National Parks in the United States That Are Even Better in the Winter

I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.

I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.

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Airboat tour through Everglades National Park

We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).

My post on Miami and Everglades National Park

National Park Service link to Everglades National Park

I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.

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Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

National Park Service link to Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.

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There wasn’t nearly as much snow in Zion as Bryce Canyon in the winter

Hiking in Zion National Park in Late Winter

National Park Service link to Zion National Park

It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.

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The Grand Canyon is beautiful any time of year but less-crowded in the winter

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

National Park Service link to Grand Canyon National Park

Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.

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Photo by Viajero Cool on Pexels.com

I have a brief post on the half marathon I ran in San Antonio, which also discusses the area, that you can find here:  Marathon of the Americas and Half Marathon, Texas-10th state.

National Park Service link to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.

I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.

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Waimea Canyon in Kauai during the “winter” month of February

Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

National Park Service link to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

National Park Service link to Haleakalā National Park

What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

Travel Ideas for Animal-Loving Families

My family and I are huge animal-lovers. We have two rescue dogs that only travel with us on road trips (see my post Tips for Traveling with Dogs) so we love interacting with animals of all types when we travel to fill that void of missing our dogs. Over the years we’ve had many different encounters with animals. When our daughter was very young we would sometimes visit zoos when we traveled but that seemed to get less and less. Now we prefer to visit places that are rescue centers or see animals in their natural habitat when possible.

Our interactions with animals during our travels have run the gamut, with some places more positive experiences than others. My list of top places includes mostly dogs, exotic birds, bears, moose, butterflies, sting rays, and iguanas. I’d like to share some of the places that stand out more than others here.

When I was planning our trip to Utah, a co-worker who has been to Utah a few times recommended a place called Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I looked it up and it did indeed look like a place my family and I would be interested in visiting. Not only did we visit there, but we had lunch upon arrival, stayed in one of the cottages on-site, toured the facilities with a guide, volunteered with some puppies (PUPPIES!), and even got to have a sleepover with one of the puppies in our cottage. It was even better than I could have imagined. I highly recommend staying here if you’re in southern Utah. You can read my full post on Best Friends here:  Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, “Save Them All!”.

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Walking a puppy at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

San Diego, California is one of my favorite places in the world. Not only is it beautiful but it’s absolutely full of things to do. When we were there a few years ago, we stopped to visit a bird rescue just outside San Diego called Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary. This is a place my daughter and I still talk about because it was such a unique experience for us. We had been to animal shows before where birds perform silly tricks and such, but we’d never been allowed to touch and interact with exotic birds before. One of our most memorable interactions here was with a bird called “Peanut,” who serenaded us and made us laugh. You can read my blog post on Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary here:  Off-the-Beaten Path Things to Do in Del Mar, California.

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Some of the birds from Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Many people visit Alaska to see bears, moose, puffins, and many other animals. When we visited Alaska, we definitely saw our share of many different types of animals. One of my favorite places to see animals was at Denali National Park. We went on a bus tour (an on-and-off bus where you could get off and hike then catch another bus to get back out of the park) one day and saw tons of bears, many different kinds of birds, caribou, and dall sheep. You can read about Denali National Park here:  Denali National Park in Alaska. Another animal encounter we had while in Alaska that turned out to be my daughter’s absolute favorite is when we went to Seavey’s Sled-Dogs in Seward, Alaska. What’s not to love about getting to hold adorable Alaskan Husky puppies? Going on a sled-ride pulled by some eager dogs around the grounds was a ton of fun as well!

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One of the puppies from Seavey’s Sled Dogs

Ostriches and butterflies probably aren’t the first things you think of when you think of Aruba. Many people visit Aruba for the powdery white sandy beaches and while they certainly didn’t disappoint, we also discovered a couple of places for animal-lovers. Simply known as The Butterfly Farm, this is one of my favorite butterfly farms I’ve been to anywhere. There are hundreds of butterflies here from around the world as well as caterpillars. A guided tour is included in the entrance fee, and the guide will show you how to safely handle butterflies when they inevitably land on you. We also visited the Aruba Ostrich Farm and loved it here. In addition to the tour of the ostriches (which you can feed and even go on a short but wild ride if you’re little and lucky enough like our young daughter was), you can eat lunch here, and view their African art pieces. There’s also a souvenir art shop full of local art work.

