Even before the pandemic and wasn’t able to travel, I would sometimes daydream about travel. Do any of you do that (perhaps more so now than before)? Something I was reading recently prompted me to think about the following questions. If you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve never been to, where would it be? Let’s pretend we don’t have COVID-19 to worry about. Of course all expenses would be paid for and you’d have plenty of vacation time to take from work (plus all other logistics would be taken care of). On the flip side, if you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve already been to, where would it be?
For me, I’ve been to 47 states in the US already so that leaves only 3 that I haven’t been to, so my options for states I haven’t been to are pretty slim. Still, I would choose New Mexico, which I have plans to go to in November. My other options are Iowa and Minnesota, by the way, and I am excited about going to them too (yes, even Iowa that doesn’t get much travel love). I really enjoy hiking in the mountains and New Mexico has plenty of great hiking plus I hear the food there is fantastic.
So now what state would I go to that I’ve already been to? That’s a really tough question for me. I absolutely love California and would happily go back there given any opportunity. I still haven’t been to Monterrey or Big Sur and am dying to go to that part of California. I would love to go back to Yosemite, Napa Valley, San Francisco, or San Diego as well. Oregon is another state that I loved and am dying to go back to spend some time in Portland and the coast. Or there’s Washington, where I’d love to go to some of the islands off the coast like Whidbey or Bainbridge Islands. I’ve been to San Juan Island in addition to Seattle and loved both of those parts of Washington. I’m also dying to go to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. I was going to run a half marathon there until I found out how hilly it is and then I decided to run a race in Boise instead, and we spent some time there after the race. Oh, then there’s Utah with its many national parks. I’ve been to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks but really want to go to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Do I have to pick just one state? Yes, I know, rules are rules.
OK. I pick Monterrey and Big Sur in California for my state to go back to that I’ve already been to. That was a tough one. California is one state that I’ve visited the most number of times (tied with Florida) and like I said, I’m always happy to return there. A few years back, my family and I spent three weeks in San Diego, checking out the area to see if it’s a place where my husband and I might want to retire to. If it wasn’t so expensive, the answer would be a resounding yes but we’re looking to cut back our expenses when we retire, not increase them, so I just couldn’t justify retiring there.
Now what about other countries? If you could go to one country that you’ve never been to, which would it be? For me, that’s also a pretty tough question. Since I first heard about the country of Georgia, I’ve wanted to go there. I’ve heard the mountains there are amazing, the food is delicious, and the people are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. What’s not to like about that? Flights there aren’t the cheapest, as you might imagine, but if all expenses are paid for, then that doesn’t matter, right?
Georgia isn’t the only country I want to go to, as you might imagine. I also badly want to go to Slovenia, Croatia, Vancouver in Canada (although I’ve been to Canada a couple of times so that’s not a new country for me), Thailand, Panama, Ecuador, and Montenegro for starters. Portugal has always been high on my list of places I want to go to, and I may be able to go there this year if all of the stars align but like everything else right now, I’ll have to wait and see how things go. Back to my question, though, or more accurately, back to my answer for what country would I choose if I could go anywhere that I haven’t been? I have to say Georgia.
What about choosing a country to return to that I’ve been to before? Without any hesitation, my answer is New Zealand. It’s got to be the most biodiverse country that I’ve ever seen. You want beaches? You can choose from black, tan, or white sandy beaches. Want geothermal areas? They’ve got that. Glaciers? Check. Giant Redwood trees? Yep, that too. Mountains? Of course. Rainforests? You’ve got it. Swamp forests, Grasslands, multiple types of wetlands? Yes, yes, and yes. And all of the diversity I saw was just in the North Island of New Zealand! I’d really like to go back and visit the South Island. If someone else was paying my way there, I wouldn’t have to worry about forking out for that expensive flight either!
Now it’s your turn:
What state would you go to that you’ve never been to and why?
What state would you choose to return to?
What country that you’ve never been to would you choose?
The end of September is when fall foliage starts to appear in the eastern states in the US, beginning in the more northern states and moving down south as time passes. If you can plan a visit to the New England states for the upcoming weeks, you should be able to see some of the colorful leaves before they fall off the trees for the winter. As you might imagine, some places fill up quickly in the autumn months, so make your plans now while there’s still time.
