Tips for Viewing Geysers, Springs, and Pools in Yellowstone National Park Plus Hiking Trails and Waterfalls

Previously, I discussed the layout, entrances, and basic information about geothermal areas within Yellowstone National Park, in my post here. Now for a little more in-depth information about the fun stuff. As I mentioned previously, Yellowstone is famous for its hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers. Over 10,000 different hydrothermal features are estimated to be active within the park and more than half of the world’s active geysers are found in Yellowstone.

Everyone’s heard of the most famous geyser, Old Faithful, but this is just one out of many geysers in the park. Also famous is Grand Prismatic Spring with the blue center surrounded by green, green, yellow, red, and orange hues, but again, it’s just one of many springs in the park, with all colors of the rainbow represented. In general, what I learned is to try to see as many geyser basins as possible and get an early start or you’ll have to wait in a long line to find a parking spot (even then you’ll have to wait for parking as the day goes on).

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Viewing Old Faithful from above

Tip for viewing Old Faithful:  go up the Observation Point Trail for views of the Upper Geyser Basin, which includes Old Faithful. From the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, walk about 0.3 miles (0.5 km) counter-clockwise along the Old Faithful boardwalk, turn right at the Geyser Hill sign, and continue on the path. The trailhead is just after the bridge crossing the Firehole River. Although there will be some people up here with you, it is far less crowded than if you watch at the designated seated area directly in front of Old Faithful, and you’ll get a better view. Plus, there are many geysers, springs, and pools along the trails in the Old Faithful area. You can easily spend several hours in this area.

Tip for viewing Grand Prismatic Spring: park 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Midway Geyser Basin at the Fairy Falls Parking Lot. The trail is 0.6 miles out-and-back, or 1.2 miles total from the Fairy Falls Trailhead for a view from above of Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin. You can (and should) also walk around the boardwalks that surround Grand Prismatic Spring and the other springs and geysers in the area, for up-close views.

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Mystic Falls

If you want to see waterfalls, some of the best are Fairy Falls, Mystic Falls, and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Fairy Falls are part of the Midway Geyser Basin, as I mentioned in the paragraph above. To get to Mystic Falls, go to the Biscuit Basin parking lot and you’ll see the trailhead for the falls there. Although it’s an easy hike to the falls, if you want to go down for a better view of the falls, it’s a bit rocky and slippery going back up so make sure you have good hiking shoes. The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River are in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Take the South Rim Trail for the best view of the falls. Actually, Artist Point Trail, which is off the South Rim Trail will give you the best views of the canyon and falls together.

One trail to skip is the Ribbon Lake Trail. We got eaten alive by more mosquitoes on this single trail than we had encountered on all other trails in Yellowstone combined and this was with us wearing bug spray and bug bands. I didn’t even think the trail or lake were that scenic and definitely not worth all of the mosquito bites to get there and back. The Ribbon Lake Trail is off the South Rim Trail.

Safety

Buy or bring bug spray and bug bands especially if you’re coming during the summer months. You can buy bug spray at all of the general stores throughout the park. If you want to buy bear spray, you can find it at gift shops, outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores inside the park. You can also rent bear spray in Canyon Village at the rental kiosk at the northwest corner of the visitor center plaza. Be aware that regular pepper spray is not good bear deterrent and is not recommended by park rangers.

Although there are bears at Yellowstone, my family and I never saw a bear on any of our hikes or driving through the park, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t bear aware. In any area of the United States where there are known bears, you should never hike alone; the recommended number is three or more people. It’s also a good idea to carry bear spray and make noise when you’re hiking so you don’t sneak up on a bear and startle it. Another option is to hike with a ranger.

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We saw this bison hanging out by one of the springs

In addition to bears, Yellowstone has many other wild animals. Always stay at least 100 yards (91 meters) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from all other animals, including bison and elk even though they may seem harmless. Less than a week after I was at Yellowstone, a small girl was thrown into the air by a bison, who park officials believe was spooked by noises from people hovering around it.

Keep on the designated pathways and trails. Children should be under close supervision by parents at all times. Do not touch thermal features or runoff, regardless of how beautiful and enticing they may be. More than 20 people have died from burns when they fell or entered Yellowstone’s hot springs (meaning some were on purpose and others were accidents).

