve been to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks but really want to go to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Do I have to pick just one state? Yes, I know, rules are rules.

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Big Sur- Photo by Kelsey Johnson on Pexels.com

OK. I pick Monterrey and Big Sur in California for my state to go back to that I’ve already been to. That was a tough one. California is one state that I’ve visited the most number of times (tied with Florida) and like I said, I’m always happy to return there. A few years back, my family and I spent three weeks in San Diego, checking out the area to see if it’s a place where my husband and I might want to retire to. If it wasn’t so expensive, the answer would be a resounding yes but we’re looking to cut back our expenses when we retire, not increase them, so I just couldn’t justify retiring there.

Now what about other countries? If you could go to one country that you’ve never been to, which would it be? For me, that’s also a pretty tough question. Since I first heard about the country of Georgia, I’ve wanted to go there. I’ve heard the mountains there are amazing, the food is delicious, and the people are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. What’s not to like about that? Flights there aren’t the cheapest, as you might imagine, but if all expenses are paid for, then that doesn’t matter, right?

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Republic of Georgia

Georgia isn’t the only country I want to go to, as you might imagine. I also badly want to go to Slovenia, Croatia, Vancouver in Canada (although I’ve been to Canada a couple of times so that’s not a new country for me), Thailand, Panama, Ecuador, and Montenegro for starters. Portugal has always been high on my list of places I want to go to, and I may be able to go there this year if all of the stars align but like everything else right now, I’ll have to wait and see how things go. Back to my question, though, or more accurately, back to my answer for what country would I choose if I could go anywhere that I haven’t been? I have to say Georgia.

What about choosing a country to return to that I’ve been to before? Without any hesitation, my answer is New Zealand. It’s got to be the most biodiverse country that I’ve ever seen. You want beaches? You can choose from black, tan, or white sandy beaches. Want geothermal areas? They’ve got that. Glaciers? Check. Giant Redwood trees? Yep, that too. Mountains? Of course. Rainforests? You’ve got it. Swamp forests, Grasslands, multiple types of wetlands? Yes, yes, and yes. And all of the diversity I saw was just in the North Island of New Zealand! I’d really like to go back and visit the South Island. If someone else was paying my way there, I wouldn’t have to worry about forking out for that expensive flight either!

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The North Island, New Zealand

Now it’s your turn:

  1. What state would you go to that you’ve never been to and why?
  2. What state would you choose to return to?
  3. What country that you’ve never been to would you choose?
  4. What country would you choose to return to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

What Does Travel Mean to You?

If you follow my blog and/or you know me that well, you know that one of my passions is to travel. Simply put, travel has become such a part of my life, I feel like it’s shaped my opinions of the world and influenced my personality as a whole. Since I was an undergraduate in college, I’ve delved deeper and deeper into travel, going to more off-the-beaten path places over the years, all the while becoming more comfortable each time I get outside my comfort zone when I travel.

Still, that begs the question- what does travel mean to me? If you ask a dozen people this question, they may respond with things like travel means building memories with their friends or family, or travel helps them build connections with local people, or travel helps them take a break from their busy lives to recharge their batteries. Perhaps some people would say travel means they get to try new activities or foods and others would say travel means they can discover a new place or language. Travel might mean others have the opportunity to experience a change of pace in life or others might better understand people around the world and their cultures. Finally, for other people, travel might give them something to look forward to and finally explore places they’ve only heard about or seen in photos.

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Traveling in Chile changed me more than I ever would have imagined

Travel is all of those things to me. Because travel has become such a part of my identity, I could never say travel means just one thing to me. When I look back on previous vacations, I think of our interactions with local people. I remember my husband never failing to start up a conversation with the multiple taxi drivers we had in Peru and more times than not learning about the drivers’ lives and hearing their perspectives on life. I remember trying to be the interpreter for the doctor in Costa Rica that only spoke Spanish and my husband who at the time spoke no Spanish, with the help of the nurse who spoke a tiny bit of English when my husband was stung by a sting ray and we were both badly scraped by coral after our kayak capsized in the ocean by our hotel. I remember running with a group of locals for a portion of the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont and laughing at their jokes and thinking what cool people they were. Big or small, my interactions and conversations with people around the world have influenced who I am today.