Growing up in West Virginia, I always loved when the trees turned from green to wonderful shades of yellow, red, and orange, but on the flip side, I somewhat dreaded it because that meant winter was coming. Nonetheless, regardless about how I feel about winter, West Virginia is a perfect place to enjoy the fall foliage. Many people flock to Bridge Day, which is West Virginia’s largest festival held on one day and one of the largest extreme sports events in the world. Bridge day is held every year on the third Saturday in October on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County, coinciding with peak fall foliage in the area. Thousands of people come to this festival to watch as BASE jumpers from around the world jump off the bridge and rappellers go up and down the catwalk. There’s also plenty of things for spectators to do including run a 5k starting on the bridge and ending in Fayetteville. This is just one of many areas in West Virginia you can visit in the fall to experience fall foliage. Others include Huntington, Charleston, or one of the state parks would be a great option as well!
North Carolina also has plenty of places to visit if you want to see some gorgeous fall foliage. For those of you that don’t know, North Carolina can be divided into three basic parts: the mountains on the west, the central area known as the Piedmont with the capital of Raleigh, and the coastal region on the east. Most people that want to see fall foliage will focus on the mountains in the western part of North Carolina. Western North Carolina is an outdoor-lover’s paradise, with many fun cities to go camping, hiking, fishing, and whitewater rafting. Some of my favorite cities in western North Carolina are Asheville (see my posts: Camping in Asheville, North Carolina;and Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina), Boone, and Blowing Rock.
I’ve visited all of the New England states for half marathons, and I have been to three states in the fall, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. I was in a small town about an hour outside Boston, called Newburyport and loved that part of Massachusetts. The nice thing is you can still do plenty of things in Boston and easily pop over to the quieter areas like Newburyport when you want a break from the traffic and congestion. Rhode Island is one of my favorite states I’ve ever been to and I feel like it’s one of the most under-rated states. I went to Newport and we drove all over that area, stopping in some tiny towns to visit art galleries or local shops. There are also mansions such as The Breakers and Marblehouse that you can tour plus gorgeous beaches all around that area (although it’s definitely not peak beach season there in the fall but that just means they aren’t as crowded). We were in some tiny towns in New Hampshire for the half marathon that most people wouldn’t come to visit, so I can’t speak as much about that, but if you’re in the northern part of the state like I was, it’s a short drive over the Canadian border to Montreal, which I absolutely loved (see my post: Montreal, a City Unlike Any Other).
Some other states you might not think of when you think of fall foliage are Indiana and Arkansas. I visited both of these states in the fall when I was running a half marathon there, and found I enjoyed both places more than I expected I would. Most people think of Indianapolis when they think of Indiana, home of the famous Indy 500 races, but I was in a small town on the border with Kentucky and the Ohio River called Evansville. The Evansville Half Marathon perfectly coincides with the West Side Nut Club Festival, now in its 98th year (!) and also more recently a taco festival and music festival also occur around the same time in October. Here are links for more information: Evansville Half Marathon and Nut Club Fall Festival.
For my half marathon in Arkansas, I ran the Cotter River Half Marathon, which I absolutely raved about. This was in November, which is a perfect time to enjoy the fall foliage in Arkansas. Although there are some options for things to do and places to stay in the Cotter area, I decided to drive to Hot Springs after the race and spend a few days there. Hot Springs can be a bit touristy in parts, which I usually don’t like, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hot Springs much more than I thought I would. My family and I went to one of the local bath houses and had several extremely affordable treatments done and we hiked all around the National Park there. For more on the race, see my post, White River Half Marathon, Cotter, Arkansas-44th state and for more on Hot Springs, see my post, Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I know I left off some places to enjoy fall foliage in the United States because that would be way too long and I haven’t been everywhere, so now your turn, where are some of your favorite, perhaps off-the-beaten path places to enjoy fall foliage that I didn’t mention here? Do you live in a state where there is no substantial fall foliage? Do you travel to see fall foliage?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.
1) For the city-lover and partier: Start in Los Angeles,California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).
Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.
You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.
