Digging a Little Deeper Into Asheville, NC

Asheville, North Carolina is a city I’ve chosen to return to many times over the years. The only other city I can think of that I’ve chosen to return to more than a couple of times is Charleston, South Carolina. I first went to Asheville when I was in graduate school in Tennessee and I fell in love with it then. For those of you not acquainted with Asheville, it’s in the mountains of western North Carolina. By car, it’s about 2 hours from Charlotte, NC or Knoxville, TN in the other direction and about 1 hour from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I’ve been to the Biltmore House in Asheville many times and had a season pass at one point. Although the Biltmore is lovely all four seasons, Christmas is my favorite, with spring in a close second. The first overnight vacation I took my daughter on was to Asheville, and we toured the Biltmore when she was about two months old. I’ve also hiked all over in and around Asheville. But I’m not going to talk about the Biltmore House or hiking here. I’ve already done that and you can read my posts here: Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina and Camping in Asheville, North Carolina.

I’m going to talk a bit about other things to do in Asheville because Asheville is so much more than just the Biltmore House and hiking/camping. Asheville is full of things to do and is a foodie town that can hold its own to other foodie towns like Charleston, SC. Too many people just get stuck in the Biltmore or hiking rut and don’t venture off to the plethora of other offerings Asheville has, myself included, until recently. So here we go digging a bit deeper.

Things to Do

Even though I’m a huge fan of botanical gardens, I only recently discovered the botanical garden in Asheville. It backs up to the University of North Carolina at Asheville campus so it’s easy to find. More importantly, it’s a quiet and peaceful place to walk around for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you get in the water or not. Reed Creek flows through the gardens and provides a relaxing place to cool off in the summer or just to stop and enjoy the sounds and views. There is no admission fee and dogs are not permitted. https://ashevillebotanicalgardens.org

On a similar note but much bigger than the botanical gardens is the North Carolina Arboretum with gardens, a bonsai exhibit, hiking and biking trails, and views for miles on a clear day. There is no admission fee but there is a parking fee that some might consider a bit hefty ($16/vehicle). There are discounts offered for some affiliations and on the first Tuesday of the month so check the website for more information. https://www.ncarboretum.org

The Grove Arcade isn’t really an arcade at all but one of the most stunning indoor shopping malls I’ve ever seen. Originally opened in 1929 as America’s first indoor shopping mall, the Grove Arcade is a mix of stores and restaurants. Even if you don’t care for shopping, if you love ornate architecture, you might want to pop in to admire the building. There are even apartments for rent here and for just $2850/month you can have your own 2 bedroom apartment with 1478 square ft (yes, of course I realize that’s outrageous but I never said Asheville was cheap). Check out the website for a directory https://grovearcade.com

A friend of mine that had recently been to Asheville and knew I was planning a trip there asked if I had been to the Antique Tobacco Barn and I said I hadn’t so I thought I’d check it out. If you enjoy browsing through antiques, this is a huge place (almost 80,000 square ft) full of all kinds of antiques so big you can easily get turned around. There are something like 75 antique dealers, each with their own area within the space. Since I saw it was dog-friendly, I brought my dog and I’ve never seen her so happy when there weren’t treats involved. I guess she loved all of the smells from everything and her tail didn’t stop wagging the entire time we were there. https://www.atbarn.com

The River Arts District has working studios and galleries from many different kinds of artists and forms of medium including painting, glass, metal, jewelry, and more. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the the second Saturday of the month, there are gallery walks, workshops, wine tastings, demonstrations, and music. There’s even a trolley to help take you around the mile-long district, known as RAD. Check out more information plus the many events and classes on the website https://www.riverartsdistrict.com

For even more artistry, visit the Southern Highland Craft Guild. There are four locations where you can buy some of this fine handmade art by members of the group, with three in Asheville and one in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The 75th Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands was in July and October of this year. To purchase tickets or for more information see the website https://www.southernhighlandguild.org/galleries/

If you have children or just love animals, there’s the Western North Carolina Nature Center, essentially a zoo, full of animals that live or have lived in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Or so they say, but there are red pandas that currently only live in Central Asia (WNC Nature Center says that the climate where red pandas live is nearly identical to that of Asheville). But I digress. It’s a pretty typical zoo, in my opinion, with extras like behind the scenes tours, nature play areas, but with an additional area you don’t normally see at zoos- a gem and fossil mining area. My daughter loved doing this when she was younger. For an additional fee, you buy a bag of stones that they call mining roughage and put it through the sluice to see what you find. https://wildwnc.org/plan-your-visit/

One place I’ve never visited but I know is popular is the Asheville Pinball Museum. For $15 you can play 35 pinball machines and 35 classic video games for “as long as you like.” I wonder if that last part has ever been tested by someone who is really good at pinball or video games and they’ve had to kick them out after playing for hours. https://ashevillepinball.com

Another place I’ve never been that is surprising even to me because I normally love places like this is the Asheville Museum of Science. Originally opened in 1960 in another location with the name Burnham S. Colburn Memorial Museum, the museum was moved and renamed a couple more times before its current location and name in 2016. They seem to have many hands-on exhibits that delve into astronomy, geology, weather, climate, ecology, and paleontology. Admission is a simple $10 for everyone over 3. https://ashevillescience.org