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My daughter feeding ostriches at the Aruba Ostrich Farm

Charleston, South Carolina is another one of my favorite places to visit, and I’ve been there many times over the years. On a recent visit, I discovered The Center for Birds of Prey, which is just outside Charleston in a city called Awendaw. Here, we took a guided tour and saw many different types of birds, watched a flight demonstration, and saw newly-hatched baby owls. Many people think of historical sites, gourmet food, and beaches when they think of Charleston, but The Center for Birds of Prey is also a great place to visit if you’re in the area and are an animal-lover.

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One of the beautiful birds at the Center for Birds of Prey

The next place I’m going to mention is definitely touristy, but a lot of fun nonetheless. As they say, some things are popular for a reason. When we were recently in Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, we went snorkeling with a tour group that took us to Stingray City. Here, we were able to touch these gorgeous creatures as they glided past us on the shallow sandbar. Our guides offered to let people hold or even kiss a sting ray (it was said to bring you good luck), but I was content to just gently touch them as they swam past me. We also thoroughly enjoyed seeing the endangered Blue Cayman Iguana on our guided tour of Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. While you can’t touch the iguanas on the tour (they bite), you get to see them up-close on the behind the scenes tour of the breeding and recovery program. You can read my blog post on stingrays (and more) here:  Grand Cayman Island- Beautiful Beaches, Bioluminescent Water, Stingrays, and More and my post on the botanical garden (and more) here:  Exploring Grand Cayman Island on Foot-Crystal Caves, Botanical Gardens, Hiking a Trail, a Historical Site, and Hell.

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A Cayman Blue Iguana at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in Grand Cayman Island

The final place on my list where my family and I interacted with animals is Hawaii. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii (a.k.a. The Big Island) multiple times and I’ve seen many different kinds of animals like huge turtles both in the water and on beaches on the Big Island, peacocks in Kauai, and whales off the coast of Maui. However, one of my favorite animal experiences was when we visited the Kauai Humane Society and took one of the shelter dogs on a field trip. At the Kauai Humane Society, you get to choose a dog from their best-behaved dogs and take them for a walk or wherever else you’d like for the day after paying a donation and getting some items for the day. The dog we chose, Priscilla, was extremely well-behaved in the car and on her leash. Taking Priscilla on a field trip that day was one of the highlights of my vacation in Hawaii and given all of the amazing things we saw and did in Hawaii, that’s really saying something! You can read about my vacation in Kauai here:  Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things.

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Sweet little Priscilla from the Kauai Humane Society

Are you an animal-lover? Do you try to incorporate visits to animal rescue centers or otherwise interact with animals when you go on vacation? What are some of your favorite places to visit animals?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- West Coast

This is part three of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast and part two here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US.

I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.

1) For the city-lover and partier:  Start in Los Angeles, California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).

Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.

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Las Vegas at night

You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.

2) For a desert experience, first choice:  Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.

Desert experience, with national parks:  Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.

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Antelope Canyon was even better than I expected

3) To see mountains, first choice:  Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Mountains, second choice:  Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.

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Glacier National Park in Montana

4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature:  fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.

Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.

5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.

6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.

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All of the Hawaiian islands are beautiful!

There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

10 Things Travel Taught Me in 2017

In 2017 my travels took me to Las Vegas,Washington, Utah, where I ran a half marathonZion National ParkBryce Canyon National ParkAntelope CanyonBest Friends Animal Sanctuary in February, and Grand Canyon National Park in March. That’s a lot right there, so what did I learn in the first few months of 2017 from these places?

1). I learned I love visiting national parks even in the winter months (and I don’t like cold weather and snow). Bryce Canyon has a special feeling when you’re admiring partially snow-covered hoodoos and you’re surrounded by utter stillness and beauty.

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Snow-dusted Bryce Canyon

2). It’s possible and fun even to have a short stay in Las Vegas  with children and not spend much money. We had fun just wandering around, going through the massive casino hotels, taking in the views.

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Vegas, baby!

3). Volunteering when you’re on vacation rocks! One of the highlights of our time in Utah was our time at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I’d love to do more things like this in the future.