I remember the utter awe on my daughter’s face the first time she saw Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon in Hawaii, the salt pans in Malta, Machu Picchu, the Rocky Mountains, our first moose in Alaska, plus so many other incredible places we’ve seen as a family. I remember the first time we had shave ice in Hawaii (with macadamia nut ice cream under and sweet cream over) and all of the other times we had shave ice in Hawaii after that because it was so amazing and how was it possible I had never had it before? I remember the first time we tried stand-up paddle boarding in Hawaii and subsequently going paddle boarding in Grand Teton National Park and then seeing dolphins when we went paddle boarding in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. There are so many memories from travel, I could never capture even a fraction of them here.

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Taking in the view in Austria with my daughter

Without a doubt, travel has helped me better understand people around the world and their cultures. Travel has shown me that people around the world are more similar than they are different. We may speak different languages, dress and look differently, eat different foods, and have other cultural differences but we all want to interact with others on a meaningful level, be acknowledged for our thoughts, and have our basic needs met. I’ve found that there are more helpful people than harmful people but you do still need to use common sense and pay attention to your surroundings because I’m also not naive.

Perhaps the one aspect of travel that means the most to me is the ability to plan a vacation and look forward to it and then ultimately explore these places I had spent so much time looking at photos of and researching online. That’s also why not being able to travel for the foreseeable future has been so difficult for me. Not only has one vacation I had planned for April been cancelled but there lies a huge pot of uncertainty about the next two vacations I have planned for June and July.

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If the pandemic would have happened last year, I wouldn’t have gone to Peru!

I spent months planning where we were going to go first of all for these vacations, then choosing the cities within these places and our accommodations in each city, some activities and places to visit in each city, our flights, and even down to our rental cars. There are always so many pieces of the puzzle to come together, especially for an international vacation, and it takes time to plan everything. But don’t get me wrong because the planning that goes into travel is something I thoroughly enjoy.

Then there were the months of looking forward to going to these places. Now I’m left with feelings of denial. I kept telling myself in March we would still get to travel in April; it wasn’t going to be that bad. Of course it was even worse than anyone could have predicted back in early March when I was still hopeful. Still, I’m in denial about our vacations planned for June and July and I keep hoping beyond hope that the world will suddenly see these sweeping improvements in the number of cases of COVID-19 and we will still be able to travel after all.

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Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California. It’s even more stunningly beautiful in person.

I feel like if I lose hope for our vacations in June and July that I’ll have nothing to look forward to, at least travel-related. Yes, I did reschedule my vacation from April to November so there is that but that’s a long way off. Still, I was REALLY looking forward to our vacations in June and July, so although I’m not normally the type of person who lives their life in denial, I’m completely and totally in denial for as long as I possibly can be. Honestly, I feel like for the moment, it’s one thing that’s helping to keep me from going a little crazy.

What about you- what does travel mean to you? How has not being able to travel effected you?

Happy travels (someday)!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Travel Has Helped Me Cope With the Coronavirus Pandemic

While I feel like I probably travel more than the average American, by no means would I consider myself an expert on travel (whatever that even means). However, I’ve chosen to travel to some off-the-beaten path destinations, at least for an American, and this has ultimately changed me forever as a person. I was thinking recently how travel has impacted how I’m dealing with Coronavirus, specifically not being able to travel or leave my house except to run or go grocery shopping but also all of the trickle-down effects of travel on my life.

By traveling to tiny towns in Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Austria, Germany, and other places where the locals didn’t speak much if any English, travel has helped me become more resilient and to deal with issues that arise. Travel has also shown me that life often doesn’t turn out as we plan and we’ll be much happier if we learn to go with the flow. Instead of losing my temper or panicking when I got lost or couldn’t figure out something because of the language barrier, I would take a deep breath and try to figure it out. When my travel plans for April were cancelled because of the pandemic, sure I was sad my vacation wasn’t going to happen, but I knew it was better that way and eventually I will be able to travel safely.