If you enjoy live music, there are many options in Asheville. One of the best sources is this calendar https://livemusicasheville.com/calendar-live-music-in-asheville/ or this one that has more than just live music (like links for food and drink, things to do, etc.) https://www.exploreasheville.com/iconic-asheville/music/live-music-events-calendar/

Food and Drink

Like I mentioned in the beginning, Asheville is a foodie city and has been for quite some time. Over the years, the food scene has just exploded as has the number of breweries. Depending on the source, I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 20 to 30 breweries in Asheville. Considering there are currently around 96,000 people living in Asheville, that’s a ton of breweries for a town of this size. Some of the more popular breweries include Highland Brewing, Burial Beer Co, Bhramari Brewing Co, Archetype Brewing, Hi-Wire, New Belgium Brewing Co, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. I recently discovered White Labs Brewing Co and loved not only the beer but the pizza that was made with fermented dough, essentially sourdough. Sierra Nevada has some of the best food I’ve ever had at a brewery.

Some breweries including Sierra Nevada give tours as well

I don’t know how restaurants in Asheville stay in business given the stiff competition. You can find anything from food trucks to fancy dine-in restaurants and everything in between at all price points. It may seem surprising that a Caribbean restaurant, Nine Mile, is one of the highest rated restaurants given the location but probably not so surprising that there are a multitude of places specializing in pizza (pizza goes so well with beer). Some other highly rated restaurants include Cúrate, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, White Duck Taco, Tupelo Honey, Jargon, Rhubarb, All Souls Pizza, Buxton Hall, and Biscuit Head. I’ve been to many of these restaurants and will say the hype is real. I also discovered and really liked Gypsy Queen Market and Deli, a Lebanese restaurant when I was there last time.

Asheville is also a big coffee city with many local coffee shops including the touristy but still good Double D’s Coffee and Desserts where they sell coffee, tea, and desserts out of a bright red double-decker bus surrounded by a patio. You can find a whole list of some of the best coffee shops in Asheville here: https://www.exploreasheville.com/blog/post/fan-faves-ashevilles-best-coffee-shops/

Dog City USA

Asheville promotes itself as Dog City USA and tries hard to support that title. It’s one of the most dog-friendly places I’ve been and dogs are welcome at many breweries, restaurants (with outdoor seating) and stores. One restaurant, Twisted Laurel even has a doggie menu with protein, veggie, and dessert options. The Aloft Hotel in Downtown Asheville is so dog-friendly there’s no extra charge for dogs and there are usually rescue dogs available to adopt. Plus, there are many other pet-friendly hotels in Asheville at all price ranges.

The first official dog welcome center in the US is inside The Dog Door Behavior Center and Outfitter in Downtown Asheville across from the Grove Arcade. They have indoor and outdoor seating, a doggy potty area, water fountains, free goody bags, doggie ice cream, and info on their top 100 dog-friendly attractions, restaurants, and things to do. You can also buy treats, bandanas, toys, and other goodies for your dog in the store.

Best Time of Year To Go

Asheville definitely has all four seasons, with snow in the winter, spring flowers in the spring, hot but not excessively so summers, and autumn leaves in the fall. Summers are the busiest time of year and most packed with families. Spring and fall are probably the best overall in terms of weather and crowds but the spring can be fairly rainy and chilly, especially in March. January is the coldest month and can get quite chilly by North Carolina standards, although the lows don’t typically dip below the 20’s.

The best time of year to visit really depends on what you plan to do. If you want to go hiking, you can do that year-round but bring weather-appropriate clothes and good sturdy hiking shoes or boots. There are bears so be aware of that and make sure you make noise periodically when you’re hiking so that you don’t startle a bear. Spring is when bears have their cubs so that’s the time of year to be especially cautious. I would recommend spending three full days in Asheville or four if you plan on driving to other cities like Boone or Blowing Rock (which I recommend) or going to Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Have you been to Asheville before? If so, what did you do? Are there any places you really enjoyed and recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

Most Overrated Tourist Attractions

I saw an article by Fodor’s Travel about the most overrated tourist attractions in the world and it made me pause. For the article, see https://www.fodors.com/news/news/the-most-overrated-tourist-attractions-in-2022. For a quick summary, there were places mentioned ranging from The Grand Canyon, The FRIENDS Experience New York, cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, but apparently the most popular places listed were Disney World and Disneyland. The reasons listed shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been to Disney- too crowded and too expensive. Rounding out the poll’s top 5 most overrated tourist attractions were The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Eiffel Tower, Times Square, and The Louvre.

I’ve never been to The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Eiffel Tower, or The Louvre so I can’t comment on my personal feelings about those places but I have been to Disneyland and Disney World, The Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Times Square. I agree that Disney is hugely expensive and crowded so I can see where people would rank those places as overrated. There wasn’t a reason or reasons listed why people thought Times Square was overrated but I can also understand how it could be a letdown for people expecting some sort of magical experience or inflated expectations.

I started thinking about what I would list as the top 5 most overrated places I’ve traveled to. Travel can be a subjective subject so I understand that places I may have hated or just generally disliked are places that other people love. Likewise, I’ve been to places that I loved that others have hated. For example, I’ve heard people say The Grand Canyon National Park is nothing but a big hole in the ground with a bunch of rocks and trees around. I thought the Grand Canyon was an amazingly beautiful part of our country and loved hiking there. Not everyone likes being out in nature, though.

