My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?

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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?

Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva (National Park in Chile)

The Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva is in the Bernardo O’Higgins region but good luck finding it on your own unless you’re from the region! You will be unable to find directions using Google maps. The best you can do is what we did, find the closest town and hope you see signs from there. We drove to Coya and from there you can easily follow the signs to the park. Fortunately for us, the signs for the park are well-marked and plentiful so once we found the first sign, we had no problems getting to the entrance. There was a tourism office in Coya but no one was there when we tried.

Admission to the park is $5000 Chilean pesos, or about $7.50 US for adults and $2500 Chilean pesos per child, valid for one day. There are six trails, from the best I can tell. A portion of the main access road through the park was closed (no idea why) the day we visited so we couldn’t get to some of the trails but we went on all  of the ones we could access.

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Trail is “sendero” in Spanish. We went on Sendero La Hacienda, Sendero Las Arpas, Sendero Los Tricahues, and Sendero Los Puemos, but Sendero Puente La Leona was closed. All of the trails have a unique aspect to them from one another. There is a waterfall along the Sendero Los Puemos, Sendero Los Tricahues has an almost fairytale like feeling, and Sendero Las Arpas has what seemed like a resident fox that followed us around the trail curiously watching us, but was truly the most friendly fox I’ve ever seen. It must be used to seeing people, some of which probably feed it.

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All along the park, we had views of the Andes Mountains towering above grandly. There are also picnic areas so you can have lunch with views of the mountains, which makes for one scenic lunch. Although they didn’t appear to be open when we were there, there are camping areas available. In addition to the friendly fox, there are pumas in the area. We never saw one, but there was the pungent odor of cat urine by one of the water crossings, which could have been from a puma. We also came across a very large wooden crate that looked like one used for capture and release. I probably don’t want to know what that was used for. There are also many types of birds, trees, and flowers native to the area.

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Translation: I do not love man less, but nature more. Quote by Lord Byron.

There’s a funny story that happened to us. We were on our last trail for the day, Sendero La Hacienda, and saw hoof prints again. We had seen them on other trails and had followed them when in doubt of where to go if the trail became not so well marked, thinking they were from horses with riders. Then my daughter said, “Hey, there are actually other people on this trail too!” We hadn’t seen a soul on any of the previous trails we had been on all day. As we got closer, she realized what she had thought were people were cows. We also realized what we had thought were horse hoof prints had really been cow hoof prints. No wonder we got pretty far off the trail at times!

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We didn’t expect to see cows at this national park!

Although this park isn’t the easiest to get to, I highly recommend spending a day here. Parking is pretty scarce, so it would be best if you arrive relatively early to make sure you can find a parking spot. Also, there is a place that advertised having food right by the administration office, but it didn’t look like it was open when we were there. We always like to pack a picnic lunch when we go on all-day hikes, so it wasn’t a problem for us. You should also bring sunscreen and plenty of water. There are bathrooms along several areas in the park. They close just before sunset so if you arrive in the morning you’ll have plenty of time to go on all of the trails (or at least most of them) and have a nice picnic lunch.

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More details on the trails:

Sendero La Hacienda is 5000 meters, highly difficult, is about 1 kilometer from the administration building, and takes approximately 1 ½ hours.

Sendero Las Arpas is 1000 meters, easy, approximately 3 kilometers from the administration building, and takes approximately 30 minutes.

Sendero Los Tricahues is 200 meters, minimally difficult, approximately 5. 5 meters from the administration building, and takes approximately 20 minutes.

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Sendero Los Tricahues

Sendero Los Puemos is 1700 meters, is medium in difficulty, approximately 6 kilometers from the administration building, and takes approximately 45 minutes.

Caminata a Maltenes is 6000 meters, is highly difficult, approximately 6 kilometers from the administration building, and takes approximately 2 hours.

Sendero Puente La Leona is 7000 meters, is highly difficult, and takes approximately 3 hours.

Find (slightly) more information here. And the official site (in Spanish) here.

My First Visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Museum

Although I’ve been to New York City many times over the years, I had never been to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island Museum until recently. Various reasons come to mind as to why I never went to either place before.  On my first visit to New York City I had the intention of going but just missed the last ferry there (this was well before the 911 tragedy so you could just walk up to the ferry terminal, pay, and get on a ferry if there was space). On subsequent visits to the city, either there wasn’t time to see the statue or there were no slots available for the pedestal or crown online when I tried to buy tickets.