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Hiking with our little overnight buddy at Best Friends

After some time at home, we were back out on our next travel adventure, beginning with New Jersey in May. I ran the Superhero Half Marathon  in Morristown, and I finally got to visit the Statue of Liberty in person. From New Jersey we were off to our first visit to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile. After spending the night in Santiago, we spent a few days in Vina del Mar, which we fell in love with, and spent a week in the Las Cabras Region of Chile. This final place in Chile is where I learned so much about myself in relation to travel.

4). Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Not being fluent in Spanish, not having wi-fi (mostly for maps and things to do), and not knowing the area well will force you to interact more with local people and figure things out on your own. I found I was more resilient than I thought I was.

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Chile in all of its splendor!

5). I learned so much during my time in Chile, I made a list of 15 lessons I learned there. Probably the biggest thing I learned was to learn as much Spanish as possible before visiting the country. Don’t expect others to speak English, especially in more remote and smaller towns. This is a lesson for many other non-English-speaking countries as well.

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I loved hiking on this trail in Chile

6). I also learned Chileans are some of the warmest, friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered on my travels. We were blessed with the kindness of strangers on several occasions in Chile.

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Our little fox friend in Chile

In August, my family and I headed back to one of my favorite cities, Charleston, South Carolina. We were fortunate enough to experience the total eclipse and that was definitely the highlight of our time there. Even though we were only there for five days, I learned something.

7). Sometimes your family will get on your nerves when you’re traveling. My daughter hadn’t been sleeping well for many days before we even went on this vacation. That on top of not sleeping well because she was in a strange bed in a strange house resulted in one cranky eleven-year-old. She whined, complained, and I lost my cool on more than one occasion. I didn’t let it ruin my vacation, however. I know there will be days like this, even on vacation, when everything’s not all rosy.

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Morris Island near Charleston

In November, we had a little mini-vacation in Huntington, West Virginia when I ran the Marshall University Half Marathon. While we were only here for the weekend, I did manage to learn something.

8). Weekend or long-weekend getaways are a great way to explore small towns. You don’t always have to go away for a week or more and you don’t always have to go to exotic places to have fun. My family and I had more weekend getaways last year than this year and I had forgotten how nice they can be.

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Huntington, West Virginia

For our final vacation of 2017, we headed first to Malta then to Miami. I was very much looking forward to going to Malta since visiting the Gozo Salt Pans was on my bucket list. Malta exceeded my expectations as far as natural beauty of the islands (Malta is an archipelago of three islands), food, and just about every thing we saw and did. I have a series of posts about our time in Malta and there is one thing I learned during that vacation.

9). Mobile WiFi or MiFi can be a relatively inexpensive (roughly $10/day) but truly invaluable way to find your way around and stay connected when traveling internationally, especially if you’re driving a rental car. I have a post coming on this, so stay tuned!

Our time in Miami was spent a bit differently than many people would choose to vacation there since we were there to visit a dear friend of mine who lives there. We didn’t go to a single club or party at South Beach like many people would. Instead my friend took care of all of the planning for us and graciously took us to some of her favorite restaurants, on a tour of the Everglades, and to South Beach for the day to enjoy the ocean, play in the sand, soak in the sun, and thoroughly relax and enjoy ourselves. This brings me to the final thing I learned about travel this year.

10). Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do all of the planning for you and just sit back and relax. You don’t always have to try to cram in a dozen “must-do” restaurants or things to do.

What about you all? Where has travel taken you in 2017 and what have you learned from it?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Running Highs and Lows of 2017

I didn’t run a lot of races in 2017, so there won’t be a ton here about races. I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states, for those of you that don’t already know. At this point, I’m running three half marathons a year mainly due to travel expenses and time off work but also because I’ve ran all of the southern states so my options are limited. I of course did run throughout the year, though, only taking time off after races and a bit more during the super hot and humid parts of August.

My first race of 2017 was the Dogtown Half Marathon in Washington, Utah in February. This race was the 39th state in my quest for a half marathon in all 50 states. It was below freezing at the start of the race and the cold air effected my breathing. The course was also much hillier than the elevation map led me to believe. However, my daughter, who ran the 5k, won second place in her age group. This was definitely a running high for me even though I didn’t personally win an AG award, because I was so proud of her. I somehow managed to finish sixth in my AG, and considering how difficult the course was, I was happy with that.