Does this look like just a big hole in the ground? Not to me!

Probably my number one place that I would list as overrated is Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m not a gambler and both times I went there I didn’t gamble even once, not even to play the slot machines. I really could care less about gambling. The first time I went to Las Vegas I was in nearby Laughlin, Nevada for a half marathon and thought I should see what all the fuss was about in Vegas. Needless to say, I was not impressed. Sure, the enormous themed casino hotels (The Venetian, Paris, Bellagio, etc.) are cool but I wouldn’t go there just for the hotels. I’m also not a big drinker or partier so you could see where Las Vegas would not be a great choice for a person like me.

Las Vegas Strip at night

The second time I was in Las Vegas was when I was running a half marathon outside St. George, Utah and it was cheaper to fly into Las Vegas and drive from there. Since we landed in the evening I thought we should at least walk through some of the hotel lobbies and watch the fountain displays with our teenage daughter to show her the sights. Would I ever purposely go back? Maybe to watch a Cirque du Soleil show but that’s the only reason (I’m a big fan of their shows).

Next on my list of overrated tourist spots is Gatlinburg, Tennessee (not including Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Like Las Vegas, I’ve been here twice, once as a teenager with a friend of mine and her family and more recently to go hiking in the park with my daughter last summer. On my more recent visit, we skipped all of the super-touristy places like Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, and the Salt and Pepper Museum. I didn’t hate it here and there were some shops and restaurants I enjoyed but it’s definitely not a place I would go out of my way to go to. See my post: Gatlinburg, Tennessee “Myrtle Beach in the Sky”

Main strip of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

If you read my post on Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it may come to no surprise that next on my list here is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Like Gatlinburg and Las Vegas, this is a place I’ve been to more than once, the first time as a child and later as an adult. This is also a place I personally know many people go to every summer with their friends and/or families and love it here. I find it crowded with people and traffic and touristy shops and restaurants full of fried seafood (which I don’t like). The water is murky and there is often trash littered around the hotels and beach areas. I would hands-down rather go a little further south to Charleston, South Carolina, which in my opinion is about 1000 times better in every way imaginable than Myrtle Beach.

Next on my list is a place I’ve only been to once: Los Angeles, California. I went here during my trip to Long Beach, California, when I ran a marathon and explored the area afterwards. Personally, I found the Hollywood Walk of Fame to be a complete waste of time (it’s exactly what you think it will be, a bunch of famous people’s names on gold stars on the sidewalk) and the tour of celebrity homes was also a waste. What I remember from that tour is driving around in a van, going by a bunch of huge fences and shrubbery while the host talked about the celebrity who lived in each of the homes we couldn’t even see. Maybe I just chose a bad tour or maybe they’re better now since that was several years ago. Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Sign, and every single other thing I saw or went past was entirely a waste of time to me.

The final place on my list of overrated places is a city I was surprised I didn’t like it as much as I did and I found it disappointing overall- Athens, Greece. For all of the details, you can read my post: I’m Sorry but I Just Didn’t Love Athens. In short, I found it to be hot, crowded, and dirty and many of the ruins were in such a poor state you could barely even see anything there. That being said, it might be more pleasant during the spring or fall when it’s not so crowded or hot. It’s also a place despite the fact I found it overrated, I would still recommend everyone go there just once to experience it for themselves.

Recognize this ruin? Me niether but I know it was in Athens

In fact, I don’t want to imply that I think no one should go to any of these overrated places. Like I said earlier, I know many people who go to some of these places year after year and love them. Also, with the exception of Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, these are unique places that I encourage everyone to see for themselves for the experience. There truly is no other place (at least not that I’ve been to or heard of) like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Athens, each of which has unique qualities that some people are drawn to.

What about you? Do you love any of the places I listed as overrated? Do you have your own list of overrated places that you’ve been to?

Happy travels!

Donna

A Week in the Algarve- Southern Portugal- Outdoor Adventures

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: In 2020, I was supposed to take a big vacation and then all of a sudden this thing called Covid-19 hit, causing worldwide shutdowns. I know I’m not the only person who had to cancel plans when the pandemic started. I’m also not the only person who thought, “Surely this will be over in a couple of months and I can just postpone my trip until then.”

I was supposed to go to southern Spain and southern Portugal for a week each in June of 2020. When borders were closed I pushed back those plans a couple of months to August, only to finally cancel indefinitely. Once vaccinations and treatments were available and borders were starting to open again in 2021, I made plans to go to just Portugal (so no Spain this time) for a week during my daughter’s spring break in 2022.

I’m not going to go into detail here about all of the COVID testing requirements and regulations since I already wrote about that here: International Travel as an American During COVID Isn’t Easy but needless to say it was stressful. It turns out the stress didn’t stop there. When we arrived in Lisbon we were told there was too much fog that morning to fly safely into Faro. The airline, TAP Portugal was going to bus us all to Faro, or we could rent cars ourselves if we chose to do so (on our own dime). The ironic part is the fog lifted fairly quickly and we could have easily flown to Faro and we would have gotten there sooner, even with waiting a few hours. We were told it would be about a three hour bus ride.

After much standing around in the Lisbon airport for hours and being told time after time, “We’re still working on getting the buses here,” we finally boarded the buses (we all fit in two buses after many people left and rented vehicles on their own) and began the drive to Faro airport. Of course there was a lot of complaining by passengers in the meantime but I was just happy to get to Faro that same day. They could have easily told us we would have to wait until the next day to fly out.