2) For a desert experience, first choice:Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.
Desert experience, with national parks: Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.
3) To see mountains, first choice: Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Mountains, second choice: Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.
4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature: fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.
Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.
5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.
6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.
There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!
Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
As an American who has visited all but 8 of the states in the United States, take it from me, the US is a huge country. The entire continent of Europe is roughly the same size as the United States, to put things into perspective. Imagine driving from one end of Europe to the other end or even half of Europe in a week or two. That’s crazy, right? But yet some people come to the United States for the first time with the intention to drive across the United States, only to wind up spending most of their time in the car. There’s got to be a better way.
Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, east coast only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.
1) For the city-lover: begin in New York City. With a population of over 8.6 million people, New York City is definitely a city with a lot to do and see. I’m not going to give recommendations for things to do and see in New York City, but I recommend staying here 4 or 5 days, depending on what you want to see and do. The noise and traffic can be a bit much for some people, so if you know you prefer to move on to a smaller area, I’d cut the time spent in New York to 3 days but wouldn’t go any less than that.
If you are a history buff, you can fly, drive a rental car, or take a train to Washington, D.C. There is an Amtrak train that will get you there in an hour less than it takes to drive (3 hours via train vs. 4 hours driving) and flying isn’t any faster, so I would recommend taking the train. Parking in both New York City and Washington, D.C. is expensive and difficult to find, not to mention the headache of simply driving in these hugely congested areas.
I suggest spending 2 or 3 days in Washington, D.C. As in New York City, public transportation is the best way to get around. The metro in Washington, D.C. can take you to the Smithsonian museums quickly and easily. I highly recommend spending time at the Smithsonian Museums, which are made up of 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo, all of which offer free admission. There are of course also the monuments and memorials you can admire on the National Mall. Most of the monuments and memorials are free or have a nominal fee. Check online to see if you need a ticket and if so buy it in advance.
2) For the history and nature-lover: begin in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is considerably smaller both in land mass and population than New York City and may be an easier transition for some people, especially those that don’t like large crowds. Boston has around 700,000 people but still has plenty to do and is also a great choice if you enjoy history. Again, I would recommend just using public transportation and walking to get around Boston. Although you could easily spend more time in Boston, 3 days would be a good amount to see the highlights.
From Boston, rent a car and drive up the coast to Maine. It’s a pretty long drive, at about 4 hours, 45 minutes. If you want to break up the drive, stop at Portland and spend the night here. Portland is full of great restaurants and nice places to stay. Your ultimate destination will be Bar Harbor, home to Acadia National Park. You could easily spend a week just in Acadia National Park, but if you’re only spending a week total in the US, you’ll have about 4 days here if you spend 3 days in Boston. You could also fly from Boston to Bar Harbor in about an hour, but honestly, the drive along the coast from Boston is worth it in my opinion.
3) For a beach experience and party scene: fly into Miami, Florida. Miami is famous for its beautiful beaches, great food, and bar scene. If you like to hang out at the beach all day and party all night, Miami is the spot for you. Everglades National Park is also nearby if you want to take a ride through the Everglades in an airboat for a unique experience. Spend 5 days in Miami before heading to your next destination, Key West.
Key West is about 3 1/2 hours by car from Miami, although it could take longer if you stop at the many other little “keys” along the way. You can fly from Miami to Key West in 45 minutes if you are in a hurry, but if you want a memorable road trip, drive the Overseas Highway across a 113-mile chain of coral and limestone islands connected by 42 bridges, one of them seven miles long. Key West has a laid-back kind of feel, which may be a relief after the more upbeat party scene of Miami. Chill at the beaches and bars in Key West for 2 days before heading back home.
4) To skip the bigger cities for a smaller-town feel: fly into Atlanta, Georgia. Although Atlanta is a fun town and you could spend a few days here, for your first time to the United States, I suggest renting a car and driving the roughly 4 1/2 hours to Charleston, South Carolina. You could also fly into Charleston but flights from Europe will be cheaper if you fly into Atlanta. If you don’t have a driver’s license or can’t rent a car, by all means fly into Charleston instead. Charleston has consistently ranked number one city by Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, and for good reason. Charleston is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches with soft, powder-fine sand, is full of historical sites, and has quaint bed & breakfasts as well as the usual hotels and Airbnb offerings. Spend 5 days in Charleston before moving on to your next destination, Savannah, Georgia.