When I was planning things to do for a racecation to Morristown, New Jersey where I was going to be running a half marathon in my 40th state, I was happy to find out I could take a ferry from Liberty State Park in New Jersey to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. I immediately booked our tickets. Even though tickets to the crown were sold out five months in advance, I was able to get tickets to the pedestal so I was grateful to at least get that.

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The day of our tour, it was hot and sticky.  We had tickets for 10:00 in the morning so we left our hotel room with the intention of getting at Liberty State Park between 30 minutes and one hour in advance, depending on traffic. When we got there, we had to stand in a long line to go through security screening so it was good we had allotted plenty of extra time.

Finally we boarded the boat and took the short ride to Ellis Island Museum. You have the option of staying on the boat and just going straight to the Statue of Liberty or spending some time at the museum before heading to the statue. We like museums so we got off and spent some time exploring all three floors.

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Ellis Island Museum is full of photos and stories from immigrants seeking a better life in America. There are artifacts including clothing, books, and other personal items many people took with them for the long journey from their home countries. You can walk through the steps the immigrants had to go through upon their arrival at Ellis Island. You can see the sleeping areas, rooms for health inspections, a room that looked like a court room, and others. Audio tours are also available in nine languages.

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As I said earlier, we ended up going through all three floors of the museum. We also had lunch at the cafe, which was over-priced but the food was pretty good at least. The day we were there it seemed like just about half the school kids in the area must have been there on a school field trip so it was crazy busy but maybe it’s always like that. We spent a couple of hours here before we went outside to wait for the ferry for the Statue of Liberty.

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When you see the Statue of Liberty from a distance it seems much smaller than it really is. Finally, we got off the ferry and walked around the base of the statue. If you can’t get tickets for the pedestal or crown, you can walk around the base. It’s beautiful to just walk around and admire the views. A word of warning, though if you don’t like crowds. The ferries are crowded, Ellis Island Museum is crowded, and walking around the base of the statue is crowded. The crowds thinned out in a few places around the pedestal but that’s it.

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The views of the Manhattan skyline and the water surrounding the statue were nice. We got a ton of photos from the pedestal. I’m sure the views are even better from the crown. Next time I’ll just have to get tickets at least six months in advance for the crown or figure out when the off-season is, if there is such a thing. I’m glad I finally got to visit Ellis Island Museum and the Statue of Liberty. It was a fun and history-filled day!

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There are many options for tickets through Statue Cruises but all include the ferry from either Battery Park in New York or Liberty State Park in New Jersey and all tours include access to Ellis Island Museum and an audio tour. Prices increase for crown, pedestal, or hard-hat areas. Book as far in advance as you can because spaces especially for the crown are limited and sell out months in advance.

More information can be found on the National Park Service page here.

Three Places to Stop if You’re Driving from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon

When planning a family vacation to Utah and the Grand Canyon in late winter, I wanted a place or two to break up the drive between Bryce Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon. Page, Arizona came up as an option. To drive straight from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon takes about 5 hours (depending on weather and how busy the roads are), which isn’t awful, but to drive from Bryce Canyon to Page, Arizona is about 2 hours, 40 minutes. That sounded like a better idea to me, considering we would already have a 4 hour drive from the Grand Canyon to the airport in Las Vegas. Plus, I discovered “The Wave” and fell down that rabbit hole which turned out to be a bit complicated. Alas, hiking in the Wave was not to be (that deserves a post all to itself).

Stop 1:  Page, Arizona- Antelope Canyon

The biggest reason you may want to add a stop-over in Page is to visit Antelope Canyon. You can take an Antelope Canyon Boat Tour that takes you along Lake Powell, or you can take a guided walking tour. We opted for the walking tour with Ken’s Tours and it exceeded my expectations. Not only was the tour just our family, so we got our own private tour, we also got photography lessons along the way. The tips our guide showed us were invaluable and worth even more than what we paid for the tour itself. Not only did he physically show us how to adjust our cameras for different settings along the tour, he also took photos of us on our cameras. He also gave us advice and tips for future times. I am definitely a novice photographer so any and all tips were greatly appreciated.

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The tour took us one hour from start to finish, but our tour guide told us in the busy summer months, it often takes an hour just to get from the main building where you check-in to the start of the tour (it took us maybe 10 minutes at the most). This is another reason why visiting during the winter can be the best time of year to visit the area.