I should mention never once did anyone from the airline (TAP Portugal) tell us we were entitled to any form of compensation or even a free lunch for our troubles, despite many people angrily demanding something in return. I know when it’s a weather-related delay airlines can pretty much do what they want. Since our flight from New York was an overnight one, I was exhausted by now and slept on the bus most of the way. The few times I did look out the window there didn’t seem to be much to see anyway other than normal highway sights.

Our temporary home in Portugal was perfect!

FINALLY in Faro (that should have been the title of my post), I picked up the rental car and about an hour later we arrived in Ferragudo at the Airbnb, a beautiful townhouse with several balconies including a rooftop balcony with bouganvillea spilling over the front of the property. Ferragudo turned out to be the perfect area to stay because it was a fairly central location in the Algarve, only an hour from the southwestern tip of Portugal and an hour from the southern border with Spain.

Things to Do- Hiking

Since the water was still chilly (I saw surfers wearing wet suits and children in the water but that was it) the plan was to spend most of our time hiking and generally checking out all that we could in a week without spending a ton of time in the car. We were very close to two incredible trails, The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail (Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos) and Trail of the Headlands (Caminho dos Promontórios).

The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail has been voted the best trail in Europe and I can see why. It’s around 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) and stretches from Praia da Marinha to Praia do Vale de Centeanes (Praia means “beach” in Portuguese). The trail is one-way so either you have a car pick you up at the end or you turn around and go back the way you came. Along the way you go past one of the most famous beaches in Portugal, Praia de Benagil. The trail was a little difficult to follow at times so pay attention when you come to businesses, since one part of the trail goes right through a restaurant at one point, and bring water, snacks, and sunscreen. There are some restaurants along the way but if you’re there during the winter they may not be open.

Hiking along the coast was one of my favorite things to do- it was so beautiful!

The Trail of the Headlands is about 6 kilometers and you can park at Praia do Molhe in Ferragudo to begin. There’s a wonderful restaurant by this beach that we ate dinner at on both our first and last days and I highly recommend it (the restaurant is called O Molhe). The trail is another out-and-back trail where you’ll see the rugged limestone cliffs with the azure blue water below but it was notably less busy when we were there than when we hiked the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail. Although many of the beaches along this trail are inaccessible, you can reach Praia do Pintadinho and Praia dos Caneiros.

A bit further west near Lagos is the Fisherman’s Trail (Trilho dos Pescadores). This 11-kilometer trail goes from Luz Beach to the train station in Lagos and like the other trails in the Algarve discussed here, has views of limestone cliffs with the blue water below. You’ll go past a famous area called Ponte da Piedade with its rock formations, caves, and grottos. There was once a Roman temple, a Moorish temple, a Christian hermitage, a fortification to protect Torrinha’s fishing tackle, and even a lighthouse here.

Beaches

As I mentioned earlier, the word beach in Portuguese is “Praia.” Honestly, I could never say here, “These are the best beaches in the Algarve” because 1) I’m certainly no expert on this and 2) That’s a pretty subjective matter. I will say this, two of the more popular beaches, Praia do Carvalho and Praia da Marinha get crowded. We managed to find a tiny beach one day, Praia da Afurada, that was near where we were staying in Ferragudo and not a single other person was there the entire time we were there, reading on the beach. It’s hard to go wrong with the over 100 beaches in the Algarve.

Ria Formosa Nature Park

The Ria Formosa Nature Park is near the town of Olhão. I suggest you stop in town first to get cash if you don’t have any since the nature park has an entry fee and they don’t accept credit cards. There’s also no food or drinks for sale in the park. We were there just before lunch so I found a small restaurant that turned out to be interesting. I asked for a menu and the person working there pointed to a small chalkboard with three things written on it: carne de porco, frango, and peixe (pork, chicken, and fish). Good thing my daughter and I are adventurous eaters! I chose the chicken for both of us and we received steaming plates of tender chicken with a creamy yellow sauce and fried potatoes on the side. It was delicious and tasted a bit like yellow curry but I honestly have no idea what it was and we didn’t get sick later.

Flamingos but not pink. Not sure what the birds in the trees were (upper right).

The Nature Park has a small parking lot where you park and pay for entry then it’s all self-guided trails. I didn’t find the trails especially well-marked and got turned around a few times, despite having a map given to me at the entrance. It’s full of a bunch of loops that go around one another so while it’s virtually impossible to get completely lost and not find your way back, you may end up like we did going in circles the wrong way a few times. We saw some flamingos and many other birds that I have no idea what they were since I’m not familiar with Portuguese birds but no other animals. We went past some salt pans but they were disappointingly not picturesque, unfortunately. It’s a nice place to walk around for a couple of hours, especially if you’re a nature-lover, and this doesn’t seem like a place that gets overly-crowded.

I’m going to end my post on southern Portugal here since it seems like a nice place to end. I’ll pick up with a post on some of the restaurants, shopping, and other things we enjoyed and some other things that happened to us (not all good) on our Portuguese adventure!

Have you been to Southern Portugal? If so, where did you go? Happy travels!