It’s about a 2 hour drive from Charleston to Savannah. To me, Savannah is like the little sister to Charleston, in many ways. Savannah is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches at Tybee Island, has many fun historical sites, all of which Charleston has, but Savannah hasn’t quite reached the level of “stardom” that Charleston has, for some reason. I suggest spending 2 days in Savannah before heading back and flying back out of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, about 3 1/2 hours away by car.
Those are my top east-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. There are of course many more but I had to draw the line somewhere!
What about my American east-coasters? What east coast travel destinations would you recommend to first-timers coming to the US?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Now that I’m up to 41 states in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, I can stand back and take a look at my experience so far. When I started running half marathons, I didn’t have this goal. In fact, I didn’t have the goal of one in each state until I had already ran a half marathon in several states. One day I just said, hey that would be a fun goal to run a half marathon in every state, and I just sort of fell into it from there.
Running a race in all 50 states takes a ton of time, energy, and money. Unless you’re independently wealthy, it will most likely take you many years to accomplish your goal. Of course, the longer the distance you plan on running, the more expensive it will be, but not hugely more. Yes, marathons cost more than 5k’s to register, but the real expense is in the airfare, lodging, gas, and food. These expenses will be the same regardless of the distance you are running.
If you don’t have support from your family and boss (assuming you work and have a family) you won’t be able to accomplish this goal. I’ll re-phrase that. If you don’t have support from your family and boss you won’t be able to accomplish this goal in a timely manner. If you only get one week of vacation time off work a year, it will be much harder to travel to races. Initially it may work and you can travel during holidays that you have paid time off, but eventually it will get harder and harder to find races when you have time off work, especially if you don’t enjoy running in northern states around Thanksgiving or Christmas, for example.
This goal also takes total commitment from family members because of the time and money involved. If your spouse isn’t on-board with this goal, instead of support you’ll get resentment and eventually your goal will deteriorate. My husband and daughter are my biggest running fans and they’ve seen first-hand how they’ve also benefited from my goal, by getting to travel to new states and have a fun family vacation. We’ve been to places that we probably never would have gone to, but have almost always been pleasantly surprised by the place. There have been a couple of places we were underwhelmed by, but we still managed to have a good time and make the most of it!
Having a goal to run a race in all 50 states also takes a huge amount of planning, especially when you get down to the final 15 or so states. Some states only have less than ten half marathons, which greatly limits when you can run them. Also, if you’re limited to a certain part of a state where you can run for whatever reason, that also limits when you can run those races. Your choices are also dictated by the distance you’re running. If you’re running 5k’s you will most likely have more options than if you’re running 10k’s simply because there are more 5k’s than 10k’s.
I’ve also found that many times the race I thought I would run (sometimes I’ll have a race in mind years in advance) just didn’t happen for various reasons and I ended up running an entirely different race. For example, I thought I would run the Tybee Island Half Marathon in Georgia and looked forward to it for years. The year I went to register for it there was some problem and the race director was thinking about canceling the race for that year. I could have waited to see what would happen but I didn’t want to take a chance and not be able to run it and have to scramble around to find another race at the last minute along with airfare, hotel, car rental, etc. so I signed up for Run the Reagan Half Marathon, a race near Atlanta. It was one of the worst half marathons I’ve ever ran and I regretted not just waiting until the next year for Tybee Island.
Sometimes even with the best intentions of planning, things (aka races) fall through. In the case of my race in Oregon, I thought I’d be running a small race in Eugene. I had already booked our airfare, hotels, and car rental but I just hadn’t paid my registration fee for the race yet. Since it was a small race with no incentive to sign up early (prices didn’t increase over time as they sometimes do), I just wasn’t in a hurry to sign up. My daughter was interested in running the 5k so I emailed the race director with a question about that, only to be told the entire event (half marathon and 5k) had been cancelled. Fortunately there was another half marathon that she told me about also in Eugene the day after the one I thought I would be running, so I signed up for that one on the spot and breathed a sigh of relief!