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Although we missed a connecting flight to Malta, we eventually made it to this incredible country

I’ve learned to make the best of what I may find in a grocery store and figure out how to make meals for my family with what is on the shelves. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a foreign country is to see what their grocery stores have to offer and how much things cost in stores. It’s always been an adventure and more times than not, I’ve ended up with some pretty delicious meals out of what I’ve found on the shelves. I may not have been able to fully read the labels, but that’s just added to the adventure. At least in the US, I can read the labels (unless the food is imported). I have been to countries where they routinely have had shortages of things like toilet paper, with the difference being due to hoarders in the US and more of a routine problem with supply in other countries.

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This market in Peru was HUGE and quite the experience to walk around

One of the things I love to do as a stress-reliever is run outside, whether I’m on vacation or at home. I can do it virtually anywhere, although there are places where I would not run for safety reasons. Another bonus is all I need are my running shoes and appropriate running clothes. I can run outside or on a treadmill if running outside is not an option (assuming there’s a treadmill I can use). If I can’t run, I can do body weight exercises like lunges, squats, core work, and push-ups. I can also make up my own yoga routine no matter where I am. Being able to exercise on my own while traveling and at home has been a huge asset to my well-being and overall health and something I’ve always been grateful to have in my life but perhaps even more so during this pandemic.

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Some of the stunning water views I got to enjoy while running in Hawaii

I’ve learned that family members need a break from each other every now and again. When you’re traveling with family members, you’re in close proximity to one another for days on end and even the best of us can get tired of all of that one-on-one time. This is one reason why I’m such a huge fan of staying at Airbnb properties, because if we’re staying in a house, we can stretch out a bit more, have a kitchen to cook some of our own meals or just snack if we’re hungry and have a place to store our food, and usually we have more than one bathroom (although certainly not always). We all like to have some time on our own to catch up with friends through various social media apps, listen to a podcast or music, or just read a book in a quiet room to decompress. Being stuck at home for weeks on end while the Coronavirus pandemic has been going on has reminded me what a good idea it is to give family members a break from one another.

I’m sure there are more things that travel has shown me to help deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but these are the first things to come to my mind. Are there aspects of travel or other parts of your life that have helped you deal with the pandemic? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Happy travels (someday),

Donna

 

 

More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida

Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.

Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area

  • Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
  • Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
  • Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
  • Jiggs Landing Preserve- boat ramp, fishing, grills, open space, pavilion, playground, restrooms, trails
  • Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
  • Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
  • Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.

Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.

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Sunken Gardens

We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.

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Flamingos in Sunken Gardens

There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.

Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.

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Stand up paddle boarding in Weedon Island Preserve

Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.

You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.

The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.

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Running on the Pinellas Trail

Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg

Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:

  • Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
  • The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
  • Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
  • The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
  • Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
  • Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
  • Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
  • Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
  • Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
  • St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
  • Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.
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Some of the impressive artwork we saw at the Dali Museum and Imagine Museum

St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.

If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!

Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.

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St. Pete’s Beach- one of many white sandy beaches!

There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?

So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.

There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.

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Anna Maria Island City Jail photo op!

There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).

Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:

  • Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
  • Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
  • Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
  • 3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
  • Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries

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There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.

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Some things to keep in mind:

Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.

Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.

“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Which US Airlines Have the Least Legroom?

If you’re a relatively tall person like I am, at 5 feet 8 inches, legroom matters on an airplane. I’ve been on planes before where my knees are literally right against the person’s seat in front of me. If they decide to suddenly put their seat back, well, let me just say it’s not pleasant and for that reason, I almost never put my own seat back unless there’s a small child sitting directly behind me. Airplane courtesy aside, I know some people like to know what they’re getting into before they fly, especially if it’s going to be a long flight.