Donna

What to do When Things Go Badly When Hiking

I’m an avid hiker and have hiked all over the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Canada, New Zealand, and well, just about everywhere I’ve ever visited. Many things have also gone badly when I’ve been hiking. Too many times to remember I’ve missed a turn and gotten lost, had a bear suddenly approach me (only once, thank goodness), been without water or snacks when I needed them, been without cell phone coverage or a map, had the weather turn suddenly, and these are all things off the top of my head that have happened.

I’ve lived and learned by my own mistakes and I’m writing this post in the hopes that you may also learn from my mistakes. Yes, sometimes things go wrong even when you’ve done everything you could to prepare but as they say, a little preparation goes a long way. Of course you should always try to be prepared well in advance before you even leave for your hike, not when you’re standing at the trail head or arrive at the parking lot. Here are some things you can do to prepare.

This trail in Chile was like an enchanted forest

You should first check the weather forecast to make sure a storm isn’t supposed to blow in or something like that and make sure you’re appropriately dressed for the temperature. If you’ll be hiking up a steep mountain for example, the type where there’s snow at the top even though it’s sunny and warm at the bottom, bring a jacket and even gloves and a hat depending on the circumstances. And please, women, make sure you have appropriate shoes, meaning no sandals (unless they’re Chaco or others meant for hiking), no high heels, and absolutely no flip flops. I hate to single out the ladies but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen women wearing shoes clearly not meant to be worn when hiking.

Bring water and snacks if there’s even a slight chance you’ll be out for more than an hour. I’ve found it’s always better to have it and not eat or drink it than not have it and be dying of thirst or hunger. Other good things to bring include a small first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, emergency blanket, and bear spray if there are bears in the area.

The Canary Islands aren’t just known for their beaches- the hiking is incredible there!

Download a map of the area in Google maps so in the likely event you don’t have cell coverage you’ll still have a map of the area. If you can’t do that pick up a paper map of the trails or print one out before you leave. It’s also a good idea to choose which trail(s) you’ll be hiking before you go out. If you’re going to a national park, check out https://www.nps.gov/index.htm or if you’re going to a state park, look that up online to read about the trail lengths and difficulty. Another good source is https://www.alltrails.com/.

What if you’ve done everything you possibly could to prepare in advance and something still goes badly on your hike? Now what? It depends on the circumstance but I’ll give you some examples of what can go wrong and what you can do.

One of the most common things to go wrong on a trail is people get lost. You miss a turn or aren’t paying attention and wander off the trail. This happened to me when I was pregnant and hiking in Arizona (I was in my first trimester and not even showing then). My husband and I missed a turn and the next thing I knew I was looking down a sheer drop. We slowly back-tracked the way we had come and after a while saw where we had gotten off the marked trail. Of course this works best if you’re not wandering off-trail for very long but still, do your best to remember your surroundings and try to back-track the way you came.

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was exhilarating!

This brings me to another thing you can do to help prevent yourself from getting lost in the first place: pay attention. When you’re hiking, it’s easy to just get lost in your surroundings and before you know it, all the trees look the same. This can be very dangerous, however, if you do get lost and have absolutely no idea how to find your way back. If you know you’re not very observant (or even if you are) you can leave markings along the way so you could potentially follow them if you needed to. Some great ones that don’t harm the environment are chalk marks on trees, rock piles, pinecones, or sticks piled in specific ways set by you that you will remember. You also need to pay attention to the trail markings set by who ever made and maintains the trail. If you start off on a trail marked with blue diamonds, you need to stay on that trail.

If you find yourself taking much longer than you expected and you’re getting dehydrated, if you brought along a LifeStraw or other type of water filter, you can use that to safely drink lake or river water from. Never drink water straight from the source without first filtering it because it could have microorganisms that can make you sick. No one wants to have diarrhea or stomach cramps when they’re hiking. Unless you’re an expert at foraging, I don’t recommend randomly picking wild mushrooms or berries because again, they can make you sick if you don’t know which ones are the edible ones and which ones are poisonous.

Hiking in Grand Teton National Park was almost as much fun as doing standup paddleboarding on the lake there!

Another good thing to bring along is a space blanket. These fold neatly into a little square so they don’t take up much space in a backpack but they can literally save a life. For example, say the person you’re hiking with falls into a river accidentally and the water is freezing. You can whip out the space blanket and wrap it around them to quickly warm them up. It’s also good to have if you find yourself so lost you can’t get back to your car before it gets dark and you have to spend the night on the trail.

My final word of advice is never go hiking alone unless you’re a thoroughly seasoned hiker, know first aid and personal safety, and have a way of contacting others in the event of an emergency. If you fall into that category, I suspect you won’t be reading this blog post, however.

What about you? Have you been on a hike and things went badly? Do you avoid hiking because you’re worried about the dangers?

Happy hiking!

Donna

Stunning Santa Fe, New Mexico

For my first trip to New Mexico, even though the first part of my time was spent in Albuquerque (Quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico), my time in that city was primarily for a half marathon (The Albuquerque Half Marathon, Albuquerque, New Mexico-50th state). As much as I enjoyed Albuquerque, I’m not sure I would have chosen to go there otherwise, but Santa Fe, on the other hand, was always slated as my highlight to New Mexico. I literally went straight from the race to my hotel for a quick shower and finished packing my bags, (all of which I did in about 20 minutes), before I hopped in the rental car for the one hour scenic drive to Santa Fe. When I was driving past all of the Native Indian Reservations, I kept thinking to myself how much it reminded me of parts of Colorado and Arizona mixed together, not surprising given their geography.