Beyond races being cancelled, flights are also often changed, delayed, or cancelled. I’ve had so many flight changes for races I was flying to, I learned early on to give myself a buffer of at least one day, if not two or more, depending on where I’m flying and what the flight times are. For example, for flights to big cities where there are multiple flights a day, a buffer of one day would be fine, but for flights to smaller cities and/or places where you have to connect through other cities, I would personally give at least two buffer days before the race, just in case something happens.
Although I feel like it’s probably too late at this point, I’ve wondered if maybe I should have joined the Fifty States Half Marathon Club. I’m just not sure I can justify the one-time $79 fee on top of either a 3 or 5 year membership fee. Since I’ve already ran 41 states, I’d have to pay for a 5 year dues membership. This might be well and good if I had another 25+ states to go but since I’ll hopefully be done in another few years, I just don’t think I would get enough out of it to justify joining now.
When I mention to people that I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states, the one question I get asked by far the most is, “Have you ran a race in Hawaii yet?” I guess a lot of Americans are fascinated by Hawaii. No one has ever asked me, “Have you ran a race in Rhode Island yet?” even though that one was one of my favorites so far. Oh, and the answer is, “Yes, Hawaii was one of the first half marathons I ever ran, before I even had the goal of running one in every state.” You can read about that here if you’d like.
Finally, I’ve learned that if you run enough races, eventually you’ll win an age-group award. I’ve always considered myself a near-the-front middle of the pack racer (if that makes sense), usually finishing in the top quarter for my age group. I never thought I’d “win” a race as my mother used to always ask me when I spoke to her afterwards (she’d ask, “Did you win?”) but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to win first, second, and third in my age group at races in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Oregon, respectively.
What questions do you all have about running a half marathon or even a different distance race in all 50 states? Are any of you running a race in all 50 states or considering it?
Something is going to happen in parts of the United States on August 21, 2017 that hasn’t happened since 1918. A total eclipse is going to occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, resulting in a 170 mile arc of darkness from parts of Oregon to parts of South Carolina. For several minutes, the sky will be dark enough to see stars and the sun will be completely covered by the moon.
For something so rare, it’s a perfect occasion for a road-trip, like my family is planning. It seems many others are also planning on visiting these places at the center of totality, as places are filling up fast. You will be able to see a partial eclipse from many other points of the US, but if you want to be in the center of all of the excitement, here are some places where you can spend a long weekend and join in the fun.
Here are the states and cities with the best viewing spots: Oregon has several cities; Driggs, Mud Lake, Rexburg, and Stanley, Idaho; several cities in Wyoming; several cities in Nebraska; Highland, Troy, and Wathena, Kansas; several cities in Missouri; several places in Illinois; several cities in Kentucky; several cities that are close but not at the center in Tennessee; Dillard and Sky Valley in Georgia; Andrews in North Carolina; and many places in South Carolina. The full listing is on this extensive web page. Some cities are close to the edge of the path but you’ll see more if you drive 30-50 miles north or south. In this case, close won’t be good enough. You really have to be in the center of the path to see the total eclipse.
One of the best places to find exactly where the path will go is on Xavier Jubier’s 2017 Total Eclipse Interactive Google Map. This very detailed web page also has basic information describing the eclipse and why this one is so special. There are also viewing times listed, many maps, and information on how to prepare for the eclipse.
The highlight of the eclipse when the sun is completely blocked by the moon will be quick, so make sure you get to your spot early. For most cities, totality will only last around 2 or 3 minutes. The complete event going from one end of the United States to the other is only expected to last less than 15 minutes. It should be a once in a lifetime experience, however.
Don’t forget to get some eclipse glasses, but you don’t need to invest huge amounts of money for them. They shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars for a pair. Regular sunglasses or homemade eclipse glasses won’t protect your eyes, so definitely buy a pair made specifically for an eclipse.
The next eclipse of this magnitude in the United States isn’t predicted to occur until 2045, so don’t wait around for the next one to happen. Make your plans now while you still can!