Of course when you’re comparing airlines, you should compare apples to apples. It’s not a fair comparison to look at economy seats with one airline and business or first class seats for another airline. Let’s focus here on economy class seats in the Main Cabin. The numbers shown refer to seat pitch, which is the distance from the back of your plane seat to the seat in front of you. To make things simpler, I’m going to refer to seat pitch and legroom interchangeably here.

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Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

Most legroom in economy class:

  • JetBlue: 33-34 inches.
  • Alaska Airlines: 32 inches.
  • Southwest: 32 inches.
  • Hawaiian Airlines: 31-32 inches.
  • American/United/Delta: 31 inches.

JetBlue is an economy airline that shines compared to other economy airlines, with the most legroom of any US airline being just one of their many perks. If you are able to pay more, JetBlue offers passengers the ability to upgrade to “Even More Space” seating. In addition to providing an extra 6 inches in seat pitch, JetBlue’s “Even More Space” provides passengers with early boarding privileges, early access to overhead bins, and a fast track through security (only available in select cities). “Even more Space” pricing varies by route length. These seats can be purchased from JetBlue directly at the time of booking or at check-in. Pricing will be dependent on duration of flight.

Alaska and Southwest Airlines offer similar legroom on their airplanes. If you can manage to snag an exit row or bulkhead seat, you will be rewarded with even more legroom on a Southwest flight. However, since Southwest does not have pre-assigned seating and no upgrade options, unless you’re in the front of the line for the first boarding group, there’s no chance you’ll get those seats. You can choose bulkhead and exit row seats with Alaska Airlines, however, and upgrades are available, for a fee.

Hawaiian Airlines seats usually have 31-32 inches of legroom, but on the smaller Boeing 717s mostly used for inter-island service, travelers will get 30 inches of legroom. On the flip side, for longer flights coming from the mainland US, you can purchase “Extra Comfort” seats. These extra-cost seats are available on Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 and A321 flights and offer a seat pitch of 36-inches.

American Airlines seats tend to vary widely because they currently operate many different airplanes. In general though, most seats have 31-32 inches of legroom, with the majority closer to 31 inches. You can purchase a “Main Cabin Extra Fare,” which will give you 2-3 more inches of legroom, depending on the aircraft you’re flying.

United Airlines seats are pretty standard with 31 inches of legroom, with a couple of exceptions on some Airbuses and 737 aircrafts that have 30 inches and the 787-8 Dreamliner that offers 32 inches of legroom. For their “Economy Plus” option, you’ll be rewarded with an extra 3-4 inches of legroom.

Delta Airlines is similar to American in that the have a wide array of aircraft, with varying legroom. The average legroom is 30-32 inches, with 31 inches the most common. For your extra money with Delta Comfort+ seats, you get an extra couple of inches of legroom. If you’re able to pay for “Delta Premium Select” seats, you’ll get a comfy 38 inches of legroom in return.

Least legroom in economy class:

  • Allegiant Air:  30 inches.
  • Spirit:  28 inches.
  • Frontier:  28-31 inches.

Not surprisingly, Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier are all budget carriers, and all offer their passengers the least legroom. As with the other airlines, however, you can purchase extra legroom with Allegiant’s Legroom+ and get an extra 4 inches. Legroom+ seats are in the first-row bulkhead section of the plane and exit rows over the wing. Another thing to note, none of the seats on Allegiant recline, which means no opportunity to bang the knees of the person sitting behind you. Also, Allegiant’s seat backs slope downward at an angle, so the seat in front of you isn’t even with your knees, shins, and feet. I recently flew with Allegiant Air and didn’t feel cramped at all.

It seems appropriate that the much-hated Spirit Airlines offers the least legroom of all airlines. You do have the opportunity to pay extra for “Big Front Seats” with a whopping 36 inches of legroom in the front of the plane. However, when you add up the cost of those seats in addition to the many, many other things you have to pay for with Spirit, you may see any savings you thought you’d have by flying with Spirit dwindle away.

