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

 

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Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru

I’m planning a vacation for myself and my family to go to Machu Picchu next year. If you’ve never been, I can tell you it’s almost overwhelming (well, it really is overwhelming, not almost) how many choices and options there are. I’ve planned vacations for the last couple of decades and haven’t been phased at all by places like Chile (even the middle of nowhere Chile), New Zealand with all of its options, or Malta (a place most Americans have never even heard of). Peru, however, is proving to be a bit more difficult, shall we say, simply because of all of the options.

Just about the only place I know for sure we will be going to is Machu Picchu. From there, the choices are who to go with for our group tour, and from there, how do we want to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu. There are options to camp in tents for anywhere from a few nights to 10 days, hiking along the way. There are options to just take the train in and take a guided tour for a few hours. Then there are options for which trek to do, if you want to camp and hike with a guided tour. I can see why many people just take the train in and do the guided tour of Machu Picchu for the day; that would be the easiest way.

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Beautiful Machu Picchu in Peru

However, if you know me at all, you know I don’t take the easiest way, nor do I take the route most traveled (most of the time, although I have been to more popular places as well). I often go to places where people will ask me beforehand, “Why are you going there?” or “Where is that?” Although I’ve been to popular places like Rome and Miami (and of course no one ever asked why I was going there), I like to venture off the beaten path a bit. Hence, I’ve chosen to take the Lares Route instead of the most popular classic Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. As far as I can tell, the three most popular choices if you want to do some hiking are the Lares Route, the classic Inca Trail, and Salcantay Route. There is also a one-day Inca Trail, the strenuous Vilcabamba Traverse Route, the Lodge Trek, and the Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail.

What I like about the Lares Route is it’s not quite as crowded as the classic Inca Trail and the trek passes through small villages so you get to see some of the artisans and farmers in person. There are also hot springs (what’s not to like about that after a long day of hiking). There are a couple of options for the Lares route: 2 nights of camping in tents and two nights in hotels along the way to Machu Picchu or 2 nights in tents and 1 night in a hotel before reaching Machu Picchu. I didn’t want to get to Machu Picchu, only to be so tired from not sleeping well in a tent for the past 6 nights and not be able to fully enjoy the star of the show!

So now the major remaining question is what do we do with the rest of our time in Peru? We have a couple of weeks, plus or minus a few days to spend in Peru. I know we’ll fly into Lima and probably just spend a night there before flying to Cusco. I also know we should acclimatize to the elevation in Cusco for a few (I’m thinking three) days before beginning the Lares Route to Machu Picchu. Then what to do after that? Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, looks pretty awesome, and by then we should be used to the elevation. That would add one day. I thought about going to Huacachina from Lima and spending a night there, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. We’ve been to the amazing sand dunes in the Canary Islands, so it’s not like we’ve never seen a place like this before.

I’ve heard of other people tacking on the Galapagos Islands to Machu Picchu because of the somewhat near proximity (all things relative), but that’s not something I want to do. I’d rather focus on Peru on this trip and go to the Galapagos Islands at another time. My family and I love hiking, beaches, mountains, and historical sites. If you have any ideas for some things to do around Lima or Cusco, I’d love to hear them! Also, two of the three of us suffer from pretty bad motion sickness so while airplanes are usually fine (with medicine), boats aren’t a great idea for us.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like? Have you been to Peru but not Machu Picchu? Where did you go and what did you see? Please help me plan my vacation to Peru! All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to  hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Denali National Park in Alaska

Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.

Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).

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Grizzly bears (a.k.a. brown bears) in Denali!

When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.

Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.

Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.

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View from the Tundra Loop Trail

Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.

The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.

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Views from the Tundra Loop Trail

A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.

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Denali sled dogs in action!

We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.

Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

My Alaskan Adventures Begin in Anchorage

For those of you that don’t already know, I’m on a quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I chose the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage for my half marathon in Alaska. My family and I did not go the popular Alaskan cruise route so we could have more flexibility with our schedule and what cities we went to. That and the fact that my husband and daughter suffer from motion sickness, something that came back to bite them hard later in this vacation.

Our flight from the east coast to Anchorage was a long one, so when we arrived in the evening and it was still daylight despite being 9 pm, we were tired and ready to check in our hotel and call it a night. We stayed at Duke’s 8th Avenue Hotel because of the proximity to the race start and finish. I could literally walk just a few blocks from the hotel the morning of the race, which I always try to do if possible for a race. We also enjoyed having a two bedroom suite and full kitchen at our disposal. If you’d like to read about my race, state number 43, you can find it at Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state.

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One of our first hikes near Anchorage

I had planned on doing some hiking on Friday but take it easy on Saturday, the day before the race, and pack up and drive up to Denali National Park right after the race, so honestly, we didn’t do a ton while we were in Anchorage. We went hiking at the absolutely enormous Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska. We were very excited to see our first moose ever on our first full day in Alaska, despite having been to eastern and western parts of Canada, Montana, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and never seeing a moose at any of those places.

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Our first moose spotting!

Other than hiking in Chugach National Forest and seeing the moose, some of our favorite things from Anchorage include walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, driving along part of Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout. Even though the weather was pretty terrible when we were at Turnagain Arm, with strong winds and rain, we made the most of it, knowing our time in Anchorage was limited.

