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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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My Top 10 Favorite Places in the United States and Why I Love Them

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite places I’ve been to. At first I wasn’t going to separate out places in the United States from international places, but then I thought there’s no way I could limit them to just ten places. Most of my travels within the United States have been planned with the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.  So far I’ve been to 43 states and have ran a half marathon in 40 states.

So here goes, my choice for number 10:  Glacier National Park in Montana. My family and I went here after my half marathon in Missoula. I thought Missoula was beautiful but GNP was even more beautiful.  We hiked many trails and especially loved hiking trails around Lake McDonald. I also enjoyed just driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Number 9:  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This was another place where my family and I went after I ran a half marathon, only this time in Boulder, undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever ran because of the high elevation. We drove to RMNP from Boulder and were blown away by the mountains and scenery. Boulder is at the base of the really big mountains such as those in RMNP. Even though we went there in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at the highest elevations. The park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak is stunning with an elevation of 14,259. Similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, the drive along Trail Ridge Road is beautiful.

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Number 8:  Badlands National Park in South Dakota (notice a trend here?). We went here after one of my favorite half marathons, in Spearfish, SD. On this trip we also went to Mount Rushmore but I found the Badlands to be much more beautiful. I absolutely loved the different colored rock formations, the Buttes, and spires. We spotted some big horn sheep, bison, and tons of prairie dogs.

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Number 7: San Juan Islands in Washington. I absolutely loved Seattle, but I loved the San Juan Islands, and the ferry ride there even more than Seattle. We went to Friday Harbour and stayed in a cabin overlooking a beautiful field where deer liked to graze in the mornings and at dusk. I ran a half marathon here, which turned out to be a pretty small but scenic race. We toured a lavender farm and spent a lot of time in the retail section smelling all of the lavender-infused products and tasting the tea. My daughter wanted to buy one of everything.  The lavender tea was delicious. We also went whale-watching just off the coast and saw a bunch of orcas and dolphins. My daughter even got to steer the boat during our tour! Hiking in Lime Kiln State Park was also a highlight of our time on the island.

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Number 6:  Charleston, South Carolina. I wrote a couple of posts about Charleston last summer, so it should be no surprise to see it on my list here. I love so much about this city from the beaches to the architecture to the food. I could go on and on about the food alone. I’ve never had a bad meal here, ever. I’ve been going to Charleston for vacations many times over the years and it just seems to get better every time. There’s so much history here if you’re a history buff you’ll love all of the museums and walking tours. I find Charleston to be the quintessential southern city full of charm, friendly people, and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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Number 5:  Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (can you tell I’m a big fan of national parks?). We went here earlier this year in late winter and I found it to be truly magical. I don’t use that word lightly either. Also, I hate winter. I moved south to get away from the cold weather as an adult. However, the snow on the hoodoos was beautiful and I had so much fun hiking the trails at Bryce Canyon while it was snowing. It snowed off and on but was never a blizzard or anything crazy. The light snowfall just added to the experience and made it even more special. Even though I loved Zion National Park, I loved Bryce Canyon even more, which surprised me, honestly. Plan your next vacation there with the help of my previous posts and this website.

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Number 4:  Acadia National Park in Maine. Before I went to Maine, I had heard great things about the state and hoped that it would live up to the hype. Maine did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined and the food was every bit as good as you hear it is. We dined on fresh lobster and other fresh fish dishes including clam chowder and had some incredible meals on our trip to Maine. A highlight of the trip was hiking in Acadia National Park and I was glad we had allotted a few days here. We also discovered popovers at Jordan Pond House and that was a real treat. And yes, I also ran a half marathon here.

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Number 3:  Kona, Hawaii. I first went to Hawaii many years ago and ran a half marathon in Kona, which turned out to be my second state for half marathons, even though I didn’t have the goal then of one in every state. I just thought it would be fun (it was) and cool to run along a portion of the same course as the Ironman triathlon. Kona is what I think of when I think of Hawaii:  black sandy beaches, volcanos, palm trees, and incredible snorkeling. Not surprisingly I loved Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was like nowhere else in the world and walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was very cool. When I later went back to Kona many years after that first trip, it was every bit as great as I remembered. I’ve since then wanted to go back again but haven’t made it (yet!).