See Everything (Within Reason)

Yellowstone is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful national parks I’ve been to and one that I’d love to return to and see more of the northern part. For me, part of the appeal is that it’s one of the most diverse parks I’ve seen, with everything from canyons, waterfalls, geysers, pools, forests, and wild animals. Probably my biggest tip for Yellowstone is to try to see everything you possibly can in the time you have there without spending the majority of your time in the car. Remember, it’s an enormous park and there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything so just choose where you want to spend your time and focus on those areas.

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Just one of many beautiful pools in Biscuit Basin

One way to save time is to skip at least one meal per day eaten at a restaurant and buy food and snacks you can quickly eat in your room or at a designated picnic area where there are picnic tables or seating areas (say, for lunch). Also, don’t focus on just one or two geyser areas but try to see as many as you can. At first, I was hesitant about Biscuit and Black Sand Geyser Basins, because I wasn’t sure what was there and if it was worth it. What I learned is everything is worth seeing (well, except Ribbon Lake, which I re-named Mosquito Lake).

Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what were some of your favorite things you saw or did? If not, is it on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Learning Your Way Around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana- “World’s First and Best Park”

Although it’s not the most visited of all of the US national parks, Yellowstone National Park is certainly high on many people’s lists. Since 2015, the annual number of visitors to Yellowstone has been steadily increasing from 4 million people. By the way, the reference in the title is because we saw someone wearing a t-shirt at the park declaring that Yellowstone was the “World’s First and Best National Park;” Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was not only the United States’ first national park but also the world’s first national park.

We spent four nights in Yellowstone (so I make no claims to being an expert) and despite the fact that it’s 3,472 square miles spread out over parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, or larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, I feel like we were able to see quite a bit of the park in that amount of time. Well, sort of. We saw a decent amount of the bottom part of the park, but we really didn’t see much of the top part other than driving through it on our way to the airport in Idaho Falls. In this post I will obviously focus on the lower part of the park.

I’ll give a little bit of background geographical information here, to give everyone an idea of the lay of the land. Yellowstone has five general areas within the park. In the north is Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt, which includes Lamar Valley. The central part includes Canyon Village to the east and Norris Geyser Basin and Madison to the west. The southern part includes Lake Village, Fishing Bridge, and Bridge Bay to the east; Grant Village and West Thumb to the central part; and Old Faithful to the west.

One more thing to know about logistics:  there are 5 entrances; north, northeast, south, east, and west. The North Entrance is the only park entrance open to wheeled vehicles all year. Winters are brutal in this part of the US, and the other entrances close in the fall and don’t re-open until the spring (which can be late May for some entrances). If you’re combining Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, some people say you can make a day trip from Jackson through Grand Teton and up to Yellowstone through the south entrance, which you could technically do, but it would be a really long day with most of it spent in the car.

Geothermal Areas:  Geysers, Pools, Mud Pots, Fumaroles, and Springs

There are an estimated approximately 10,000 geothermal areas in Yellowstone. Throughout the park, there are several geyser basins. The main geyser basins are described in detail below, but there are others including Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest geyser basin in the park and is home to Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world.

West Thumb Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. This is where you’ll find the following geysers, pools, and springs:  Abyss Pool, Black Pool, Hillside Geyser, Twin Geysers, Blue Funnel Spring, Ephedra Spring, Fumaroles, Big Cone, Fishing Cone, Lakeshore Geyser, Surging Spring, Ledge Spring, Percolating Spring, Thumb Paint Pots, and more. There is also a historic Ranger Station, Duck Lake Trail, and Lake Overlook Trail.

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The Upper Geyser Basin includes Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, and the Old Faithful area. The walking paths that connect the Old Faithful area, Biscuit Basin, and Black Sand Basin contain a huge amount of springs, pools, and geysers. If you only have time to visit one basin, this is the one where you should spend your time. Some of my favorites on the walk between Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin are Morning Glory Pool, Grotto Geyser, Chromatic Pool, and Castle Geyser.

Don’t make the mistake of just viewing Old Faithful explode into the air and then leave. There are many other geysers, springs, and pools on the walkway around the Old Faithful Area. Some other great ones include Beehive Geyser, Grand Geyser, Riverside Geyser, Sawmill and Daisy Geyser. Also, in addition to the seating area in front of Old Faithful, there’s an observation point a short walk uphill where you can get a less-crowded view of Old Faithful from above. More on that in a later post or this one will be way too long.