Albuquerque was a good introduction for me to the higher elevation of Santa Fe, since the former is at about 5300 feet and the latter is at about 7200 feet. Santa Fe is a quaint town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and it has a definite artsy feel. New Mexico’s capital city isn’t the largest city by population in the state but there is plenty to do year-round. Here were some of my favorite things to do and places to eat in the Santa Fe area.

Quintessential Santa Fe

Things to Do

Museum Hill has four museums all in the same area so you can walk from one building to another. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has almost 4,000 pieces of Hispanic New Mexico art. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture gives more of the story behind the American Indian people in the Southwest and includes prehistoric through contemporary art. The Museum of International Folk Art has 130,000 pieces of folk art from all over the world. There are dolls and unique displays, some of which are enormous with elaborate detail. I enjoyed this museum much more than I thought I would. Finally, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian has historical Native American art through contemporary art and includes the Case Trading Post, which sells jewelry, art, ceramics, and textiles. Check the website for hours and tickets: https://www.museumhill.net/

I loved the Museum of International Folk Art so much!

Right beside Museum Hill is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. This is definitely one of the smallest botanical gardens I’ve been to and it’s entirely outside with no conservatory but I still enjoyed it. There were some unique sculptures and it was nice to just casually stroll around the grounds and not feel rushed to take it all in, which you can easily do in an hour or less. https://santafebotanicalgarden.org/

Even though I had heard of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, an immersive art experience, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. It seemed a bit “out there” to me and I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. After going, I have to say I absolutely loved this place! It was bizarre and creative and just made me laugh at times. Although it’s completely hands-on where you have to touch things, crawl through tight spaces, open cabinets and drawers, climb into the dryer, and play the dinosaur rib cage to get the most out of your time there, there were multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in every single room and masks were required. If you’re claustrophobic or don’t like/aren’t able to go through small areas or climb ladders you likely won’t enjoy it as much but many things are completely optional and have multiple entries and exits. I would love to go to the one in Denver now and see how the two places compare (there’s also one in Las Vegas but I have no plans to go back there). https://meowwolf.com/visit/santa-fe

Photos definitely don’t do Meow Wolf justice

One thing I skipped just because I don’t care for her art work is visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum but I know it’s hugely popular. She was known primarily for modern art work, of which I’m generally not a fan and the $18 admission ticket seemed a bit steep for someone who probably wouldn’t even enjoy the art. Since art is subjective, there are obviously many people who appreciate her art. You can also visit her two former homes in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu Home and Studio. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/

If you want to go shopping, which I highly recommend, Old Town is a fun place to walk around and pop into the local stores. There are several art galleries, jewelry shops, and stores selling fetishes, which as I mentioned in my post on Albuquerque are made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. I didn’t buy a fetish in Albuqueque because none of them “spoke” to me, and neither did any speak to me in Santa Fe. I was looking for something to commemorate my running a half marathon in all 50 states, with New Mexico as my last state, but I’m not even sure what kind of animal would represent that.

Jackalope Mercado is a shop that was recommended to me by a friend who knows someone who used to live in Santa Fe. It’s a large store with an outdoor area as well as indoor items, with mostly pottery and home decor but also a wide selection of souvenir-type items. I was told the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market is a good place for local foods and handmade items but when I went, it was a bust. There were only a handful of vendors and I didn’t buy anything. It’s probably much busier in the summer months than the late fall when I was there.

Places to Hike

Santa Fe is a hiker’s paradise, with a multitude of places to hike for all abilities, with trails ranging from easy to difficult. Originally I thought I’d visit Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument, which are about an hour drive from Santa Fe. However, after seeing all of the trails that are much closer, I decided to just stay in the Santa Fe area.

I had so much fun hiking in Santa Fe!

Some of my favorite trails were in the Dale Ball Trails, with 22 miles of trails. Right beside these trails is the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary with hiking trails, guided bird walks and tours of the Randall Davey Home. These areas are in the eastern part of Santa Fe.

Directly south of Dale Ball Trails you can find a cluster of trailheads; one of my favorites was the Atalaya Upper Trail. You can park at the St. John’s College parking lot (free) and find the Atalaya and Dorothy Stewart Trailheads from this parking lot. Conveniently enough, St. John’s College is right by Museum Hill.

Northern Santa Fe has the La Tierra Trails including Calabasas Trailhead and La Cuchara Trailhead. One day I hiked seven miles along the Rio Grande River (which was dry when I was there) and it was beautiful with the Cottonwood trees all around and their golden yellow leaves that rustled in the wind like paper. I was able to hike at least portions of all of these trails in about five days. Their close proximity to each other makes it easy to go from one trail area to another without losing much driving time in between. https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/new-mexico/santa-fe-national-forest

Places to Eat

As good as the food was in Albuquerque, Santa Fe raised the bar another level. There wasn’t one place where I ate that wasn’t at least very good and most were outstanding. Some of my favorite places included:

Two sister restaurants La Choza and The Shed for excellent New Mexican dishes https://www.lachozasf.com/ and https://sfshed.com/

Some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve had in my life and one of the best meals I had on this entire trip at Jambo Cafe https://jambocafe.net/

Very good ramen at this small restaurant also with great service, Mampuku Ramen http://places.singleplatform.com/mampuku-ramen/menu