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Number 2:  San Francisco, California. I left my heart in San Francisco. Just kidding. I think that famous song does strike a chord with many people, however. San Francisco is such a fun and vibrant city it’s no surprise it’s become the most expensive city to live in the United States. Where there’s demand, prices will go up accordingly. While I have no desire to live in San Francisco, I love to visit there. In fact, when I was planning my family’s trip to New Zealand, I was happy to include a day-long layover in San Francisco both before and after our flights to New Zealand. I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Why do I love San Francisco? Well, it’s hard to describe, honestly. There’s so much to do here and the area is beautiful especially around the water. I just love the Golden Gate Bridge and had a blast on the multiple boat tours I took that went around and under the bridge. I love the crazy hilly streets and architecture. The food is great, even the super-touristy chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Speaking of touristy, I even love the wharf area despite how crowded it can get.

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Number 1:  San Diego, California. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember how many posts I wrote about San Diego. In fact, some of you were probably sick of hearing me go on about the city. It’s absolutely stunning, though. You hear about places being called “breathtaking” all the time and I feel that term is completely over-used but I will say San Diego was honestly breathtaking to me. When I first saw Sunset Cliffs, I was speechless, took a second to get my breath, then looked at my daughter (who also had the same reaction), and just said, “Wow!” It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There’s also so much to do in San Diego, from hiking, to the touristy but still interesting Old Town, the world famous zoo, many museums, parks, and shopping. There are several places where you can get some fantastic tacos and Liberty Public Market has some delicious local fresh food and other unique things for sale. Coronado Beach with its golden-flecked sand and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is my favorite beach in the area. I could go on and on about San Diego. I guess I left my heart in San Diego.

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What are some of your favorite places in the United States? Does anyone else love these places as much as I do?

Missoula Marathon, Montana-22nd state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Montana was my 22nd state.

Ah, Missoula, Montana.  I have fond memories of you.  The Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon is in July, which means while much of the US is sweltering, it is quite comfortable here.  I have to admit, I broke a cardinal rule of running races here.  I had only brought shorts (no pants) with me for this race but a cold front suddenly came in and they were predicting temps in the low 40’s the morning of the race, so I found a local running store and bought the last pair of running capris they had in stock, which a kind sales lady dug out from the back store room.  The race was the next day so I had never worn these before let alone run in them, but it was either that or freeze my buns off.  Everyone tells you to never wear anything you’ve never ran in at least once during a race, and I had always followed this to the letter. However, buying those capris turned out to be a good decision and I was glad I had the extra coverage to help keep me warm.

From this race forward, I always make sure I pack running pants, shorts, capris, short sleeved tops, and long sleeved tops for every race, no matter where because as I learned here, the weather can be very unpredictable.  I know some of you may be thinking, “40 degrees is actually quite nice for a race,” but where I live, we don’t see temperatures that low until winter is nearing or in full force; certainly not in July.  I just wasn’t used to running in temperatures that low.

The Missoula Half Marathon of 2011 was one of my favorites for the scenery, the people, and the course.  This race does have a 6 am start so if you’re not an early morning person, that could be an issue.  I think it helps with the temperatures, though.  At the start it’s usually around mid 50’s (although as I said for me it was only in the low 40’s) and up to the high 70’s around noon.  The course is very scenic and fairly flat, taking you though the countryside, along a river, and finishing in downtown Missoula.

There are a couple of bonuses including with this race.  The renowned Olympian runner Jeff Galloway began a partnership with Run Wild Missoula in January 2011 to promote the Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon.  Every year since then he has given numerous talks, hikes, and even a 3 hour running school the weekend of the Missoula Marathon.  Another bonus is you get a free race day victory stand photo (printed out for you) at the Sunday Expo at the Caras Park Pavilion as well as a link after the race to download an on-course photo free of charge.

After the race, my family and I went to Glacier National Park and from there to Banff National Park in Canada. I highly recommend both parks, in addition to Missoula. The mountains and lakes are absolutely stunning and these are some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  This race is a nice opportunity to make it into a racecation.

From my post-race notes:

“Ran past a river, past rural areas, and finished downtown.  Course was great- mostly flat, some downhill, and a small uphill.  Weather was upper 40’s at start, but I warmed up after first couple of miles.  Sunny, almost no wind.  Aid stations were plenty.  Got a nice medal, technical shirt, and a photo printed out at the finish.  Plenty of food and drink at finish. Was still struggling with speed while training for race due to recent anemia Oklahoma-21st state but was happy with finish time.  Was a great race overall and one of my favorites.  My finish time was 2:16:53.”

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Missoula Marathon