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.
yosemite-waterfall
One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
half-dome-03
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.

Hawaii 2007 143
Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii 2007 138
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.

IMG_20170227_124831916
Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
IMG_0113
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.

IMG_20170302_155741352_HDR
Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
IMG_20170302_160258725_HDR
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.

20180820_125206
One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
IMG_1371-2
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

 

 

 

Advertisements

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- West Coast

This is part three of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast and part two here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US.

I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.

1) For the city-lover and partier:  Start in Los Angeles, California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).

Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.

IMG_20170222_182802015
Las Vegas at night

You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.

2) For a desert experience, first choice:  Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.

Desert experience, with national parks:  Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.

IMG_0174
Antelope Canyon was even better than I expected

3) To see mountains, first choice:  Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.

IMG_20160607_132607921_HDR
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Mountains, second choice:  Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.

IMG_7226
Glacier National Park in Montana

4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature:  fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.

Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.

5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.

6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.

Hawaii 2007 086
All of the Hawaiian islands are beautiful!

There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!

Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

10 Things Travel Taught Me in 2017

In 2017 my travels took me to Las Vegas,Washington, Utah, where I ran a half marathonZion National ParkBryce Canyon National ParkAntelope CanyonBest Friends Animal Sanctuary in February, and Grand Canyon National Park in March. That’s a lot right there, so what did I learn in the first few months of 2017 from these places?

1). I learned I love visiting national parks even in the winter months (and I don’t like cold weather and snow). Bryce Canyon has a special feeling when you’re admiring partially snow-covered hoodoos and you’re surrounded by utter stillness and beauty.

IMG_20170227_124831916
Snow-dusted Bryce Canyon

2). It’s possible and fun even to have a short stay in Las Vegas  with children and not spend much money. We had fun just wandering around, going through the massive casino hotels, taking in the views.

IMG_0009
Vegas, baby!

3). Volunteering when you’re on vacation rocks! One of the highlights of our time in Utah was our time at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I’d love to do more things like this in the future.

IMG_0149
Hiking with our little overnight buddy at Best Friends

After some time at home, we were back out on our next travel adventure, beginning with New Jersey in May. I ran the Superhero Half Marathon  in Morristown, and I finally got to visit the Statue of Liberty in person. From New Jersey we were off to our first visit to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile. After spending the night in Santiago, we spent a few days in Vina del Mar, which we fell in love with, and spent a week in the Las Cabras Region of Chile. This final place in Chile is where I learned so much about myself in relation to travel.

4). Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Not being fluent in Spanish, not having wi-fi (mostly for maps and things to do), and not knowing the area well will force you to interact more with local people and figure things out on your own. I found I was more resilient than I thought I was.

IMG_20170528_165949917_HDR
Chile in all of its splendor!

5). I learned so much during my time in Chile, I made a list of 15 lessons I learned there. Probably the biggest thing I learned was to learn as much Spanish as possible before visiting the country. Don’t expect others to speak English, especially in more remote and smaller towns. This is a lesson for many other non-English-speaking countries as well.

IMG_20170529_142944189_HDR
I loved hiking on this trail in Chile

6). I also learned Chileans are some of the warmest, friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered on my travels. We were blessed with the kindness of strangers on several occasions in Chile.

IMG_20170529_151229556_HDR
Our little fox friend in Chile

In August, my family and I headed back to one of my favorite cities, Charleston, South Carolina. We were fortunate enough to experience the total eclipse and that was definitely the highlight of our time there. Even though we were only there for five days, I learned something.

7). Sometimes your family will get on your nerves when you’re traveling. My daughter hadn’t been sleeping well for many days before we even went on this vacation. That on top of not sleeping well because she was in a strange bed in a strange house resulted in one cranky eleven-year-old. She whined, complained, and I lost my cool on more than one occasion. I didn’t let it ruin my vacation, however. I know there will be days like this, even on vacation, when everything’s not all rosy.

IMG_0515
Morris Island near Charleston

In November, we had a little mini-vacation in Huntington, West Virginia when I ran the Marshall University Half Marathon. While we were only here for the weekend, I did manage to learn something.