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My second race of the year was the Superhero Half Marathon in Morristown, New Jersey in May, my 40th state. This race was definitely a low point in my racing years. Despite doing my long training runs on a hilly route, the hills on this race course were just too much for me. My finish time was considerably slower than for previous races, and even my age group time was pretty disappointing for me.

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After the Superhero Half, I decided it was time to re-think my entire running plans. I started focusing on my core more, I started working on my glutes to help with Dead Butt Syndrome I felt like I was developing. I bought new shoes that were completely different than any other kind of running shoe I had ever worn. Finally, the hardest and most-intensive thing I did was trying to change my running gait. Initially, this was a running low for me, because just running a few steps was so much harder and my pace was so much slower. I kept working on it, though, and bit by bit it started to come together and get easier. My “new” running gait was more like my “old” running gait, which is how my body is supposed to run. Over the years I had developed a serious imbalance between my left and right legs, resulting in hyperextending my right leg when I landed, and this was definitely not “normal” for me.

When I started training for my third and final half marathon for the year, I put some focused effort into doing tons of hip stretches and hip openers. I continued working on my core and glutes, and I continued working on my gait until it began to feel like it should. I also read  “Runner’s World Your Best Stride” and did some of the exercises and other things mentioned in the book to help with my running gait. Finally after months of working on my right leg, my “new” running gait felt “normal.” It felt more like it used to years ago before this imbalance became so bad that it caused a series of events that led to my abnormal running stride.

For my half marathon in West Virginia, my 41st state, I chose to run the Marshall University Half Marathon in Huntington. This race could have gone badly depending on the weather. Usually in this part of the state, nighttime lows are in the 30’s and rain or even snow is not uncommon. In the days leading up to the race and even the morning of the race, there was a 40% chance of rain at 7 am, which was when the race start was, and a 60% chance of rain at 8 am. Rain and 30’s or even 40’s is not my idea of ideal racing conditions, but by some miracle, it was much warmer than usual for this time of year and the rain held off for the entire morning. I ended up running in overcast skies with temperatures in the low 60’s for most of the race. I know that’s a bit warm for most people, but it was just fine with me.

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The race was very well-organized, the course was flat with only one small hill, and it was pretty scenic for the most part, thanks to the natural beauty of the area. All of the leaves on the trees were at their peak for autumn, so everywhere you looked, you saw bright red, orange, and yellow leaves. There are also rivers around the area and some nice parks that we got to run by so it was a scenic course without hills, which is almost unheard of. The race director of the half I ran in San Juan Island  in Washington even put on their Facebook page “scenic= hills.” The Marshall University Half Marathon proves that’s not always true!

This race in West Virginia reminded me once again why I run half marathons. After my previous two races, I needed a good race to renew my faith in myself. Even though I felt nauseous for the first hour of the race, I had fun and truly enjoyed this race. The finish was truly invigorating and I had runner’s high like I hadn’t felt in some time. I also learned that it is possible to teach an old runner new tricks. Even in my 40’s I was able to change my running gait and successfully run a half marathon that way. I was glad I ended my running year on a high note! Also, my super-speedy 12-year-old daughter finished second in the 19 and under age group for the 5k. And she says she’s not fast!

How was your running year? Any highs or lows you’d care to share?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Apply for a Permit to Coyote Buttes North in Utah and What to Do If You Don’t Get In

If you want to hike in Coyote Buttes North (where The Wave is located), you need to obtain a permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Twenty people are granted access per day; of this number, ten are issued online and ten via walk in lottery the day before. Obviously, permits are extremely difficult to obtain. The BLM estimates the odds for obtaining a permit during April-June and September-November were about 4-5% for 2013. For other months (off-season), the odds vary from 8% (August) -25% (January).

What’s all the fuss about? Well, just look at this place!

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You can apply up to four months in advance but you have the entire month to apply. For example, if you want to go the end of February, you can apply October 1. The application fee is $5 per group (non-refundable) and if you win the lottery you will need to pay $7 per person for the permit. You will receive an email from the BLM a month after you apply to let you know if you won the lottery or not.

If you missed the online lottery deadline or did not get chosen and are visiting the Southern Utah/Northern Arizona area, you can obtain a walk-in permit for Coyote Buttes North (the Wave) at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. From mid-March to Mid November, walk-in permits can be obtained seven days a week. From mid-November through mid-March, walk-in permits are issued Monday-Friday, except for federal holidays. During this time, permits for Saturday-Monday are drawn on Friday.