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is so heavily visited, the National Park Service even has a web page about crowding at the South Rim and how to avoid it. There are tips on how to make the most of your visit and avoid crowds. My family and I visited during late winter, and found this is one way to at least lessen the crowds; however, visiting the Grand Canyon during the winter is not all rosy. There are some advantages and disadvantages to coming to the park in the winter.
First, a few statistics about the Grand Canyon NP. The gorge is 1 mile deep and 277 miles long, with the Colorado River running through it. The North Rim is separated from the South Rim by the 10 mile wide canyon in between. The entire park is 1,217,403.32 acres but surprisingly this is only the 11th biggest US national park by size. There are six national parks in Alaska alone that are bigger than Grand Canyon National Park.
In 2016 almost 6 million people visited the park, with the vast majority of visitors during the summer months and the least visitors during December, January, and February. We chose to visit in early March and found it was definitely not as crowded as during the summer. It also wasn’t as busy during the week as it was on the weekend, not surprisingly.
What are some advantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Good)
Obviously, the main advantage is crowds are less. However, there was a big surge of visitors on Saturday that we didn’t see on the days before that. So, even during the winter, it’s still best to come during the week if at all possible.
Along with the trails and roads not being as crowded, restaurants also aren’t as crowded during the winter months.
It’s also nice to see the Grand Canyon when it’s snow-covered, and see the park in a way many people don’t get to experience.
Because it’s cooler during the winter, it’s more conducive to hiking if you plan on going on some long hikes down into the canyon. The temperature rises 5.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you lose in elevation, so the floor of the Grand Canyon is often as hot as 106 degrees Fahrenheit in July. If you plan on going to the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the West Rim, the average daily high in July is 116 degrees. July and August are also when monsoon rains occur here. In contrast, high temperatures during the winter are usually in the 30’s and 40’s.
What are some disadvantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Bad)
If you have your heart set on going the North Rim, it is closed during the winter months, so your only option is the South Rim.
It can get quite windy during the winter months and a cold wind on top of a high around 35 degrees can make for a chilly hike.
During the winter, most of the trails often have at least some areas where they are slick with ice and/or snow. Even on the popular Rim Trail, the majority of the trail had slick spots and we had to watch our footing.
Any other disadvantages? (The Ugly)
Mules are on Kaibab Trail during the winter and in fact year-round. During the winter the top of the trail is snowy and icy, and further down the trail where it is warmer, there are areas where it can be extremely muddy. This combined with piles and piles of mule poop leads to one smelly, messy trail. I’m not sure which was worse, the ice and trying to not fall at the top of the trail, or the mud and mule poop later on the trail. My daughter was actually cheering when we came upon ice again after going through the thick, heavy mud for a while. At least the ice wasn’t trying to pull her shoes off her feet like the mud was! We did, thankfully, reach parts of the trail further down that were neither ice- nor mud-covered, and that was awesome!
Trails at the South Rim
There are five day hikes at the South Rim, with four being steep or very steep and only the Rim Trail is flat and easy. We spent most of our time on the Rim Trail and South Kaibab Trail but I’ll discuss them all briefly here.
The Rim Trail runs along the South Rim of the canyon, as you might guess by the name and is undoubtedly one of the more popular trails because of its accessibility. You can hop on a shuttle and take it to the next stop and hike as little or much as you want, before getting on the next shuttle. The Rim Trail runs from the village area to Hermit’s Rest for 13 miles and is mostly paved and flat. There are 13 shuttle stops from South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest Trailhead. Shuttles run March 1 to November 30.
Bright Angel Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins near Bright Angel Lodge and is 12 miles long roundtrip. Park rangers recommend you turn around after going 3 miles at 3 Mile Resthouse and during the summer not going past 4.5 miles one-way at Indian Garden. There are mules on this trail.
South Kaibab Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins south of Yaki Point (a shuttle stop) on Yaki Point Road. There are great views along the trail, including one with the funny-named “Ooh-Aah Point” at 0.9 miles into the hike. By this point, you’ve lost 600 feet in elevation, from the start at 7260 feet. Cedar Ridge, at 1.5 miles one-way is where park rangers recommend people who are not used to hiking or have gotten a late start to turn around and are adamant that summer hikers not go beyond this point. You don’t get your first real view of the river until Skeleton Point, 3 miles into the hike, at an elevation of 5200 feet. This is your recommended turn-around point for a day hike, presuming you’ve gotten an early start, are used to hiking, and it’s not summer. Again, there are mules on this trail.