8). Weekend or long-weekend getaways are a great way to explore small towns. You don’t always have to go away for a week or more and you don’t always have to go to exotic places to have fun. My family and I had more weekend getaways last year than this year and I had forgotten how nice they can be.

20171104_130941
Huntington, West Virginia

For our final vacation of 2017, we headed first to Malta then to Miami. I was very much looking forward to going to Malta since visiting the Gozo Salt Pans was on my bucket list. Malta exceeded my expectations as far as natural beauty of the islands (Malta is an archipelago of three islands), food, and just about every thing we saw and did. I have a series of posts about our time in Malta and there is one thing I learned during that vacation.

9). Mobile WiFi or MiFi can be a relatively inexpensive (roughly $10/day) but truly invaluable way to find your way around and stay connected when traveling internationally, especially if you’re driving a rental car. I have a post coming on this, so stay tuned!

Our time in Miami was spent a bit differently than many people would choose to vacation there since we were there to visit a dear friend of mine who lives there. We didn’t go to a single club or party at South Beach like many people would. Instead my friend took care of all of the planning for us and graciously took us to some of her favorite restaurants, on a tour of the Everglades, and to South Beach for the day to enjoy the ocean, play in the sand, soak in the sun, and thoroughly relax and enjoy ourselves. This brings me to the final thing I learned about travel this year.

10). Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do all of the planning for you and just sit back and relax. You don’t always have to try to cram in a dozen “must-do” restaurants or things to do.

What about you all? Where has travel taken you in 2017 and what have you learned from it?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Valley of the Sun Marathon and Half Marathon, Arizona-5th state

This was the turning point in my life where I started to think about all of the half marathons I had ran and the fact that I had ran in a few different states.  I had heard about other people running a marathon in all 50 states, and I knew about people who run a half marathon in half of the states, but that just didn’t seem right to me.  Why only run half of the states?  I thought maybe I could run a half marathon in all 50 states.

I was planning a work trip to Colorado and wanted to extend my trip out another week and go to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Arizona for a vacation afterwards.  While I was planning all of this, I saw there was a half marathon in Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun Half Marathon, so I signed up and came up with a plan.  I was to fly to Colorado for a week then from there to Phoenix, where my husband would meet me and we’d spend a week in Sedona and the Grand Canyon.  Everything was all set.

Then I found out I was pregnant.  Oh boy.  What to do?  I asked my doctor and she said since I had a strong running base to go ahead and run the half marathon but to listen to my body and not go out for any PR’s but go easy.  I would only be a few weeks pregnant at the race and there were no complications in my pregnancy so she said everything should be fine.  I had been having morning sickness all along my pregnancy and the day of the race, I felt queasy as usual but nothing I couldn’t control.  After some crackers and ginger ale, I was good to go.

All of the runners for the race were bussed out to a park surrounded by cacti.  Even though it was pretty cold waiting for the sun to come up, it was beautiful and even a bit surreal for someone like me from the east coast who had never been to Arizona before.  The course was pretty flat and since we started so early, it didn’t get too hot.  I made sure I never got out of breath and went slower than if I hadn’t been pregnant but I felt really good during the whole race.

I received a bright yellow short-sleeve cotton t-shirt and a cute medal with a red chili pepper on it at the finish.  The finish had the usual foods and water.  At this point, races were still pretty low-key compared to what they’re like now.

Sedona is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and I highly recommend going here.  It’s about a 2 hour drive from Phoenix to Sedona and the Grand Canyon is about another 2 hours from Sedona.  The Grand Canyon is one of those places everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.

From my post-race notes:

“Got to watch sun rise while waiting in beautiful park surrounded by cacti.  Was pregnant for this race.  Course was mostly flat with one or two hills, one very long one.  Finish on outdoor track.  My finish time was 2:06:50.”

From what I can tell, the last year for this race was 2010, so I can’t add a link to the race site.  There are however, many half marathons in Phoenix so I’m adding a link to these plus others in Arizona here.