Budget carrier Frontier seats do have a bit of a range in what you get, depending on the aircraft, but only a few of the older aircraft have the 31-inch pitch, and those are being phased out. Frontier’s newer aircraft have on average 28-29 inches of legroom. You can purchase “Stretch” seats which will get you a nice 36 inches of legroom and if you choose row 13 over the wing, you’ll be rewarded with a lucky 38 inches (something to remember if you’re flying with Frontier).

A bit all over the place in economy class:

Sun Country:  29-33 inches.

Minneapolis-based Sun Country is increasing the number of seats on its 737-800 aircraft, which will shrink the seat pitch to 29-30 inches, more aligned to its fellow budget airlines mentioned just above. Some of the aircraft will still have a 33-inch pitch, but they will also come with an additional fee. Depending on your route, it’s possible to have 31-32 inches of legroom but it seems inevitable that those aircraft will also eventually be retrofitted to the smaller seat pitch.

Do you even pay attention to seat pitch/legroom on airplanes or is it even an issue with you because you’re not tall enough for it to matter? Do you always choose an aisle seat and that’s good enough for you or do you prefer the bulkhead seats? Did you know about Frontier Airline’s mysterious extra pitch in row 13?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

How to Use Google Maps to Plan Your Next Vacation

I work with someone who I believe has a slight addiction to Google Maps. Often, after he and I discuss a place either he’s never been to or neither of us have been to, he’ll open up Google Maps and start “looking around” that place using the satellite view and street view options. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to choose a place where you’ve never been and check it out. This can give you an idea of what a city, street, or neighborhood really look like. That’s just a fun aspect of Google Maps, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.

Beyond just being able to visualize a place and of course the main reason people use Google Maps for directions, you can also use Google Maps to help you plan a vacation. To begin with, open Google Maps and navigate to Menu (at the top left with 3 bars) then open “Your places.” There are four options:  labeled, saved, visited, and maps. Under maps, you can click on Create Map then start creating a new map. Type in a city, restaurant, hotel, or other place. If you see a place of interest on the general Google map for that area, you can click on it and then click on “Add to map.” You can add labels, add directions, add a marker, and calculate distances. You’ll also need to name your map. All changes are saved in Google Drive. If you already have a Google account, you should be good to go, otherwise you’ll need to set up a Google account to save everything. When you’re done, you can share your map with other people.

You can also create a map using the “Saved” option. This is a bit easier to navigate in some ways, in my opinion, so you may want to start with this option, especially if you have trouble with the “Create Map” option. For example, when I went to Wyoming, I saved a bunch of places that we would be traveling to there and sent my saved map to my husband. That map that I called “Wyoming” had 16 places on it, with everything from where we would be staying, the airport, places where I wanted to hike, hot springs, and packet pickup for the half marathon I ran there. I’ve created maps this way and shared them with my husband when we went to other places on vacation as well.

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Screenshot of some of my saved maps in Google Maps

I’ve already started a map using the Create Map option for our upcoming summer vacation to Spain and Portugal. Let me tell you, it’s already ridiculously full of places where I want to go plus the places we will be staying. I think there’s something like 40 places including beaches, restaurants, shops, historical sites, and other places of interest on there. When I’m done with it, just before our trip, I’ll share it with my husband so he has it too.

There’s also a feature some of you may not be aware of that you may either love or hate. If you click on “Visited,” you can see everywhere Google Maps has record of you going to. Obviously you have to have had your phone turned on and you need to be logged into Google in order for the places to be recorded. I checked and mine goes back about one year. I’ve had my Google account for longer than that so I’m not sure if it’s just a default to just keep data for a year or what. Some people may not like the idea of being “tracked” by Google, but this can actually be a good thing. Say you’re trying to remember the name of that cute little cafe by the water you ate at on vacation three weeks ago. By using this feature, you may be able to figure that out. What may also surprise you (it surprised me), if you also use Google photos, any photos you’ve saved to Google photos will show up in your timeline for those days.

Have you ever used Google Maps to plan a vacation or create a map before a vacation? What’s your experience been like?

Happy travels!

Donna