Biscuit Basin includes Silver Spring Globe, Shell, and Avoca Springs, Sapphire Pool (one of my favorites), Black Opal Pool, Jewel, Cauliflower, and Black Pearl Geysers. The Firehole River and a highway divide the basin.

Black Sand Basin contains only five geysers and hot springs but is one area not to be missed. You’ll see the colorful and aptly named Rainbow Pool (my daughter’s favorite), Emerald Pool, Spouter Geyser, Cliff Geyser, and Sunset Lake which discharges into Iron Creek, and overflows into Rainbow Pool creating a large microbial mat between the two thermal features.

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Midway Geyser Basin is technically part of the Lower Geyser Basin but is given its own domain. The famous Grand Prismatic Spring, which is almost 370 feet in diameter, is here, as is the now dormant Excelsior Geyser.

The Lower Geyser Basin is the largest of the geyser basin areas in Yellowstone, at 11 square miles. If you take the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, you can see the beautiful Celestine Pool; Clepsydra, Fountain, Morning, and Jet Geysers; Fumaroles (steam vents), Leather Pool, Red Spouter, Silex Spring, Sizzler, and Spasm Geyser.

Where to Stay

We decided to stay inside the park, at Grant Village, which was a wise decision especially after hearing a co-worker who went there a week before I did say he had to drive one hour just to get to the entrance of the park and then another hour or two from there depending on what part of the park he was going to that day. By staying inside the park, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of time you spend driving each day. There are nine hotel/lodges within Yellowstone and 12 campgrounds, so you do have some options. Just remember they fill up several months to a year in advance so you’ll need to make your reservations early.

However, even if you stay within the park, you will still spend time driving within the park, just because it is so spread out and enormous. For example, to get from Grant Village to Old Faithful, it will take about 30 or 40 minutes if you aren’t slowed down by construction, traffic, or animals crossing or blocking the road (we had to deal with all three of these at one time or another). If you were staying outside the park and drove in the north entrance, for example, it could easily take you 2 1/2 to 3 hours just to drive from your hotel to Old Faithful. Believe me, we saw first-hand the huge line of cars trying to enter the park from the north entrance one morning.

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Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

As you may guess, there are no Airbnb properties or non-National Park Service hotels within the park, but there are some near the entrances if you truly don’t mind a long drive into and back out of the park or can’t get reservations in the park. Within the park, Canyon Village has Canyon Lodge and Cabins. Tower-Roosevelt area has Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins. Mammoth Hot Springs has Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins. Old Faithful area has three options:  Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Cabins, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. West Thumb and Grant Village has Grant Village. Lake Village has Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins and Lake Lodge Cabins.

If you want to focus your time on the northern part of the park but also have relatively quick access to geysers, I would stay in Canyon Village. Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth Hot Springs to the north are great if you want to explore Lamar Valley. If you will be fishing and spending more time at Yellowstone Lake or want a fairly central location in the park, Grant Village would be a good option. Old Faithful area is great for focusing on geysers, pools, and springs since a large proportion are in this area.

Just by taking some time to learn the layout of Yellowstone and deciding where you want to focus your time, you can reduce the amount of driving you’ll be doing within the park and be able to spend more time outside enjoying the park. I feel like Grant Village was a good choice for accommodations for my family and I since it was only about a thirty minute drive to the Old Faithful area of the park (as I mentioned earlier), which is where so many of the geyser basins are but we could also get to the Canyon area in about an hour so it was a relatively central location for the places we went during that week.

Where to Fly Into

If you don’t live within driving distance of Yellowstone and/or don’t want to take a cross-country road trip, you can fly into Idaho Falls Regional Airport and drive in through the north or south entrance, which should each take about 3 hours. An alternative is to fly into Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah and come up through the south entrance, which would take about 6 hours. Jackson Hole Airport is the quickest way to Yellowstone, at only about an hour’s drive to the south entrance, but it’s also likely the most expensive option.

I have another post coming soon with specific tips for viewing geysers, pools, springs, and waterfalls plus trail info and safety.

Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what did you do there? If not, is it on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Exploring Grand Teton National Park by Water- Stand Up Paddle Boarding in String Lake and Leigh Lake, Hot Springs, and Floating Down the Snake River

Many people just drive the scenic 42-mile loop around Grand Teton National Park, pulling over to take some pictures along the way and call it a day (or maybe two days). Others take a more active pursuit and hike some of over 200 miles of trails in the park. Both of these are great ways to see the park, but my family and I also experienced the park by water, and you really get different views of the park when you’re on the water than if you’re in a car or hiking a trail. If you’d like to read more about hiking and more background information on Grand Teton, you can find all of that here.