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Coyote Buttes North

Fees for online permits can only be paid by credit card. Fees for permits issued by phone can be paid by credit card or check mailed to the BLM Arizona Strip District Office; checks must be received before a permit application is authorized and a permit number is issued. If you are lucky enough to win a permit through the lottery (or even if you are not chosen), you will be notified via email on the first day of the following month. Walk-in permits must be paid for with cash or checks only.

My personal experience

So I submitted my application for a permit and waited anxiously to hear something. When I put in my application, there were only 6 people from 2 groups including my group of 3 people that had submitted applications, but then again it was early morning and there was still a lot of time left. When I checked about 12 hours later, there were 22 requests submitted for the date I wanted to go, for 57 people (there could have been more submitted after I checked, too). Fortunately, the date I chose was the least popular one of the month. For the most popular date of the month, there were 43 requests for 149 people. This was just day one of the application, which meant there were 29 remaining days to go!

I got an email exactly one month later stating:  “Unfortunately the dates and entries you chose did not become available to you in our lottery application process for a Coyote Buttes North permit. It is remotely possible the dates and entries selected for your trip will be forfeited by the winners because of nonpayment or release. If that happens, the dates and entries will become publicly available via the calendar application process.” I didn’t get in. I was disappointed but not surprised given the odds.

This brings me to Plan B if you are unable to obtain a permit to Coyote Buttes North: apply for a permit to Coyote Buttes South. For Coyote Buttes South, on-line permits can be obtained using the calendar option only. Just like for Coyote Buttes North, you can obtain a permit up to four months in advance. If you are planning a trip less than four months in advance, you have two options: you can check the calendar on the permit page to see if any slots are available, or you can try to obtain a walk-in permit the day before you wish to hike.

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Coyote Buttes South

The downside to Coyote Buttes South is the roads to the trailheads here are more treacherous than the roads to Coyote Buttes North and a 4WD vehicle is required if you’re going to CB South but not necessarily for CB North (depending on the weather). If the roads are wet, that makes them even less safe. Personally, I didn’t feel comfortable with that option- driving to Coyote Buttes South trailheads. However, tours are available and cost around $200 per person, but that was not something I was willing to pay for our family.  I’m sure it’s spectacular but I just didn’t want to spend that much money.

So now this brings me to Plan C:  arrive the day before from 8:30-9 a.m. at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah and apply for a walk-in permit to Coyote Buttes North for the following day. The lottery for Coyote Buttes North runs at 9 a.m. I did this, and guess what? I didn’t get in. The first name that was drawn was part of a large group, so that automatically took up most of the 10 slots.

Well, this put me at Plan D:  take a tour of Antelope Canyon. First, a little background on Antelope Canyon. Located on Navajo land just east of Page, Arizona, Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon that includes two separate sections, “Upper Antelope Canyon” and “Lower Antelope Canyon.” We chose to take a tour of Lower Antelope Canyon with Ken’s Tours and it turned out even better than I expected.

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There is a General Tour and Photographers Tour. We chose the General Tour and ended up getting far more for our money than I expected. For $25 per adult and $17 per child plus $8 Navajo Park Permit Fee per person, we got a private tour for just the three of us, plus photography tips from our guide. Our guide, Dezi, told us that he, along with the other guides, are all of Navajo decent and are all trained photographers. The tour and the canyon both definitely exceeded my expectations.

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So after all of this, would I do it again? Would I try to get a permit for the Wave or just go to Antelope Canyon? I would definitely try for the Wave again and if I didn’t get in, I’d probably take the Antelope Canyon boat tour and see which one I liked better. Either way, you can’t go wrong. It’s all worth a visit.

Has anyone else been to the Wave (or tried to get a permit) or Antelope Canyon? If so, what was your experience like? Is anyone else ready to go to Coyote Buttes or Antelope Canyon after seeing the photos?

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Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, “Save Them All!”

In a word, this place is AMAZING. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is the site of the largest no-kill animal facility in the United States. There are nearly 1,600 cats, dogs, horses, pot-bellied pigs, wildlife, goats, rabbits, and I’m probably forgetting something, but you get the gist.