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Part of Tunagain Arm

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops. We went for breakfast at Snow City Café, and it was definitely worth the wait. I can see why it’s so popular! I had some hand-made pasta at South Restaurant the night before my half marathon and it was just what I was looking for and tasted delicious. Wild Scoops is known for its different flavors of ice cream, like the Sleeping Lady that I had, Earl Grey ice cream with local black currant swirl. It was unlike any other ice cream flavor I had ever had, but more importantly, it was one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had; very creamy and full of flavor.

We enjoyed our time in Anchorage and our first taste of Alaska. The weather seemed quite chilly to us southerners, who had just come from highs about 30 degrees warmer than in Anchorage, but it was a nice break from the heat for us, so we weren’t complaining. We just wore plenty of layers so we could be comfortable. As we left Anchorage, we were very much looking forward to heading north to check out Denali National Park for the second part of our vacation.

Have any of you been to Alaska or would like to go? Do you think you would take a cruise or just pick a few spots and either drive or fly between them if you haven’t been yet or did you do this if you have been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Beautiful Boise- There’s so Much More to Boise, Idaho Than Just Potatoes!

My first glimpse of Idaho was when I drove through Coeur d’Alene, Idaho from Spokane, Washington several years ago on my way to Missoula, Montana and parts of Canada. I was in awe of the natural beauty of that part of Idaho and I couldn’t wait to go back and actually spend some time in Idaho. I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states in the United States, and for my race in Idaho, I chose to run in Boise based on some race reviews of Boise by other runners. If you’d like to read about my half marathon, The Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon, just click here for the link.

When I arrived in Boise, I immediately thought of Missoula. Boise and Missoula are both in valleys surrounded by beautiful mountains. I loved Missoula so of course I also loved Boise right away. The first thing I did when I reached my Airbnb house was go for a run. I always love running in new places because I really get a feel for the area and it helps me get my bearings quickly.

The next day we went to the Idaho Botanical Garden and this is probably one of the best botanical gardens I’ve been to anywhere. At first glance, my daughter was a little disappointed, so when you drive up to the garden, don’t be put off by first impressions. When you get further into the garden, the beauty of it unfolds before you, so just keep walking.

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Idaho Botanical Garden

As is the case with most botanical gardens, the Idaho Botanical Garden is divided into several sections, like the English Garden, the Herb Garden, Firewise Garden, and Meditation Garden, just to name a few. Words really can’t describe this place, though. You really have to see it for yourself. We spent a little over an hour and a half here but you could bring a picnic lunch and spend a few hours here easily. There are plenty of seating areas, restrooms, and a gift shop. Pets are not permitted. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids ages 5 to 12.

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Idaho Botanical Garden

Boise is an outdoor lover’s paradise. There are trails and greenways everywhere for walking, running, and cycling, or hiking up mountainsides. During our time in Boise, we went hiking several days and each time the scenery just kept getting better. One of my favorite places to hike in the Boise area is Hulls Gulch. Hulls Gulch has several trails and you can spend days on end here if you hiked all of the trails. We chose a couple of trails here, including Red Cliffs Trail and were rewarded with these views.

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Hulls Gulch Hiking Area

Another place we went hiking that was incredible is Bogus Basin, where we hiked the Around the Mountain trail, or at least a portion of it. This is a ski resort during the winter months but they have trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking during warmer months. There are some other summer activities like a toboggan ride and the lifts are open for quick access to the top of the mountain. We were there a few days before they opened for the summer season, so the cafe, lifts, and everything else was closed, but that just meant we pretty much had the trail to ourselves except for a few mountain bikers we passed.

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Bogus Basin

My absolute favorite hiking place in the Boise area is Lucky Peak State Park. The park was the start for the Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon, where we wound through the canyon for the first few miles and I ran my 44th half marathon in my 42nd state. A few days after my race, my family and I drove to the park and hiked up Cervidae Peak, which is 4.4 miles out and back, 1883 foot elevation gain, with views of two rivers and the marina directly below. This is a hard trail, pretty much straight up and straight back down but it is worth it for the incredible views.

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Lucky Peak State Park

If you’re not into hiking, downtown Boise is also a cool place with many great restaurants and shops. We discovered Freak Alley and all of the murals there and took a ton of photos while we walked around and admired the art work. We also popped into some of the unique shops and a small bookstore. Boise Art Museum looks like a great place, but we chose to hike instead of go there so I can’t speak from experience. Another cool place you can tour is the Old Idaho Penitentiary with its 19th-century prison cells and gallows, plus historic military weaponry.

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Freak Alley Gallery

Idaho has to be one of the most under-rated states in the United States in my opinion, especially by east coasters, many of whom don’t even know for sure where Idaho is and all they relate it to is potatoes. It is one of the most beautiful states I’ve been to, and is full of outdoor activities year-round. Most importantly, everyone we talked to, whether while hiking or in town was friendly and helpful. I’ve often said I tend to judge a city by how runner-friendly it is, and not only is Boise runner-friendly, it’s also outdoor-enthusiast-friendly with all of the options available. That’s my kind of town! 

Have any of you been to Idaho? If so, where did you go and did you love it as much as I did?

Happy travels!

Donna