Hermit Trail is steep, strenuous, rocky, and unmaintained trail that begins near Hermits Rest shuttle stop and during the spring, summer, and fall is only accessible by shuttle bus (no private vehicles). This is definitely a trail for experienced hikers. You have two options on this trail for day hikes, either go to Santa Maria Spring, 2.5 miles one way or go to Dripping Springs, 3.5 miles one way. The advantage to this trail is there are no mules.
Grandview Trail is similar to Hermit Trail, in that it is also a steep, strenuous, unmaintained dirt trail with tougher conditions than either Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail. The trailhead can be reached by vehicle (not shuttle) at Grandview Point, 12 miles east of the village on Desert View Drive. Day hikes are to Coconino Saddle (1.1 miles one way) or Horseshoe Mesa/Toilet Junction (3 miles one way). However, day hikes to Horseshoe Mesa are not recommended during the summer due to strenuous conditions of the trail beyond Coconino Saddle.
Regardless of which trail you choose, do not attempt to hike from the rim down to the river in one day during the summer months. Even during the cooler months it’s not recommended unless you start very early in the day and are an experienced desert hiker.
There are several trails at the North Rim, none of which we did since the North Rim is unaccessible during the winter months. You can read about North Rim trails plus South Rim trails here.
How to Get Here
Most people fly into Las Vegas, Nevada and drive the approximately 270 mile route to the Grand Canyon or fly into Phoenix, Arizona and drive the approximately 232 miles from there. Rental cars abound at both of these international airports. Tours can also be arranged at both places if you feel unsure or uneasy about driving that distance on your own and/or are from another country and are uneasy about driving in the States.
Where to Stay
If you want to maximize your time inside the park (which I highly recommend), there are several options for lodging in the park. At the South Rim, you can stay in the more crowded Historic District and choose from five different lodges, or you can stay in the quieter Market Plaza near the Visitor Center at Yavapai Lodge or Trailer Village RV Park. We chose to stay at Yavapai Lodge and found the motel rooms outdated but quiet. You can read more about the rooms in the park, including what’s available at the North Rim here. All of these places tend to fill several months in advance, especially during the summer months, so make sure you make reservations as far in advance as possible.
Where to Eat
Inside the park, there are several options for meals as well as groceries. Most of the lodges have a restaurant and there are some coffee shops and taverns scattered throughout the South Rim. The Canyon Village Market General Store is a pretty decent-sized grocery store that also has firewood and souvenirs. Prices didn’t seem too terrible here either. You can also get snacks at Hermit’s Rest Snack Bar at the end of Hermit Road. Although closed during the winter, you can eat at the Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room or Deli in the Pines at the North Rim. Outside the park, you can find groceries and restaurants 7 miles south of Grand Canyon Village in the town of Tusayan.
Other Things to Do
Depending on the weather, how much time you have to spend here, and your interests, there are many options of things to do at Grand Canyon NP. As outlined by the National Park Service, you could take a mule trip and go along the canyon rim or down to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch, or take a bicycle tour, go whitewater rafting, or even participate in a Grand Canyon Association Field Institute Learning Adventure.
Admission to the park is valid for seven days and includes both the North and South Rim. A Grand Canyon National Park Vehicle Permit is $30 and admits a single vehicle (non-commercial) and everyone in the vehicle.
A Grand Canyon National Park Annual Pass is good for 12 months and costs $60. The America the Beautiful Annual Pass costs $80 and allows free entrance to all national parks and federal recreational lands. The Annual “Every Kid in a Park” 4th Grade Pass is free (!) for US 4th graders who have obtained the paper voucher through the Every Kid in a Park website. Active duty military are eligible for a free annual pass. The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is $10, and the America the Beautiful Access Pass and Volunteer Pass are both free.
My advice is get an America the Beautiful Annual Pass and combine a visit to the Grand Canyon with one to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. That’s what we did, and it made for one spectacular family vacation!