My family and I went to the Sanctuary, which is in Kanab, Utah, and had a free tour of the facility, followed by a delicious buffet lunch for only $5 per person, then we volunteered at the puppy facility for a few hours (who wouldn’t want to play with puppies?!!), and we also took one of the puppies back to the cottage we were staying in on-site for the night to help with his socialization skills. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this place. They are a top-notch facility from the ground up, so to speak.

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After playing ball with this little guy, we took him for a sleepover with us
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View from the lunch area at Best Friends
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Playing with puppies!

Ready to go? Here are some details:

Getting to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

By airplane:
McCarran International Airport (LAS), located in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the closest major airport to Kanab. Driving from Las Vegas to Kanab takes roughly four hours. (Please note Kanab is on Mountain time, an hour later than Nevada and California, which are on Pacific time).

St. George Municipal Airport
Shuttle flights operate between Salt Lake City, Utah, and St. George Municipal Airport in St. George, Utah, as well as Los Angeles, California, and St. George Municipal Airport. The drive from St. George to Kanab is roughly an hour and a half.

Car rental
There are a variety of car rental companies in Las Vegas and St. George. Xpress Rent-a-Car offers rental cars in Kanab.

Shuttle service
St. George Shuttle: between Las Vegas and St. George

Public transportation
There is no public transportation in Kanab.

Grand Sanctuary tours

These free two-hour tours begin at the Best Friends Welcome Center every day of the week. You’ll watch a brief video and then board the van for a 90 minute ride to interact with a few cats. A dog will be brought out to visit in Dogtown. You will see other Sanctuary sites from the tour van. You need to register in advance online or by phone. You can also take specialized tours or even a guided hike, all of which the information for is here.

Where to Stay

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary has cottages, cabins, and RV sites, all located on the Sanctuary grounds. We stayed in a cottage and found it even nicer and bigger than we expected. The cottages are in the red cliffs of Angel Canyon near the Welcome Center, and have nice views of the horse pastures. They are reasonably priced at $120-$140/night March through November and $95/night December through February. The cabins are smaller and cheaper at $60-$95/night, depending on the time of year. There are two RV sites, which I imagine fill up quickly, and they are $30-$50/night, open only March 15-October 31. Even if you aren’t staying at the Sanctuary, you can still arrange to have a sleepover with one of their dogs at your dog-friendly hotel/motel in the area.

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Living room area of the cottage
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Bedroom with comfy beds
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Nice, clean and big bathroom
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View of the canyon and pasture from the back porch of the cottage

Other Things to Do in the Area:

Besides play with puppies or cats, you can also hike on the grounds of the Sanctuary. There are two trails right on the grounds. We hiked one of the trails with the puppy we took back to the cottage with us, and he absolutely loved it (as did we).

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Zion National Park is only about 30 minutes from Best Friends, so you could also hike at Zion in between other activities at Best Friends. However, dogs are only allowed on the Pa’rus Trail at Zion, which is a 1.5-mile long trail. I recommend staying at either Zion or Best Friends for at least 3 nights if you’re going to combine both places in one visit. I have a post here on Zion National Park. Bryce Canyon National Park is about an hour and 20 minutes from Best Friends (my post on Bryce Canyon is here), but you could still visit both places as long as you were staying more than one night at either Bryce or Best Friends. Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails at Bryce Canyon. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is only about 30 minutes from Best Friends, and would be an option to bring a dog from the Sanctuary during the cooler months.

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You can also do fun things like bunny yoga or paint your pet’s portrait at the Best Friends Visitor Center in Kanab. I’d like to see the yoga with cats session! I can’t imagine what that would be like. They also have guest speakers, or you can arrange a tour or volunteer time, or even meet your next furry family member when they have adoptable cats or dogs at the visitor center.

Where to Donate

If you’re as inspired as I was by this place and would like to donate to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, you can donate here. With a donation of $25 or more, you receive six bimonthly issues of Best Friends magazine.

As they say at Best Friends, “Save Them All!”

 

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

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

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

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Advantages of Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park During the Winter

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

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

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

Disadvantages of Visiting Bryce During the Winter Months

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

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

Trails in Bryce Canyon

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

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Where to Stay and Eat

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

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

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

How to Get to Bryce Canyon National Park

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

What to Bring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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