I highly recommend taking a raft down the Snake River with Triangle X Ranch, which is also a Dude Ranch with cabins and several other activities. We did a 10-mile, 2 ½ hour evening float on a raft down the Snake River but there are options to take an evening dinner float and a lunch float. We saw an eagle’s nest and eagle, several beavers and their dams, and a moose. Our guide was friendly and chatty and pointed out things along the way. The scenery was of course the star of the show and we had views of the Teton Mountain Range just about the entire time.

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From our float down the Snake River (it was threatening rain hence the poncho)

These float trips don’t go through any rapids, so you won’t be whitewater rafting, which means you just sit on the edge of the raft and let the guide do all of the work for you. If you’re wondering what to wear, I wore athletic pants, a short-sleeve shirt, and hiking shoes. I would have been more comfortable with a light-weight jacket, however. This was in July, so if you’ll be going in the spring or fall, you definitely want a jacket or even light-weight coat depending on the temperature that day. Our guide also had blankets and ponchos on the raft if we wanted any. 

Another one of my favorite things we did was stand up paddle boarding (SUP) on String Lake and Leigh Lake. We rented from Mudroom, located at the ground level of Caldera House in Teton Village. Rentals were a reasonable $50 each for 24 hours and included an inflatable paddle board, paddle, personal flotation device, pump, permit, and wheeled bag to put everything in.

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The scenery for SUP doesn’t get much better than this!

We went back to String Lake and started there early the next morning. We had been stand up paddle boarding before but never on an inflatable board. It was fairly straight-forward inflating the boards and only took maybe 15-20 minutes to get all three boards set up for my family and me. The lake was crystal clear with a slight greenish hue and shallow enough to see to the bottom. Shortly after a lunch and bathroom break we decided to go over to adjoining Leigh Lake. To get from String Lake to Leigh Lake, you have to get out of String Lake at one end just before the small rapids and walk a short distance to enter Leigh Lake.

Leigh Lake is much bigger than String Lake, deeper as well, and although the water is clear in shallow parts, much of it is too deep to see the bottom. For reference, String Lake has a surface area of 100 acres while Leigh Lake’s surface area is 1,792 acres. The water was also choppier when we were out than String Lake no doubt because we weren’t as protected from the wind.

Even if you’ve never been stand up paddleboarding, it’s easy to learn. You just start out on your knees, paddling along until you feel stable, then try slowly standing up and keep your knees slightly bent for more stability. If you fall in the water, no big deal, just get back on your board and keep trying. Paddle boards are like bigger, more stable surfboards and you want to position yourself in the center of the board. Paddle on your right if you want to go left, paddle on your left if you want to go right, alternating between the two sides to go straight. It’s best to start in a small bay or other protected area of water because the water will be calmer and easier for you to paddle and keep your balance.

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You can also take a boat ride along Jenny Lake with Jenny Lake Boating at the base of Mount Teewinot. There are round-trip and one-way options. For example, you can hike to Hidden Falls and then take the shuttle to return to the East side of the lake. Shuttles run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day during service but you can’t make reservations for shuttle trips. There are also scenic boat tours with this same company, which you can reserve in advance, and the tours last about an hour.

For those that enjoy hot springs like I do, Granite Hot Springs Pool is an option in this area although it’s not directly within Grand Teton National Park limits. The natural, hot spring water (which you can see running directly from the source into the pool) is relaxing if you will be in the southern part of Wyoming, about an hour from Jackson. The pool is in the Gros Ventre Mountains surrounded by forest and cliffs but it is just one single swimming pool so don’t expect anything fancy. Entrance to the pool is $8 per adult and towel rental is an extra $2 per person. There are male and female changing rooms.

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There are also many other options for enjoying Grand Teton National Park from the water. The National Park Service page about boating and floating in Grand Teton National Park has an extensive list of companies offering everything from kayak tours to fees required within the park and other boat rentals, which you can find here:  National Park Service- Boating and Floating in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you been to Grand Teton National Park? If so, did you do any water activities there? Have you ever been stand up paddle boarding?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Things to Do and Where to Stay in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

When I was doing research for my vacation in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, I found very little information other than places to hike and where to get good photos. Maybe it was just where I was or wasn’t looking but I had a hard time deciding the best place to stay and other information. Now, after having been there, I feel considerably more confident about recommending places. Although I feel like I ended up making good choices, I got lucky really because I had so little information to go on. My hope is the information here will help others with planning a vacation to Grand Teton National Park.