Good pizza if you start to tire of New Mexican food and want something different at Back Road Pizza https://www.backroadpizza.com/

For desert, if you haven’t tried Mexican ice pops, this is a good place. I will warn you all of the toppings and endless options can add up, so be mindful of what you’re ordering. Also, this is a chain and is not only in several places in New Mexico, but also Colorado, Arizona, California, and Florida. https://www.thepaletabar.com/

I’m a huge tea-lover so I highly recommend The Teahouse Santa Fe if you also love tea. They have an enormous selection of teas to drink in the restaurant as well as tea you can buy and take with you. The food is also very good and the setting is quaint with both an indoor seating area as well as a nice patio. https://teahousesantafe.com/

It’s a good thing I hiked so much with all of the good food in Santa Fe!

I really loved Santa Fe and highly recommend going there if you haven’t been. With all of the hiking trails, shopping, museums, and great food, there’s something for everyone no matter what your interests. It is a bit on the pricey side (but not as much as what you’d spend in a large city like New York City or Los Angeles) so you might want to factor the costs in when planning a trip there, especially for accommodations.

Have you been to Santa Fe? If so, what were some of your favorite places or things you did there?

Happy travels!

Donna

Quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico

Not only did I think that is a cute title and I liked the sound of it, it’s also quite fitting. I found Albuquerque to be quirky in many ways, similar to how everyone that lives in Austin, Texas likes to say, “Keep Austin Weird.” There should be a saying for Albuquerque, “Keep Albuquerque Quirky.” Why do I think Albuquerque is quirky? I found many of the local people I spoke to from shops and restaurants to have a quirky sense of humor and many decorations at shops and restaurants were a bit quirky to me.

When I was flying into Albuquerque, I was surprised the area is as big as it is but then again I didn’t really know a ton about the area other than the basics like some things to do and places to eat. I looked up the population and was surprised to find it’s around 565,000, which is only about a fourth of the metro area where I live, but still considerably bigger than the capital city of Santa Fe, with around 85,000 people.

I found plenty of things to do for the days I would be spending in Albuquerque other than the half marathon I ran for my 50th state. For a brief overview, Old Town has most of the touristy shops and restaurants and is definitely worth going to even if you don’t like touristy places. Sawmill Market is a more modern place with an array of restaurants all together in a market hall setting. There is no shortage of restaurants with Mexican food, so much so that you may find yourself getting tired of it, like I did and seeking out alternatives. Here are some of my favorite restaurants and things to do in and around Albuquerque.

The Cottonwood trees were beautiful! I took so many pictures of them!

Things to Do

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a good place to begin your visit to Albuquerque. Here you’ll learn about the American Indians in New Mexico and the pueblos in the area. As someone with American Indian in my family history (my great-grandmother was part Cherokee), I’m always interested in places like this where I can learn more about the history of American Indians. I found the displays interesting but they also made me sad for how poorly the American Indians in this area were treated and what they went through. The $10 admission is well-worth it. https://indianpueblo.org/

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

ABQ Biopark is a steal for what you get for the price of admission: the botanical garden and aquarium or the zoo are just $14.50 for adults. Each section (the garden and aquarium is one section and the zoo is the other) takes a couple or so hours to walk through so you could easily spend most of the day here if you went to the zoo, aquarium, and garden. In the botanical garden, I really enjoyed the Railroad Garden, Old World Walled Gardens, Mediterranean Conservatory, and Desert Conservatory. Normally I love Japanese gardens but I didn’t care for the one here that much. The aquarium is on the small side but my favorite section was the one with the sharks and jellyfish. https://www.cabq.gov/artsculture/biopark

Why yes, those are naked mole rats in the bottom corner!

If you like science and/or history, there’s the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, a Smithsonian Affiliate. You may or may not know the main assembly plant for the Manhattan Project took place in New Mexico and the first atomic bomb was successfully tested here in 1945. There are sections devoted to the Cold War, WWII, Nuclear Medicine and Radiation, Nuclear Waste, and more. Admission is $15 for adults. https://www.nuclearmuseum.org/

One thing I didn’t do because I didn’t make reservations in advance and they were sold out the day I could go is take a Breaking Bad RV tour. If you’re a fan of the show, this looks like a fun way to spend three hours on their film location tour. In addition to Breaking Bad filming locations, the tour also includes stops from Better Call Saul and El Camino. I did, however, stop by the Breaking Bad Store in Old Town, which I’ll cover below. If you’re going to be in Albuquerque during a busy time of year or only have a short time planned in the city, I suggest making reservations in advance because believe me, they do sell out. https://www.breakingbadrvtours.com/

Places to Hike

The Sandia Mountains, part of the Cibola National Forest lie to the east and northeast of Albuquerque and are easily assessed by car. There’s a popular tram (https://sandiapeak.com/) you can take to get some great mountain views and reach the ski area and hiking trails. When I was researching hiking trails online in advance, I saw the Sandia Peak Tram was closed for maintenance when I was going there so I had thought about driving to the La Luz Trail and hiking there. However, when I saw the many warnings and read some comments online by other hikers about the sheer drop-offs of 1000 feet and how dangerous this trail can be, I decided not to hike it.