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There are two types of tours, the general tour, which lasts an hour and costs $25 per person for ages 13 and up, $17 for children ages 7-12, and children 6 and under are free. The photographer tour lasts 2 hours, 15 minutes and during the summer you need to get a special use permit from from Navajo Parks and Recreation (another reason to visit during the less-busy winter). This tour is only for ages 16 and up and costs $47 per person.

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Where to stay and eat in Page, Arizona

We stayed at Comfort Inn & Suites and found it to be comfortable, clean, and the suite I reserved was enormous. There were two rooms, one with a king bed, TV, and patio off it, and the other room had a sofa bed, desk, TV, refrigerator, and microwave. We swam in the indoor pool and relaxed in the hot tub after we took our tour of Antelope Canyon. The location was convenient to restaurants and shops in Page. We ate lunch at Mandarin Gourmet, a Chinese restaurant that we found to have a surprisingly delicious and affordable buffet. We had dinner at Big John’s Texas BBQ, and while my husband liked his brisket, I didn’t care for mine, but our daughter said her pulled pork sandwich was good. I guess overall that’s a pretty good rating.

Our tour guide from Antelope Canyon told us about a place where the rich and famous stay when visiting the area, and I looked it up; it does look pretty amazing. It’s Amangiri in Canyon Point, Utah, and the room rates when I checked were around $2000-$3000 per night before taxes and fees. Our guide told us actor Hugh Jackman once stayed there and took a tour with their group of the canyon.

Stop 2:  Glen Canyon Dam

Just outside Page, Arizona is the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes the Glen Canyon Dam. The recreation area encompasses hundreds of miles from Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry in northern Arizona to southern Utah, including Lake Powell. There are trails for hiking, boat tours, and tours of the dam. Dam tours are 45 minutes long and cost $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 7-16, and free for children 6 and under. Adults 62 and older and members of the military are $4. Tour times vary by season, so check the website for details.

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View from Glen Canyon visitor center
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Glen Canyon Dam
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Views from Glen Canyon visitor center

Stop 3:  Cameron, Arizona

Another option for a place to break up the drive between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon is Cameron, Arizona. Cameron is smaller than Page but is an unexpectedly unique little place to stop for lunch or dinner. We stopped at Cameron Trading Post and had Navajo tacos for lunch. Not only were the tacos delicious, it was interesting just looking at all of the handmade blankets and other artwork on the walls and around the dining room. There were also shelves upon shelves of pottery, dreamcatchers, clothing, and many other souvenirs in the gift shop. Touristy? Yes, but still interesting.

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In addition to the gift shop and restaurant, Cameron Trading Post also has an art gallery, convenience store, and garden. You can also spend the night at the motel here. Although the single and double rooms look pretty simple, the luxury suites look a bit nicer and the prices seem reasonable. If you have an RV, there’s also an RV park here for $35/night.

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Cameron is a great place to stop to fill up with gas, have lunch, and stretch your legs for a bit before you finish up the drive to the Grand Canyon. A word of warning, there are long stretches along the drive from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon where there is nothing but Navajo- or other government-owned land on either side of the highway with no businesses or gas stations for miles upon miles. Make sure you fill up the car with gas before you leave Bryce. You definitely wouldn’t want to run out of gas on this road. Cameron Trading Post is about 57 miles from Grand Canyon Village, so you’re in the home stretch at this point!

Grand Canyon National Park in Late Winter- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is so heavily visited, the National Park Service even has a web page about crowding at the South Rim and how to avoid it. There are tips on how to make the most of your visit and avoid crowds. My family and I visited during late winter, and found this is one way to at least lessen the crowds; however, visiting the Grand Canyon during the winter is not all rosy.  There are some advantages and disadvantages to coming to the park in the winter.

First, a few statistics about the Grand Canyon NP. The gorge is 1 mile deep and 277 miles long, with the Colorado River running through it. The North Rim is separated from the South Rim by the 10 mile wide canyon in between. The entire park is 1,217,403.32 acres but surprisingly this is only the 11th biggest US national park by size. There are six national parks in Alaska alone that are bigger than Grand Canyon National Park.

In 2016 almost 6 million people visited the park, with the vast majority of visitors during the summer months and the least visitors during December, January, and February. We chose to visit in early March and found it was definitely not as crowded as during the summer. It also wasn’t as busy during the week as it was on the weekend, not surprisingly.

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What are some advantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Good)

Obviously, the main advantage is crowds are less. However, there was a big surge of visitors on Saturday that we didn’t see on the days before that. So, even during the winter, it’s still best to come during the week if at all possible.

Along with the trails and roads not being as crowded, restaurants also aren’t as crowded during the winter months.

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One of many elk along the trails

It’s also nice to see the Grand Canyon when it’s snow-covered, and see the park in a way many people don’t get to experience.

Because it’s cooler during the winter, it’s more conducive to hiking if you plan on going on some long hikes down into the canyon. The temperature rises 5.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you lose in elevation, so the floor of the Grand Canyon is often as hot as 106 degrees Fahrenheit in July. If you plan on going to the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the West Rim, the average daily high in July is 116 degrees. July and August are also when monsoon rains occur here. In contrast, high temperatures during the winter are usually in the 30’s and 40’s.

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What are some disadvantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Bad)

If you have your heart set on going the North Rim, it is closed during the winter months, so your only option is the South Rim.

It can get quite windy during the winter months and a cold wind on top of a high around 35 degrees can make for a chilly hike.

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Can you tell it was windy?!

During the winter, most of the trails often have at least some areas where they are slick with ice and/or snow. Even on the popular Rim Trail, the majority of the trail had slick spots and we had to watch our footing.

Any other disadvantages? (The Ugly)

Mules are on Kaibab Trail during the winter and in fact year-round. During the winter the top of the trail is snowy and icy, and further down the trail where it is warmer, there are areas where it can be extremely muddy. This combined with piles and piles of mule poop leads to one smelly, messy trail. I’m not sure which was worse, the ice and trying to not fall at the top of the trail, or the mud and mule poop later on the trail. My daughter was actually cheering when we came upon ice again after going through the thick, heavy mud for a while. At least the ice wasn’t trying to pull her shoes off her feet like the mud was! We did, thankfully, reach parts of the trail further down that were neither ice- nor mud-covered, and that was awesome!

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This part of the trail was actually not hard to walk on. The mud was the worst.

Trails at the South Rim

There are five day hikes at the South Rim, with four being steep or very steep and only the Rim Trail is flat and easy. We spent most of our time on the Rim Trail and South Kaibab Trail but I’ll discuss them all briefly here.

The Rim Trail runs along the South Rim of the canyon, as you might guess by the name and is undoubtedly one of the more popular trails because of its accessibility. You can hop on a shuttle and take it to the next stop and hike as little or much as you want, before getting on the next shuttle. The Rim Trail runs from the village area to Hermit’s Rest for 13 miles and is mostly paved and flat. There are 13 shuttle stops from South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest Trailhead. Shuttles run March 1 to November 30.

Bright Angel Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins near Bright Angel Lodge and is 12 miles long roundtrip. Park rangers recommend you turn around after going 3 miles at 3 Mile Resthouse and during the summer not going past 4.5 miles one-way at Indian Garden. There are mules on this trail.

South Kaibab Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins south of Yaki Point (a shuttle stop) on Yaki Point Road. There are great views along the trail, including one with the funny-named “Ooh-Aah Point” at 0.9 miles into the hike. By this point, you’ve lost 600 feet in elevation, from the start at 7260 feet. Cedar Ridge, at 1.5 miles one-way is where park rangers recommend people who are not used to hiking or have gotten a late start to turn around and are adamant that summer hikers not go beyond this point. You don’t get your first real view of the river until Skeleton Point, 3 miles into the hike, at an elevation of 5200 feet. This is your recommended turn-around point for a day hike, presuming you’ve gotten an early start, are used to hiking, and it’s not summer. Again, there are mules on this trail.

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Hermit Trail is steep, strenuous, rocky, and unmaintained trail that begins near Hermits Rest shuttle stop and during the spring, summer, and fall is only accessible by shuttle bus (no private vehicles). This is definitely a trail for experienced hikers. You have two options on this trail for day hikes, either go to Santa Maria Spring, 2.5 miles one way or go to Dripping Springs, 3.5 miles one way. The advantage to this trail is there are no mules.

Grandview Trail is similar to Hermit Trail, in that it is also a steep, strenuous, unmaintained dirt trail with tougher conditions than either Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail. The trailhead can be reached by vehicle (not shuttle) at Grandview Point, 12 miles east of the village on Desert View Drive. Day hikes are to Coconino Saddle (1.1 miles one way) or Horseshoe Mesa/Toilet Junction (3 miles one way). However, day hikes to Horseshoe Mesa are not recommended during the summer due to strenuous conditions of the trail beyond Coconino Saddle.

Regardless of which trail you choose, do not attempt to hike from the rim down to the river in one day during the summer months. Even during the cooler months it’s not recommended unless you start very early in the day and are an experienced desert hiker.

There are several trails at the North Rim, none of which we did since the North Rim is unaccessible during the winter months. You can read about North Rim trails plus South Rim trails here.

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How to Get Here

Most people fly into Las Vegas, Nevada and drive the approximately 270 mile route to the Grand Canyon or fly into Phoenix, Arizona and drive the approximately 232 miles from there. Rental cars abound at both of these international airports. Tours can also be arranged at both places if you feel unsure or uneasy about driving that distance on your own and/or are from another country and are uneasy about driving in the States.

Where to Stay

If you want to maximize your time inside the park (which I highly recommend), there are several options for lodging in the park. At the South Rim, you can stay in the more crowded Historic District and choose from five different lodges, or you can stay in the quieter Market Plaza near the Visitor Center at Yavapai Lodge or Trailer Village RV Park. We chose to stay at Yavapai Lodge and found the motel rooms outdated but quiet. You can read more about the rooms in the park, including what’s available at the North Rim here. All of these places tend to fill several months in advance, especially during the summer months, so make sure you make reservations as far in advance as possible.

Where to Eat

Inside the park, there are several options for meals as well as groceries. Most of the lodges have a restaurant and there are some coffee shops and taverns scattered throughout the South Rim. The Canyon Village Market General Store is a pretty decent-sized grocery store that also has firewood and souvenirs. Prices didn’t seem too terrible here either. You can also get snacks at Hermit’s Rest Snack Bar at the end of Hermit Road. Although closed during the winter, you can eat at the Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room or Deli in the Pines at the North Rim. Outside the park, you can find groceries and restaurants 7 miles south of Grand Canyon Village in the town of Tusayan.

Other Things to Do

Depending on the weather, how much time you have to spend here, and your interests, there are many options of things to do at Grand Canyon NP. As outlined by the National Park Service, you could take a mule trip and go along the canyon rim or down to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch, or take a bicycle tour, go whitewater rafting, or even participate in a Grand Canyon Association Field Institute Learning Adventure.

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Fees

Admission to the park is valid for seven days and includes both the North and South Rim. A Grand Canyon National Park Vehicle Permit is $30 and admits a single vehicle (non-commercial) and everyone in the vehicle.

A Grand Canyon National Park Annual Pass is good for 12 months and costs $60. The America the Beautiful Annual Pass costs $80 and allows free entrance to all national parks and federal recreational lands. The Annual “Every Kid in a Park” 4th Grade Pass is free (!) for US 4th graders who have obtained the paper voucher through the Every Kid in a Park website. Active duty military are eligible for a free annual pass. The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is $10, and the America the Beautiful Access Pass and Volunteer Pass are both free.

My advice is get an America the Beautiful Annual Pass and combine a visit to the Grand Canyon with one to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. That’s what we did, and it made for one spectacular family vacation!

 

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

Let me start off by saying I loved Bryce Canyon even more than I thought I would. Bryce Canyon National Park is about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Zion National Park, both of which are in southern Utah. People often visit both places during the same vacation because of their proximity to each other. However, while they may be only less than 2 hours apart, they are worlds apart in many other ways.

Zion National Park is a behemoth compared to Bryce Canyon National Park. Zion is 229.1 square miles while Bryce is 56 square miles. The main town outside of Zion, Springdale, also seems like a relatively “big city” compared to Bryce Canyon City, even though Springdale is still what most people would call a small town. Zion National Park has 18 trails, while Bryce Canyon has 9 day-hiking trails, 4 “easy,” 2 “moderate,” and 3 “strenuous.” Finally, the coloring of the rock formations is very different in Zion National Park compared to Bryce Canyon National Park. Zion has the prominent red rocks from iron in the rocks, while Bryce has lighter hues of red, orange, and white rocks and the famous hoodoos. Hoodoos are geological structures formed by frost weathering and stream erosion of the river and lake bed sedimentary rocks.

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Advantages of Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park During the Winter

As I said in my post on hiking in Zion National Park in late winter, Bryce Canyon also has advantages of visiting during the off-season winter months. The most obvious advantage is there are less crowds during the winter than summer months. When we were at Bryce Canyon in late February, we saw maybe 10 or 15 people all day on the trails. I’m sure this would never happen during the summer months.

When we visited Bryce Canyon it had been snowing before we got there, and it snowed off and on the day we hiked there. I have to admit, I’m not a cold weather person at all. I grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and moved south to escape the cold as an adult. However, I absolutely loved hiking in Bryce Canyon in the winter. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

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When I was planning my family’s vacation here, I came upon several blog posts and websites where people said the best time of year to visit Bryce Canyon is during the winter. While I haven’t been to Bryce Canyon during the summer and can’t compare, I will say it was absolutely stunning with the snow.

Disadvantages of Visiting Bryce During the Winter Months

The only real disadvantage I can see is the trails can be slick with icy patches. However, I was wearing my Merrell waterproof hiking shoes, which have good tread, but I didn’t wear YakTrax, crampons, or even use hiking poles and I never fell on the trails. Just be cautious and watch your footing.

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Another disadvantage to some people could be the cold weather itself. Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation than Zion National Park (it varies at Bryce from around 8000-9000 feet), so I knew it would be colder and I planned accordingly. I wore wool thermal underwear under waterproof and wind-proof pants and a warm shirt, all under a warm ski jacket with a hood, hat, scarf, and gloves so I was well-dressed for the weather. If you’re dressed for the weather, as you should be regardless of what time of year you go hiking, you’ll be fine.

Trails in Bryce Canyon

As I said earlier, Bryce Canyon National Park has 9 day-hiking trails. Many of them are fairly short, so you can easily combine them to make a longer hike. One of the more popular combinations is Queens Garden (1.8 miles) with Navajo Loop (1.3 miles). This allows views of Wall Street, Two Bridges, and Thor’s Hammer. You can also combine Navajo Loop (1.3 miles) and Peekaboo Loop (5.5 miles) trails into a figure-8 and get views through the heart of Bryce Amphitheater and see the Wall of Windows. This is all do-able in a day if you’re in good hiking shape but would be a bit too ambitious if you’re not used to hiking. For more information on the trails, the National Park Service has this.

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Where to Stay and Eat

As I mentioned above, Bryce Canyon City is a small town, with limited options for lodging and dining. When we arrived around lunchtime, we had trouble finding a restaurant that was open and finally chose the restaurant in the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn. For lunch, there actually is an extensive salad bar that’s pretty good. We also spent the night here, and the rooms are a bit outdated and in need of some TLC, but nonetheless they were clean, quiet, and within 15 minutes to the park. During summer months, there are shuttles running to the park, which you can pick up at Ruby’s Inn, or further down the road, closer to the park.

Bryce Canyon Lodge is only open late-March to early-November and also offers a restaurant, gift shop, cabins, and suites. Motel suites are open year-round. The Bryce Canyon Lodge dining room and General Store are open when the Lodge is open. Valhalla Pizzeria is open May 17-October 9. Other options for restaurants and lodging are in Bryce Canyon City, Tropic, Panguitch, and the Junction of Highway 12 and 89.

There are a couple of campgrounds, with only North Campground open year-round and Sunset Campground open late-March to early fall. You can find more information here. Tent sites are $20 per site per night and RVs are $30 per site per night. You’ll receive 50% off with the Golden Age & Golden Access pass, America the Beautiful Federal Lands Access pass, and America the Beautiful Federal Lands Senior pass, but not with any other pass.

How to Get to Bryce Canyon National Park

Although you could take an all-day tour from Las Vegas such as this one, which starts at $330 per person, you could easily rent a car in Las Vegas and drive here yourself. Driving distance from Las Vegas is 270 miles, or around 4 and a half hours. With a rental car, you could also visit Zion National Park on your way to Bryce Canyon, and these two parks are 78 miles or about an hour and 45 minutes apart. As I mentioned above, many people combine these two parks into one vacation.

What to Bring

Dress appropriately for the weather but remember it’s cooler here than other parts of southern Utah even in the heat of the summer because of the higher elevation. Even during the summer, bring a jacket just in case and depending on the season, dress in layers. July, August, and September is the rainy season here and afternoon thunderstorms occur most days.

Bring enough water and snacks to get you through several hours. There are water refill stations at the Shuttle Station, Visitor Center, General Store, North Campground, and Sunset Point.

You’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses year-round.

Bring a first-aid kid with Band-Aids, antiseptic, moleskin, and Ace wrap.

Bring the maps that they give you at the gate with you.

Don’t forget your receipt for re-entry or even better get an Interagency Annual Pass to allow access to all national parks for $80, good for 12 months from purchase.

Here’s a link to help with planning a vacation at Bryce Canyon:  Bryce Canyon Country