Lay of the Land

Let’s start with some basics. Jackson refers to the town proper just south of Grand Teton National Park. Jackson Hole refers to the valley between the Teton Mountain Range and Gros Ventre Mountains in Wyoming, which includes Yellowstone National Park and spans a huge area. Grand Teton National Park is between Jackson and Yellowstone National Park. 

I personally divide Grand Teton National Park into three parts:  the northern part which includes Colter Bay and the enormous Jackson Lake, the middle part which includes Jenny Lake, Leigh Lake, String Lake, and Teton Canyon, and the southern part which includes Moose, Death Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Teton Village. Although it may seem somewhat small for a national park, it’s much bigger than it seems and it’s impossible to see the entire park in one day or even two days. We were there for two nights and about 3 full days and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of the park; however, I did learn a ton of information about the area.

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Oxbow Bend

Where to Stay

Regarding accommodations, you can stay in Jackson, but I found it to be pretty touristy. That being said, there are plenty of options here regarding places to stay, eat, and shop. Just north of Jackson is Teton Village, which I really liked. This is a ski resort area that’s open year-round and has a nice selection of shops and restaurants. The condos and hotels in Teton Village are expensive but everywhere in this area is expensive to be honest. We ate at Mangy Moose Steakhouse and Saloon in Teton Village and enjoyed the food and service.

If you want to stay inside the park, there are several lodges, all of which are pretty rustic (think log cabins) and expensive for what you get. You basically are paying for the convenience of staying inside the park. The National Park Service page for lodging in Grand Teton Park is here. We stayed in nearby Moran and found a one-bedroom cabin for much less than what we would have paid inside the park, and it was only a 15 minute drive to Oxbow Bend, for example. Sometimes you save literally hours of driving time by staying inside the park but in this case, you can easily stay just outside the park and not have a long drive just to get to an entrance.

Outside the park, besides Moran and Jackson, there are places to stay in Alta, Moose, and Elk, just to name a few. I think where a person or family stays on vacation is highly personal. For instance, some people might be interested in staying in more of a traditional hotel, other people may want to stay in a condo in Teton Village, while others might want more of a ranch experience while in Wyoming. My point is, there are many different options of where to stay in this area if you just look around a bit. I always like to bring up Google maps and find whatever place I’m interested in, then click on Nearby and find hotels and other lodging options that are in the area.

Things to Do

Must-do overall in Grand Teton:  Oxbow Bend (one of the best views in the park with the Teton Range reflected in the Snake River), Schwabachers Landing, Leigh Lake, String Lake, and Jenny Lake. 

Must-do hiking:  hike around Jenny lake, taking Jenny Lake Loop trail to Hidden Falls Trail to Inspiration Point. This was recommended to us by a park ranger when we asked her where we should hike. The falls were beautiful and the view from Inspiration Point was well worth the hike to the top. Round-trip for the Hidden Falls Trail to Inspiration Point Trail and back was about 2 ½ hours but we were going at a pretty decent pace especially on the way back. Hidden Falls is 5 miles roundtrip and Inspiration Point is 5.9 miles roundtrip from the visitor center. There is an option to take a boat across Jenny lake if you don’t want to hike the entire loop or you just want to take a boat ride along Jenny lake. 

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Hiking around Jenny Lake

The 4-mile loop of Taggart Lake Trail is another popular trail, located south of Jenny Lake. Static Peak Divide, a strenuous 16-mile trail in Death Canyon also gets high reviews, as do Cascade Canyon, a 10-mile strenuous trail from Jenny Lake Trailhead, and Lake Solitude, a 15-mile strenuous trail also from Jenny Lake Trailhead. An easy but no less scenic than the others is String Lake Loop, at 3.8 miles, just north of Jenny Lake. A park ranger also highly recommended the trails at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve area but we didn’t have time to go there.

Other options:  ride the aerial tram from the base of Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. It’s a 15-minute ride to the top with views of Grand Teton National Park, Snake River Valley, and the town below. Corbet’s Cabin restaurant is at the top. We didn’t have time for the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which overlooks the National Elk Refuge, north of Jackson but it would be great if the weather isn’t amenable to outdoor activities. Nor did we go horseback riding, which seems hugely popular in the area. Jackson Lake Lodge and Colter Bay Village offer short and long horseback rides.

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The tram and nearby shops in Teton Village

You could easily spend a week or more in Grand Teton National Park and still not see all of the park, depending on what you chose to do with your time and how many activities you want to do. However, if you’re not into hiking that much or water activities (indeed, I have an entire post on water activities coming soon), there is always the option to drive around the park and take in the scenery. It’s possible to drive the 42 mile loop around the park in a day.

The most recommended loop is to drive from Moose up the inner park road to Jackson Lake Junction and follow the outer park road through Moran Junction, ending back up in Moose. If you’re coming from Yellowstone, you will follow the Rockefeller, Jr. Parkway and enter the park at the Jackson Lake Junction. If you’re coming from Jackson, you’ll go north on Highway 26/89/191 and enter at Moose Junction. Finally, if you’re coming from Dubois in the east, you’ll drive over Togwotee Pass and enter the park at Moran Junction.

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View from Observation Point

Park entrance fee for a car is $35 for 7 days. If you plan on combining Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, you have to pay an additional $35 entrance fee for Yellowstone (also valid for 7 days). If you plan on visiting more than two national parks with entrance fees within 365 days, you might want to consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass for $80.

National Park Service planning guide link

Have you been to Grand Teton National Park? If so, what did you do there? If not, do you want to go?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens
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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

Of the current 60 national parks in the United States, I’ve been to 20 of them over the years. In 2017, there were a record 84 million visitors to national parks, with the majority of visitors going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. 28 states plus the United States Virgin Islands and the American Samoa Territory have national parks, and California has the most, with 9 parks, just edging out Alaska’s 8 national parks.

Honestly, one of my favorite national parks isn’t the most-visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s my opinion that this park is the most visited simply because of its geography, which isn’t to say it’s not a nice park. The fact is it’s fairly easy for many people on the east coast and parts of the midwest to get to this park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So what are some of my favorite national parks in the United States? I’ll limit it to my top five here in no certain order and explain why I love them so much, along with some descriptions of each park. The website for all of the US national parks is here.

  1.  Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of California. Some of the most famous features include granite formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, and giant sequoia trees.There are a ton of options for things to do in the park including bike rentals, mule and horseback riding, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, rafting, and rock climbing classes. There are over 800 miles of trails so you can take short walks as well as longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. There is a free shuttle bus system but if you prefer to drive, most locations with Yosemite Valley are easily accessible by car. Just know that during the busy summer months, the park gets extremely crowded and finding parking can be difficult. Another option is to take a tour bus to Glacier Point in the summer and fall to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country. I personally love Yosemite National Park most because of the giant sequoias but I also love the waterfalls and the rock formations.
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One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii and is one of the more unique national parks. Where else can you walk through an enormous lava tube? There are several day hikes, backcountry hikes, and ranger-led hikes as well as scenic drives. If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is Volcano House, which also operates Nāmakanipaio Campground, or there are several vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in Volcano Village just outside the park. This park was recently closed from May 11, 2018 to September 22, 2018 due to volcanic activity that damaged roads, trails, waterlines, and buildings in the park. Some places are still partially opened, so if you’re going there in the near future, check the website first for closings.

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Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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The flora and fauna at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are so beautiful

3.  Bryce Canyon National Park is in southwestern Utah and its claim to fame is it has the largest collection of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) anywhere on Earth. There are a range of easy, moderate, and strenuous trails to hike with many of the shorter trails connected making it easy to combine trails. Ranger programs include geology talks, astronomy programs, full moon hikes and other hikes, and kids programs. During the summer horseback rides are available. You can camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge or find lodging at one of the nearby cities. We visited this park during the winter and the only way to describe that experience is “magical.” It may sound cheesy but this isn’t a term I use often to describe places I visit. The sky was overcast when we got there and it snowed lightly off and on the entire day, blanketing the hoodoos in snow. There weren’t many other visitors there so it was quiet and so utterly peaceful. Normally I can’t stand cold weather and snow but hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with the snow falling is one of my favorite memories of all time. You can find my post on Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
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Some of the many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park

4.  Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has to be one of the best-known national parks. Even if people haven’t been here, many people have at least heard of it and know that it’s famous for its namesake canyon. The canyon running through Grand Canyon National Park is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon has two basic sections, the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim is the most commonly visited of the two, and is open year-round. The North Rim closes for the winter months. Not surprisingly, the South Rim gets extremely crowded, even in the cooler months, and you need to make reservations for lodging in the park several months in advance. There are several lodges in the South Rim but only one lodge in the North Rim. You can also stay at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but reservations must be made via an online lottery 15 months in advance. There are trails, scenic drives, ranger programs as usual, but you can also take a mule trip or a river trip for something different. You can find my post on Grand Canyon National Park here.

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

5. Denali National Park in Alaska is special to me because of the wildlife and how the park manages to keep large parts of the park wild, meaning there are no trails in these areas and cars can’t drive on the road past a certain point. We took a transit bus that took us four hours into the park, then we hiked a couple of trails and took a return transit bus another four hours back out of the park, but there are options for shorter or longer bus rides or options if you don’t want to hike at all. The bus driver gave a great deal of history and information about the park and pulled over when anyone spotted animals so we could quietly observe them. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots. There is camping available in the park but we chose to stay just outside the park entrance. Another unique feature of this park is the employment of sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has working sled dogs. You can watch them happily pulling a cart during the warmer months during a Ranger demonstration. During the winter, the dogs patrol the park with Rangers on sleds. You can find my post on Denali National Park here.

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One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
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A brown bear (grizzly) and one of her cubs at Denali National Park

I realize I may have left off some of what may be other people’s favorite national parks, but as I said, I haven’t been to all of them, just about a third, although my plan is to visit more over the next several years. Which national park(s) is/are some of your favorites and what makes them special? Which national park that you haven’t been to yet are you dying to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest

This is part two 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. 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. Many of the states I have not been to yet are in the midwest part of the US, but I’ll do my best to present what I think are the “best” choices here. In case you’re not sure, the Midwest states are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, midwest only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.

1). For city-lovers and foodies:  Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is such a fun city with something for everyone. There are great museums including two of my favorites, the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Skydeck, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and many tours including boat tours. Chicago is famous for their insanely huge pizzas and “Chicago style” hot dogs, both of which you have to try when you visit, but there are also many other fantastic restaurants in the city. I don’t personally recommend going to Chicago during the winter months, which are known to get quite frigid. Public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around Chicago, as is the case in most big cities in the United States.

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Field Museum in Chicago- I love this place!

If you want to tack on another 2 or 3 days, take a rental car out of the city and drive up to Lake Geneva or Milwaukee, both in Wisconsin, and both are about 1 1/2 hour’s drive from Chicago. I’ve been to both places during the summer months and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Milwaukee (I also enjoyed Lake Geneva of course). Fifty miles southeast of Chicago lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park where you’ll find woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores.

2). For the nature-lover:  South Dakota. Choose Rapid City, South Dakota as your home base and take day trips from here. Thirty miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once you’ve had your fill of walking around the memorial and toured the Lincoln Borglum Museum, drive 15 miles for your next stop, Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore.

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Mount Rushmore

For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend making reservations for a tour online ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences.

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

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

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Badlands National Park

If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of tours.

3). For a relaxing vacation on the water:  Traverse City, Michigan. Although you’re going to fly into Detroit, Michigan, you’re going to pick up a rental car and drive north up to Traverse City, about 4 hours away. You can of course fly to Traverse City but it will be much cheaper to fly directly into Detroit. If you take a bus or combination of bus and train, it will take more than double the transport time so by all means rent a car if at all possible. Traverse City is a lovely area on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay full of wineries, many recreational areas and trails, and quaint shops and restaurants. The National Cherry Festival is held in early July and is full of all things cherry-related. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only about 40 minutes away and is a beautiful area and a fun and unique way to spend the day.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes

You could spend 3 or 4 days in Traverse City before driving north about 2 1/2 hours to Mackinac Island to spend the rest of your time. Interstate I-75 brings you to the ferry docks of both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Access to Mackinac Island can be made from both of these cities. Mackinac Island is serviced from both of these cities by two ferry companies: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. You can bike around the island, explore Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes, take a boat tour, rent a kayak, play golf, or just relax and take in the scenery. Both Traverse City and Mackinac Island are laid-back, relaxing places with beautiful water views.

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

Happy travels!

Donna