Views for days

“I could slip off the side of a cliff and no one would even know until they found my rental car,” I thought, so I decided to hike another trail that didn’t have sheer drop-offs. This trail went to a CCC building (Civilian Conservation Corps: the former U.S. federal agency (1933–1943), organized to utilize the nation’s unemployed youth by building roads, planting trees, improving parks, etc.) and there were amazing views of Albuquerque below. Even on this trail, there were some places with some steep drop-offs but I tried to stay away from the edge and I felt mostly safe. It was also freezing here and I quickly started to get cold, despite wearing my winter coat, hat, and gloves. When they say it’s 10-15 degrees colder at the top of the Sandia Mountains than down in the main part of Albuquerque, they aren’t exaggerating. It was also extremely windy, which was also a part of my decision to skip the La Luz Trail.

The small structure built by the CCC is shown here

There are a wide variety of trails to choose from in the Sandia Mountains, ranging in distance and difficulty so there’s something for everyone. Just make sure you read about them in advance and decide which one is right for you. There are small fees (a few dollars) charged for parking at some of the lots, including the one at the tram and gift shop. You can either pay by cash, (put your money in an envelope then in the lock box and put a paper hanging tag on your car mirror) or you can pay with an app using your phone, following the instructions at the parking lot. Here’s a link to the Sandia Mountain trails: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd574112.pdf

For a bit tamer hiking trails, you can go west of the city to Boca Negra Canyon and Petroglyph National Monument where you can see one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America with thousands of designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock. You can also see petroglyphs at Rinconada and Piedras Marcadas Canyons. $1 or $2 parking fee (daily/weekend) is charged at Boca Negra Canyon but not at the other trailheads. These trails are short and you can easily combine multiple hikes in a day. https://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm

Places to Eat

As I mentioned above, there’s no shortage of Mexican-style restaurants in Albuquerque. One of the most unique places in my opinion is actually in a pharmacy, Duran Pharmacy, where you can find the usual things you would find in a drug store but also a plethora of quirky items you might find in a tourist shop. Why is this listed under “Places to Eat,” you ask, well, there’s also a restaurant that serves hand-rolled tortillas and some of the best Mexican food in the area. The enchiladas I had were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Housed inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. Ever since I first had a taco made with fry bread (I believe my first time was in Arizona many years ago), I loved it so much I’ll seek it out when I’m anywhere in Arizona, Utah, or now, New Mexico. My taco with fry bread here was every bit as good as I remembered it to be.

Taco made with fry bread- so good!

If you find yourself tiring of yet another enchilada, taco, burrito, etc., Sawmill Market is a nice option with a variety of choices for lunch or dinner. I went to a pasta place where they made the pasta fresh and it was delicious! There are some Mexican restaurants but also places with Vietnamese food, pizza, burgers, bars, coffee shops, dessert places, and even a restaurant with Louisiana-style food. This is also one of the few places in the area where parking is free.

The Grove Cafe and Market is a great choice if you’re one of those people who could eat breakfast all day, because you can do just that here. In addition to breakfast, they also serve lunch and have cookies, cupcakes, and French macarons on the weekend.

Shopping

Old Town has several dozen unique shops, art galleries, and jewelry shops all within a walkable area. There is metered parking in addition to parking lots so just park your car for an hour or so and plan on exploring all of the quirky shops here. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, the Breaking Bad Store is here and not only can you buy shirts, collectibles, mugs, etc. here but you can also pose by the props from the TV show and see memorabilia from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino.

Some of the photo props from the Breaking Bad Store

There are also many jewelry shops selling turquoise and other locally-made jewelry in addition to the many “fetishes” you’ll find. Fetishes are primarily made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. For example, bear paws represent inner strength. I was told by a shop keeper not to seek out a particular fetish but when the right one for me would present itself, I would just know. I looked at some but none spoke to me so I didn’t buy any.

For even more local shopping, head to Nob Hill, Albuquerque’s largest independent shopping district. You can find Mariposa Gallery with locally made arts and crafts, jewelry, and sculptures. In the summer, Nob Hill hosts Route 66 Summerfest with music, food trucks, and show vehicles and in the winter there is Nob Hill Shop and Stroll for holiday shopping.

In summary, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s biggest city and is a fun place especially if you enjoy hiking, history, and great food in a beautiful desert setting along the Rio Grande. The elevation is around 5300 feet, which is relatively low for a mountain town and unlikely to cause severe altitude sickness in most people. I found the quirky little aspects to just add to the city’s uniqueness and charm.

Have you been to Albuquerque? If so, what did you do and what were some of your favorite parts of the city? Did you also find it quirky?

Happy travels!

Donna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many views of May Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

State and Local Parks Plus Daytrips From Duluth, Minnesota

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

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

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

Parks in and Around Duluth

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

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

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

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

Jay Cooke State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gooseberry Falls State Park

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

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

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

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

Tettegouche State Park

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

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna


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.

IMG_3007 (1)

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.

IMG_2909-COLLAGE
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.

IMG_2923-COLLAGE
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.

IMG_3039-COLLAGE
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!

IMG_3063
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

 

 

Long Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina- An Unexpected Surprise

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

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

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

20200611_144033
Lake Conestee Nature Preserve

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

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

IMG_2941-COLLAGE

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

20200613_084832-COLLAGE
The Swamp Rabbit Trail (just a tiny fraction of it)

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

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

IMG_2878
Falls Park on the Reedy

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: