Redwood National Park

I’m going to reign it in and try not to sound too “gushy,” but y’all.  Redwood National Park is DREAMY.  And if you think it’s just more big trees, and not worth the epic effort it takes to drive all. the. way. up to far Northern California (almost Oregon) I have to tell you that it’s 100% worth it!

One of the really different things about this national park is that it sits along the interstate highway, and therefore really easy to pop in and out of for a hike.  But also different, and not in a good way, is that there are exactly zero places to eat in the park.  This means you have to plan ahead and bring food with you, or plan to take about a 30-45 minute drive for lunch.

While visiting Redwood National Park, we stayed in an AirBnB near McKinleyville.   It was a comfortable place to call home, and convenient for getting on and off the highway.

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Just north of McKinleyville is Trinidad, a charming little village by the sea.  We found wonderful places to eat there, and enjoyed prowling around and peeking in shops.  (Seascape Restaurant had delicious fish and chips, and Beachcomber Cafe was a great place to buy sandwiches for lunch in the park.)

The first hike we did in Redwood National Forest was an easy 1.5 mile walk to Lady Bird Johnson Grove.  The road up to the trailhead is quite bumpy and narrow, but there was plenty of parking and the trail wasn’t overly crowded.  I easily did the hike in my Chaco’s; the trail is wide and smooth, with the odd root here and there.  There are inclines, which make the trail inaccessible to wheelchairs, but I didn’t find them too strenuous.

Our hike through Lady Bird Johnson Grove took us under an hour, but it was the perfect introduction to Redwood National Park.

Early the next morning, we drove up into the park, in hopes of seeing wildlife along the way.  We were not disappointed.

We arrived at the Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center early and found a shaded spot to park.  (Since we visited in summer, we preferred returning to a car that was moderately warm instead of blazing hot after a day of hiking.)  We popped into the visitors center and had a long talk with a ranger about our plan for the day.  I really recommend ALL hikers stick around for that conversation, since trails can be tricky to navigate.  (See one of my other posts: Hike Like a Lady for additional tips.)

Our hike took us from Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center through some of the most beautiful forest we had ever seen.  It looked almost prehistoric and untouched, even though we were walking on a man-made trail.

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Shafts of light streak through the canopy, and the cool air seems to blanket the forest in complete silence.  The only sounds we heard were birds fluttering in the undergrowth.  Many times we stopped along the way just to take in the awesome beauty of that place.

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The beginning of the trail includes a bridge with lookouts, but truly it got even better once we passed all of the obvious visitor spots.

I think most people must take a short walk into the forest, turn around and go back to the visitor’s center, but we continued on into the quiet and solitude.

 

The path throughout was fairly level and wide.  There were some narrow places, but all in all I would say the trail to the Corkscrew Tree is an easy one to hike.  Filling a backpack with water and snacks allowed us the opportunity to go slowly and relish each moment as we were not in a hurry to finish before lunch.

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The Corkscrew Tree is exactly what you think it is…but it was impressive none the less.

We continued on, crossing the main road to the other side where we saw Big Tree.

This hike took us all morning and into the early afternoon.  After the coolness of the morning burned off, we were glad we made an early start, because it did get rather warm.  As we stepped off the trail by Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center, we were surprised by how full and busy the place was.  Cars, vans and buses were moving through the parking lot, and crowds of people with cameras to their eye were milling about.  We gave up our shaded parking spot to a happy family and drove south to our AirBnB for a nap.

One could spend weeks in Redwood National Park, exploring all the trails.  We absolutely plan on returning, but this trip only gave us two and a half days to get to know this jewel of a National Park.  It’s out of the way, and seemingly benign as it sits along the highway, but step onto a trail, and you’ll be drawn into it’s wild beauty!

 

 

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

My husband absolutely loves the national parks!  As a child, his family drove all over this beautiful country in a retrofitted school bus, and visited as many national parks as time and budget would allow.  When Mark was a young man, he dreamed of becoming a park ranger, and we were so excited to find out that it’s still a possibility once we are both retired!  Now, we have hopes to visit all but the most remote national parks over the next ten years.

If you are looking for a clever way to keep track of the national parks you’ve visited, let me direct you to WayPoint Wanders.  I purchased this amazing scratch-off National Parks Bucketlist poster for Mark, and it was his favorite Father’s Day gift!  It’s not only a beautiful piece of art for our wall, but a wonderful way to showcase our goal to visit all 58 national parks.

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(I took the poster to Hobby Lobby, and asked them to mount it on foam board– which they did while I waited.  Then, I purchased an “off the rack” black frame, and voila!  We were ready to start scratching!!)

One of the lesser-known national parks is Lassen Volcanic National Park.  It’s located in northeast California, about an hour and a half east of Redding.  Lassen Peak Volcano is the show-stopper, and it was still mostly snow-covered when we were there in mid-June.

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The last eruption of Lassen Peak was in 1917, although the largest eruption was in May, 2015.  During this eruption event, ash was spread almost 300 miles away, and chunks of glowing lava could be seen tumbling down the side of the volcano in towns 20 miles away.

One important thing to note about Lassen Volcanic National Park is that the road connecting the north and south entrance is closed most of the year due to snow.  Even in mid June, the road was closed from Hot Rock to Lake Helen.  I recommend checking the park website for road closure information several days before you are set to arrive as this will greatly impact your ability to travel in and around the park.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Lassen is VERY remote, and there is only one place to stay inside the park.  We ended up booking an AirBnB in Cottonwood, CA which is about an hour to an hour and a half from both entrances.

 

We can’t say enough how much we appreciated our host’s attention to detail– it was the most well-stocked and thoughtful AirBnB rental we’ve experienced to date.  Not only were the accommodations clean and comfortable, but our sweet host left us drinks, snacks and a wealth of information about local restaurants/attractions.

The South Entrance:

Before we drove into the park, we stopped for dinner at Highlands Ranch Resort.  We ordered off the bar menu as it was still too early for dinner (dinner service begins at 5:00 PM), and our burger and fish tacos were delicious.  The restaurant has a lodge feel, and a huge deck and lawn with outdoor seating.

The restaurant was just a short drive past the south entrance, so after dinner we doubled back and drove in to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

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Right away we could see why the roads ahead were closed, because there was so much snow everywhere.

We stopped at the Sulphur Works to see the boiling mud and hydrothermal area.

While on a much smaller scale, these reminded us of Yellowstone.  Lassen has quite a few areas like this (and a geyser), but we were not able to access them due to the snow cover.  Up the road from the Sulphur Works is Emerald Lake and Lake Helen.  While almost completely frozen over, they were so, so beautiful.

 

We drove past Lake Helen, to where the road was closed.  It’s really amazing to see this much snow, in such deep drifts in the middle of June.

 

The North Entrance:

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Just past the entrance to the park, the Loomis Museum and Visitor Center is an easy stop for information and national park collectibles.  We left our car parked there, and headed off to explore the trail around Manzanita Lake.  It’s an easy mile and a half hike with jaw-dropping views.

 

After hiking around Manzanita Lake, we drove to the Camp Store for some lunch.  It’s a well-stocked store, with park memorabilia, snacks, drinks and soft serve ice cream.  We ordered the pull-pork and turkey sandwiches with potato salad.  There were surprisingly yummy, and hit the spot after a morning outdoors.

Even though the road was closed, and we weren’t able to drive as far as we wanted to, we did see beautiful scenery along the portion that was open.

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If we ever make the trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park again, we will plan to arrive in August.  By then, the roads are normally open all the way through the park and we will be able to make the hike to Echo Lake and explore Bumpass Hell.  This area is so beautiful, and we relished the opportunity to see an area so remote and untraveled!

As always, we rented a car for our travels, and this time made sure to get a small SUV.  Some of the roads around Lassen were quite bumpy and it was smart to have the extra clearance.  Sometimes, a car just isn’t high enough to take on the “road less traveled.”

Hike Like a Lady

“To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.”  

                                                                                                  Mary Davis

There are people who like to hike, and there are actual hikers.  You can tell the difference by looking at their gear.  Actual hikers carry bigger packs, and they eschew the type of personal grooming often highlighted in Instagram tutorial videos.  (Think: “Contouring with Drugstore Make-up”, and “The Perfect Eyebrow”).  Actual hikers ooze confidence and the kind of beauty that radiates from a deep and abiding love affair with nature.  In another life I’d be an actual hiker.

Over the course of our marriage, my husband and I have relished the opportunity to get out and experience the best that Mother Nature has to offer.  We’ve hiked all over the United States, and can’t get enough of our National Park System.  Most of our experiences have been really positive, and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

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Our typical hiking adventures go from one to five miles, although we have done one or two longer treks.  From my perspective as a woman, here are some thoughts and ideas I’d like to pass along:

  1. Show up Early:  I know how painful it is to get up early while you are traveling, but getting to the visitor’s center and trailhead early yields a BUNCH of great rewards:
    1. You are more likely to see wildlife in the early morning and at dusk. img_20190618_093205632_hdr
    2. Crowds and tour buses normally begin arriving around 10:00AM, so the early hiker gets the solitude and quiet of an empty trail.
    3. Speaking of crowds and tour buses:  arriving early ensures that you won’t have to HIKE to your car after completing your HIKE.  Parking is limited in most state and national parks, so the early-bird gets a closer/and possibly shaded spot.
    4. Rangers have a bit more time to spend with each hiker, before being inundated with questions and requests.
    5. It’s generally cooler and more pleasant to hike in the early morning hours.
  2. Know the Plan:  I love to people-watch, and I’ve noticed that the men seem to be the ones to get recommendations and information about hikes, while women look around and shop.  Here’s the deal.  Four ears hearing the same information is better than two. So, if you are planning to hike, definitely be a part of the discussion and planning.  I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I, after having heard the SAME INFORMATION ABOUT A HIKE, have had to stop and remind the other person where the ranger told us to go.
  3. Carry a Map:  This one seems so obvious, but there is a temptation that a map is simply not necessary for the shorter, easier hikes.  We typically hand the ranger a map, and have him or her write on it so that those notes can help us navigate once we’ve forgotten the details of where to turn, etc.  In our experience, service is sketchy at best inside the national parks, and while you may be using one of the great trail/hiking apps, a map is a good back-up in case things go south.img_20190624_173650827.jpg
  4. Carry Little Else:  I’ve found that really limiting myself to just the absolute necessities makes the whole experience better. What seems “light enough to carry” might feel like a ton of bricks after 5 miles.  (This list is by no means a recommendation of what to take.  Just avoid taking extras that you won’t need.  i.e. make-up bag, coin purse, charger cords, etc.).  I use either a small Camelback backpack or fanny pack, depending on the trail.  For me, I include the following for every hike:
    1. map
    2. phone/camera
    3. hair band
    4. two bandaids
    5. Kleenex
    6. two sandwich zip lock bags
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  5. Be Memorable:  Even if you get an early start, you will surely meet other hikers on the trail.  I always try to make eye contact and speak to them, because if the worst should happen, they might remember seeing me, and be able to direct emergency responders to our whereabouts more quickly.  Wearing an interesting hat or t-shirt, or a brightly colored pack is also a good way to be remembered.  Generally hikers are a friendly, helpful bunch, so look for opportunities to engage in conversation.
  6. Potty like a Princess:  It’s SUCH a drag to have to potty on the trail.  But it’s not ok to leave tissue behind when your are done with your business.  I always include a pack of Kleenex and small ziplock bags for just such an occasion.  Yes: I mean that you should put the Kleenex inside the ziplock, and stow it in your pack, once you’ve used it to tidy up after a potty break.  It’s the right thing to do.DSC_0088.JPG

We just got home from California, where we hiked in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National Park, Mendocino and Marin county.  Our hearts are full of beauty and our feet are ready for more!  Soon we will be heading East to the Great Smokey Mountains, and look forward to exploring new and different landscapes!

Maine and the Bay of Fundy

I married a man who can plan an amazing family trip, and for the first few years we were married, Mark handled ALL of the planning and preparations when we traveled.  My job was to simply pack myself and the kids, and be ready to go when it was time!  Easy-peasy!

One of the first trips we took as a family was to Maine and Canada during the summer.  We flew into Boston, loaded into our rental car and spent a few hours exploring Salem.

After lunch, we drove north to Bar Harbor, Maine.  We learned that driving on the two-lane state roads is SLOW GOING, but we finally made it to our VBRO rental by early evening.

We carved out lots of time to explore Acadia National Park, which was literally right up the road from where we were staying.  It’s a beautiful park with so many places to pull over and explore on foot.  The kids, who were much younger at the time, relished the chance to run ahead and “lead” the way.  We explored huge outcroppings of granite, and trails through the woodsy areas.  The landscape is pristine, and the park is so large that we never felt it was too crowded.

Tucked away in Acadia National Park, is Sand Beach where the kids were able to swim and frolic in the waves.  It was quite crowded compared to the rest of Acadia, but still a lovely way to spend most of the day.

 

After three days in Bar Harbor, we took a two day excursion to Alma, in New Brunswick, Canada.   Alma is located along the Bay of Fundy, home of the highest tides in the world.  We are enchanted by the strange and wonderful ways Mother Nature shows off, and the Bay of Fundy did not disappoint.

When we arrived, it was low tide.  The fishing boats were resting on the ocean floor, and we could walk out almost a mile to the water.

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It was hard to explain to the kids that these were actually working fishing boats, and that the water would eventually rise enough to make them float.

Cara and I walked straight out as far as we could on the “beach.”

Mark and Colin explored the shoreline, where they found driftwood, tide pools and lots of slimy algae.

By the time we were done exploring the bay, we were famished.   But what you need to know about Alma, is that there are few dining options- especially, if you don’t care for fish!

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The next morning, the pier looked like this!  We were amazed!

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After breakfast, and hearing the sad news that we had missed a moose meandering down the road outside our hotel room, we set off to explore Fundy National Park.  Alma is nestled just inside the park, so our drive was minimal.  Our first stop was Point Wolfe Beach, where Mark taught the kids how to skip rocks.

You can’t imagine how serene and beautiful it is there!  We stayed longer that I thought we would, splashing in the water and exploring the shoreline.

Nearby there was a trail up to a waterfall, where I captured one of my favorite pictures of Mark and the kids.

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Later that day, after we had our fill of hiking, exploring and seeing the sights of Fundy National Park, we headed “home” to Bar Harbor. This was my first foray into Canada, and I fell in love.

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The day before we flew home to Texas,  we stopped at Wild Acadia Fun Park for a day of family fun.   Our kids have never forgotten this day, and it was the PERFECT stop after almost a week of nature activities.  Cara and I enjoyed the go-carts, while Mark and Colin did the high ropes maze and zip lines.  After the boys finished, we enjoyed a family race in the go-carts, and I don’t like to brag, but Cara and I smoked them!

We definitely want to return to Maine and the Bay of Fundy in the future.  What a beautiful part of the world, and there is so much more to see!

“There’s a quality of life in Maine which is this singular and unique.  It’s absolutely a world unto itself.”  Jamie Wyeth

 

Northern Ireland

I have an obsession with the ocean, and I’m not picky about how land meets the sea.  Cliffs, sandy shores, jagged rocks or beaches made of shells-  every one of them is my favorite.  I’m not even particular about the weather when I’m standing on terra firma, gazing at the mighty ocean; I am just as happy with rain, mist, cold and wind as I am with sun, warmth and gentle ocean breezes.  It’s the ocean, man.  I love her.

It’s my duty as a blogger and all-around decent human being to share some of my favorite shoreline locations, and the northern coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland will not disappoint you, dear reader.

 

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Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland:  The drive from Trim, Ireland to Derry took about three and a half hours, and although it was raining, the drive was still quite lovely. Northern Ireland, as you know, is a separate country, with it’s own currency, road signs and history.  Speed limits are posted in miles, rather than kilometers, but you’ll still drive to the left.  It’s a good idea to gas up before driving in to Northern Ireland, as gas is somewhat more expensive there, and if you are traveling between Ireland and Northern Ireland, you’ll want to remember to stop at an ATM to withdraw some Pounds so you have cash on hand.  Derry is a good sized city, and if we ever go back, we will definitely spend some time exploring it.  It’s the only city in Ireland that is completely walled, and our host at the BnB encouraged us to take the roughly mile-long walk along the top of the wall.  The town of Derry was also embroiled in the fighting between the IRA (who wanted to unite Ireland) and the Unionists (who want to keep Northern Ireland within the UK), and there are still skirmishes and bar brawls in certain areas of the city related to the IRA.  It’s really a fascinating city with lots of stories to tell!

 

We booked a family room at Merchant’s House to overnight in Derry.  For dinner, we can highly recommend Brown’s In Town, a quiet restaurant with delicious food.  Our FAVORITE part of our experience in Derry was sharing breakfast with all of the guests from Merchant’s and Saddler’s House.  We were served a delicious, traditional, family-style Irish breakfast with travelers from all over Europe, and it was the perfect start to a busy day.  Everyone was so warm and friendly, and by the end of breakfast we felt like old friends.

Carrick-a-Rede: Our first stop along the Northern Ireland coast was Carrick-a-Rede, which is a rope bridge over the cliffs along the shore.  The hike down to the bridge is easy, and the scenery is breathtaking.  Even though I don’t like heights, I wasn’t bothered too much by the rope bridge itself, and I thought the stop was really worthwhile.   Once you get over the rope bridge, there is space to wander around, take pictures and bask in the beauty of Northern Ireland’s coast.

Giant’s Causeway: We headed west after the rope bridge, and because we had read a lot about Giant’s Causeway, and we very excited to see it.  However, it’s a VERY busy sight, with tour bus after tour bus unloading large groups of people.  The rock formations were interesting, but there were so many tourists, we didn’t stay long.  Inside the visitor’s center there is a small cafe, and we can recommend the Irish stew as an inexpensive but tasty lunch.  It’s not a sight I would go out of my way to see again, and pictures (without people crawling all over the rocks) do the area more justice, in my opinion.

 

Dunluce Castle:  Run, don’t walk to Dunluce Castle!  (pronounced: dun-loose). You guys.  There are ruins all over Ireland, so you might think, what’s the big deal with Dunluce Castle?  Well, first of all, it is perched on the edgy-edge of a cliff, and some of it has already fallen into the ocean, so you have the feeling that the last of it might slip off the cliff at any moment!  (Apparently the kitchen fell into the ocean during a party, and that was the “last straw” before the lady of the house decided to move out.  I should think so!). There are towers and rooms and great halls and hidden nooks to explore, and you really get s feel of how it might have been to live in such a place.  I have to say that medieval people were certainly tougher than me when it comes to walking surfaces;  an hour on those cobbled floors and I was more than ready to walk on paved surfaces again.

 

After a couple of hours exploring Dunluce Castle, we drove west, out of Northern Ireland, toward County Donegal, Ireland.  For dinner, we stopped in Donegal Town and enjoyed a nice meal at The Blueberry Cafe.  I remember asking our server about the scones, “Why are they SO good?”  She was lovely, and we talked at length about ingredients and the differences between Irish cream and butter, and what we use here in the States.  Apparently it makes a big difference.

Slieve League:  Everyone who knows anything about Ireland talks about The Cliffs of Moher and their magnificence.  I would say that the Cliffs of Moher are second to Slieve League.  A distant second.  We have visited both sites, and hands down found Slieve League Cliffs to be the more impressive!  For one thing, the cliffs are 2,000 feet at their highest point (The Cliffs of Moher are around 500 feet high) and since Slieve League is so remote, you’ll find fewer people and more wildlife.  We initially attempted the hike from the backside (established by monks ages ago), but were concerned that the mist and fog would obscure the cliffs and drop-offs to such a degree as to make it unsafe for the kids who like to run ahead.

 

 

After a bit of a romp among the sheep, and about a mile of hiking  into the fog, we decided to turn around and drive to Slieve League the “normal way.”  You’ll notice a parking lot with restrooms just before the gate, but we saw several cars continue through the gate and up the road to the cliffs.  It would seem that you can drive most of the way to the top.

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Hiking around the cliffs is thrilling.  We kept our distance from the edge because the wind gusts were quite strong, and we didn’t wish to be blown off by accident.  What a tragic end that would be!  Also, I imagine if you are falling 2,000 feet, you have quite a bit of time to think about how dumb you were to get so close to the edge, and I’d rather spend my last seconds thinking something other than, “Well, that was dumb.”

 

There are ruins to see and paths to walk, so we spent about three hours exploring around the cliffs.  The kids even found a pond, and some rocks to throw into it.

 

I love that Ireland is so wild and untamed, and that they don’t put fences up everywhere to keep visitors safe.  The beauty here is raw and unyielding but also soulful and familiar.

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We will certainly return to Ireland at some point.  And when we do, we would love to spend several days in the northern parts of the island, revisiting the sites we loved, and exploring new ones!

Road Trip to Everywhere

I don’t want to brag, but we road-trip like a boss.  Our practice has been made perfect over the last ten years, and we can literally decide to GO and have the car packed and ready in less than an hour.  How do I know this?  Done it.  (mic drop)

In 2014 we planned a two-week road trip with four major stops, and it was really the first time I relaxed and just enjoyed spending time with Mark and the kids without all of the “shoulds.”  Total game-changer.

Day 1:  We left Dallas and drove the roughly four hours to Stillwater, Oklahoma.  My uncle lives there, and we spent the day with family.

 

Day 2:  The next morning we grabbed breakfast and hit the road.  It’s about a nine hour drive from Stillwater to Colorado Springs, and we stopped along the way to examine cotton fields and admire the high desert scenery.

Day 3:  After spending the night in Colorado Springs, we drove out to Canon City, where we had booked a half day river-rafting adventure with Raft Masters.  It was my third or fourth time to use Raft Masters, and they didn’t disappoint.  The kids had such fun, and the experience was thrilling and memorable!  Poor Mark had to drive us to Estes Park after the rafting trip while the rest of us conked out in the car.  Fun can be exhausting.

 

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Day 4,5 and 6:  I can’t adequately describe our love for Colorado.  There just aren’t words.  Our hearts are restored by beauty, and Colorado has beauty in spades.  We spent three days hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovered a great (family friendly) hike to Emerald Lake.

 

Estes Park is a great place to prowl around, and there are numerous places to take a quick walk/hike just outside of town.  Also, we happened to arrive just in time for the annual 4th of July parade which was a total bonus!

 

Day 7:  By far one of the less interesting days on our trip was driving from Colorado Springs to Cody, Wyoming.  There wasn’t a lot to see along the way, but we did stop in Chugwater, Wyoming for lunch, and we’ve never forgotten it!  In fact, we now use it as a reference when describing small towns,  “Is it Chugwater small?”

 

 

 

Day 8:  Arriving in Cody was like stepping back in time.  The town has a deeply western feel, without coming off as artificial.  We stayed in the Moose Creek Lodge, and to my delight, there was a wonderful coffee shop right next door.  One of my favorite memories of the trip was made in that hotel.  Each night, tired from our adventures of the day, we’d all tuck into bed and watch The Andy Griffith Show.

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Day 9, 10, 11:  Cody is about an hour away from the Yellowstone gates, so we woke up early each morning, grabbed breakfast and COFFEE, and hit the road.  I mean, the scenery is gorgeous, so it’s a great way to start the day!

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So the thing about Yellowstone is that it is a HUGE National Park.  Honestly, you could spend a full week there, but we only had three days, so we hit the “major” sights like any self-respecting tourist family should.  Do I wish we had hiked out at dawn to see the Yellowstone wolves?  Yes.  Yes I do.  But the kids were little, and I could still run faster than them, so of course I was worried I’d outrun them if the wolves attacked.  I have a strong will to live, dear reader.

One afternoon Cara and I mounted up and rode the hills around Yellowstone.  We thoroughly enjoyed the breathtaking vistas and even got to see a big pile of grizzly bear scat…freshly laid and still steaming.  Our guide was so gracious and friendly, and watching my little slip of a daughter ride like a champ filled me with joy and just a wee bit of pride.   Ok, a LOT of pride.

We noticed a funny phenomenon during our visit to Yellowstone:  the first bison/elk/bear you see is completely thrilling.  You pull the car over, pile out and start snapping pictures like a National Geographic photog.  But by the third day, it’s “meh, another bison. (yawn)”.  It’s totally crazy, because IT’S A BISON, ya’ll!!

We saw elk, deer, bison, chipmunks, marmots and a great big grizzly bear foraging for food on the other side of the river.  What we found rather incredible is that these animals were near and around the geysers as well as their more “traditional” habitats.  I cornered a park ranger (as I am wont to do…) and asked one million questions about the marmots scurrying around Grand Geyser.  Apparently they can sense when the geyser is about to erupt, and they hightail it outta there to safety.

Day 12:  We left early from Cody, and drove about six hours to Mount Rushmore.  With stops along the way, we arrived mid afternoon.  I was both impressed and underwhelmed by Mount Rushmore, so if I don’t get back to see it again, I’m good.  The town around Mount Rushmore reminds me of Las Vegas, except western.  And small.

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Day 13:  So here’s the real gem of our road trip!  We hadn’t planned on staying in South Dakota for an extra day, but when Mark learned that Wind Cave National Park was in the area, we extended our stay an extra day.  First of all, to get to Wind Cave, you have to drive through Custer State Park-  what a beautiful place!  Aaaaand, there are numerous prairie dogs to see along the way, so that was fun for the kids.

Wind Cave is more incredible that I can describe.  The caverns are small, and the tunnels go every which way.  Our park ranger made such an impression in telling about the history, discovery and exploration of Wind Cave.  She was also patient and comforting to those of us (read: just me) who struggle with claustrophobia.  If you visit Mount Rushmore or South Dakota, you will not regret a stop at Wind Cave National Park.  By far one of the most wonderful national parks we’ve visited.

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We left Wind Cave mid afternoon, and started driving home.  Originally, we planned on stopping in Nebraska or Kansas for an overnight, but Mark decided to drive all the way.  Fifteen hours later, we pulling into our driveway, exhausted but content after our family road trip.

Day 14:  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Fourteen days, three national parks, one national memorial and about a million miles.  It’s a lot to fit in, but we came home with so many great memories.  The kids expanded their worldview as they gained new understandings about ecosystems, geography,  indigenous peoples, map reading and surviving forced family fun.  Ha!

Next time?  We make the trek out to see the wolves at dawn, since I’m the slowest…just call me #wolfbait.

 

 

Sequoia & King’s Canyon Nat’l Park

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”   John Muir

I’ve become a little lax in following actual rules since becoming a stay-at-home mom.   This past October, for example, I pulled the kids out of school for a couple of days so that we could jet out to our beloved California.  This has never, ever been done before in our household.  Mark and I are both educators.  We know how important it is to have butts in chairs all the days possible.  School is important.  Necessary.  But Mama gets lonely and a little bored at home all alone day after day…as evidenced by the many pictures of our cats in my Photos folder on my phone.

I convinced Mark that it was SUPER IMPORTANT to pause for a family getaway, and he agreed without too much of a discussion.  Maybe because of the cat pictures.  Or the way I enthusiastically greet him after work and follow him around retelling all the EXCITING  events of my day like a maniac.  Bless him.  He’s a good man.

We chose Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks because we didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted a big impact.  October is a great time to visit California– the weather is cooler and the parks don’t seem overrun with visitors.

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There isn’t a major airport near Sequoia/King’s Canyon, so we flew into LAX on a morning flight.  (It goes without saying that we got a great deal on plane tickets through Google Flights…it’s our go-to flight finder.  Our flights from Dallas to LAX were about $120.00 a piece.). The drive was roughly four hours, and once you’re in the mountains, the scenery makes the time fly by.

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One thing you should definitely keep in mind if you plan to visit Sequoia/King’s Canyon is that there are two entrances.  The North entrance is about a four hour drive from LAX, but it is open all the way.  The South entrance is under construction, and there are road closures and areas where the road is only a single lane.  We found very little traffic going into the park on a Friday afternoon through the North entrance, and even though it was a much longer drive, it probably saved us time in the long run.  When we left the park, we used the South entrance because we left in the morning.  The outbound lane moved along just fine, but the incoming lane was a traffic nightmare.

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The weather up in the mountains around Sequoia/King’s Canyon can be a little dicey in October.  The weekend we visited there was snow forecasted so we packed our hats, gloves and jackets.  Although we left before the snow, it was quite chilly and we needed everything but a heavy jacket.

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There’s lots to see in Sequoia/King’s Canyon, and as you might imagine, a lot of it involves giant trees.

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The kids were really in awe of the giant redwoods, and enjoyed walking the path around the groves.  Both of them, however, like to strike out on their own and bushwhack along trails and off the beaten path.

 

We pulled over quite a bit to hike around, and I bet this is what the kids will remember most.  The weather can change quickly up in the mountains, and at one point we had to call the kids back because fog was rolling in fast and thick.  By the time we got back to the car it was a complete white out.

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We stayed in the Wuksachi Lodge and Village in Sequoia and it was quite comfortable.  The lodge is not a Ritz Carlton, but it is clean and comfortable, with a ski lodge feeling.  One thing to note is that it’s quite a trek uphill from the parking lot to the lodge.  We had rolling carry-on luggage, and managed just fine, but there are luggage trolleys for those who have more to carry.  If you need assistance getting everything up to your room, just let the desk workers know when you check in.  They are happy to help those who need an extra hand.

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Finding food in Sequoia is a challenge simply because everything is so spread out.  There is a small store by the John Muir Lodge, and some snacks for purchase in the Wuksachi Lodge, so we brought our own snacks and drinks and stored them in the mini fridge in our room.  This wasn’t our first rodeo, ya’ll.

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Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the Wuksachi Lodge, and the food is quite good.  For dinner, I recommend making a reservation AS SOON as you check in because they have limited seating.  We did that, and got a decent reservation time, but others who did not had to eat dinner at 9 o’clock!   Also, be sure to request a window table, because the view will only enhance your delicious dinner.  We recommend the pot roast with mashed potatoes.  It.  Is.  Sogood.

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After two days hiking among the giant trees, and exploring the wild woods it was time to head out.   We left through the  South entrance and along the way we pulled over to watch a black bear meander through the tall grass.  She was beautiful!

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Once we left the park boundary, we stopped for lunch at the Gateway Restaurant and Lodge in Three Rivers.

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I can highly recommend the fish and chips lunch, and if the weather is decent, ask to sit outside beside the river.  It’s the perfect way to end a journey into the woods with those you love.

As always, I would love to hear from my readers!  If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to comment below.  Thank you for following along!

Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.”  

                                                                                                           Seamus Heaney

When we first arrived in Dingle it turned out to be completely different than we imagined.   Sometimes the unexpected can throw me into a tailspin, but it turned out to be one of my favorite adventures during our most recent trip to Ireland.

Dingle is the name of a town, a peninsula and a scenic drive.  It is part of the Gaeltacht region; an area where Irish Gaelic is the predominant language.  Most signs are in Irish Gaelic and you’ll hear Irish Gaelic songs and ditties spilling from the pubs.  It’s really charming and beautiful.  We fell in love with the pastel colored buildings and busy streets in this fishing town, and can’t wait to go back for a second visit!

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We drove to Dingle on a sunny July day, after a three day stay in Kenmare.   First thing you should know is that Dingle is a rather large town.  Almost a city, in my opinion.  There are one million pubs in Dingle, and if you should happen to be there when the World Cup is going on (as we were), you can expect a. LOT.  of pub noise all through the night.  It didn’t bother us too much, and in fact, added to the flavor of our experience there.

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Another thing to keep in mind is that Dingle is a popular tourist destination.  Bus loads of people arrive there, and it’s crowded.  If we ever go back, I’d like to do it on the off season, when it’s just the Dingle-ites and a few of us lookie-loos.

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We stayed at Sraid Eoin House B&B in Dingle, and it was lovely.  The room was clean, fresh and inexpensive. It was bright and we had plenty of room to spread out.  The hosts were warm and friendly, and we were very pleased with our choice.

The REAL treasure of Dingle town, is that you’re at a natural starting point for an adventure around the Dingle Way.  Dear readers, this drive is worth every bit of the time you take to traverse it!  I can highly recommend Rick Steves Ireland guide as a wonderful road map to this adventure.  He kindly includes distances to each stop and a brief description of each.  We decided on the must-see stops as a family, and started out after breakfast and a cup of coffee to go.

One of the things that impressed us was just how ancient some of the sites along the Dingle Way really are!  We stopped at several ring forts (also known as fairy forts) from the Iron Age (600-500B.C.), and my kids were fascinated by their construction and purpose.

As an added bonus, one of the ring fort sites included some darling farm animals that we were able to pet and enjoy!  This really made an impression on my daughter who loves animals of all kinds.

There are also several groupings of beehive huts which are fun to explore.  Be sure to carry some cash, because many stops require payment of two or three euros per person.

What we appreciated about the Dingle Way is that we could stop and spend as much time as we liked at the sites that interested us most.  Being stuck on a tour bus, or being herded through the sites holds no appeal for us, and is the primary reason we prefer to rent our own car.

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The views are spectacular, and we stopped often to look around and smell the clover.

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After a full half day exploring the Dingle Way, we stopped for some lunch in one of the small villages along the way.  The area is quite popular now, as scenes from Star Wars were filmed there, and the local pub had two sculptures; one of Yoda and another of Darth Vader.  It was cute without being commercial.  My daughter and I shared AMAZING fish and chips, while my husband and son split a yummy pot roast lunch.  IMG_20180708_120748962_HDR

 

After lunch, we headed north toward the Cliffs of Moher.  This drive yielded one of the most interesting driving situations we had in Ireland! The “highway” out of Dingle is a single lane “two-way” road, with cliffs and mountains on either side.  It was truly beautiful, and I’m so glad we went ahead and drove that way, but there were a few hair-raising moments along the way!

You know, there are places we visit that are a huge hit with all members of the family, and this was one of them.  I got to see my kids excited about hiking around and exploring some really incredible sites, and we all walked away with the feeling that we had seen something we might never see again.  This area is chalk-full of magic and intrigue.  Don’t miss it!

Taisteal sásta! (which means “happy travels” in Irish Gaelic)

 

Skellig Michael

You know, I’m drawn to things that “can’t easily be done.”  Unless the hard thing is avoiding pasta.  I’m not drawn to that at all.   When I was reading through Rick Steves Ireland for the first time, I stumbled upon the section about Skellig Michael, and the idea of taking Mark and the kids on this impossible adventure took root.

Skellig Michael is a world heritage site, about 7 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland. There are two Skellig rocks; Little Skellig and Skellig Michael and both islands are primitive, rugged and inhospitable.  At around 800 A.D. a group of monks came to live on Skellig Michael, and their dwellings (as well as the 600 steps to reach them) are still there at the top of the rock.  These days, a group of somewhat salty men dedicated to preserving the island live on Skellig Michael on a rotating basis.  Bless them, because there is no running water, fresh water, electricity or flushing toilet to be found out there.

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During our first visit to Ireland, I scheduled a tour to Skellig Michael the day before we were to depart for the States.  Somehow, when reserving our trip, the issue of a departure time was never discussed and we literally missed the boat.  IMG_20180705_093503517

Skellig Michael tip #1:  confirm departure time and location several times before the day of your trip.

I’m not going to sugar coat the retelling of how I handled this monumental mess-up.  I was beside myself.  The thing is, my son was looking forward to our Skellig Michael excursion more than any other activity we had planned in Ireland, so I deeply felt the guilt of letting him down.

When we decided to return to Ireland, booking a Skellig Michael tour was the first thing I did.  We ended up booking with Skellig Tours with captain John O Shea.  Most of the charters to Skellig Michael depart from Portmagee, but John sails out of Derrynane Harbour, which worked well for us because we were staying in Kenmare.

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Skellig Michael tip #2:  Book as early as possible.  Star Wars has made this site wildly popular, and reservations go quickly.  I booked months in advance.

Let me be very clear about something:  the boats that take you out to Skellig Michael are smaller than you’d think.  And you’ll be crossing open ocean.  This excursion is only possible during the summer months (May to August) and even then, many trips are cancelled due to rough seas.  If you are prone to seasickness, buckle up.  This is no quick jaunt across a placid lake.

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Skellig Michael tip #3:  laying down on the boat will help with seasickness.

Disembarking onto Skellig Michael is described as “jumping off a trampoline onto an ice rink.”  (Rick Steves, Ireland)  I found that to be an accurate description, and although I was happy to be off the boat, I was immediately taken aback by how stark and uninviting the island actually is. Yes, I watched the videos and read the brochures, but the ruggedness is somewhat shocking.

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As I said before, there are 600 steps to the top of Skellig Michael.  They are uneven and cracked, and there are no hand rails.  Vertigo is an issue as well because the steps are so steep.

IMG_20180705_182047_184The real prize is reaching the top where you can explore the ancient beehive dwellings of the monks who lived there over 1200 years ago.

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And of course the view is spectacular!

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Skellig Michael is literally crawling with sea birds.  Their loud squawking will almost drive you mad, and the gulls especially, will dive bomb you for your sandwich.  However, it’s the adorable puffins that really make a lasting impression.  They are not afraid of humans, and will resolutely growl if you get too close to their nests.  Puffins are not aerodynamic birds, and watching them fly is a hilarious sight.

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The length of time on the actual island is short; about an hour and a half.  It’s such a remarkable experience, though, that I highly recommend making the effort to go if you have the chance.  The fact that humans existed on Skellig Michael is almost unbelievable given that the conditions are so harsh and inhospitable.

Skellig Michael tip #4:  Pack food for a quick lunch, but keep in mind that you will have to eat furtively while hiding by a stone wall because the sea gulls are overly aggressive and will swoop down and steal that sandwich right out of your hand!  I imagined a leisurely picnic at the top of the rock, but the reality was probably closer to a maximum security prison cafeteria…guarding our food and avoiding eye contact, while shoveling it all into our mouth as quickly as possible.

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If you must know, I did not, in fact, make it to the top of Skellig Michael.  There was a seasickness situation on the way over, and I think I almost died.  By the time we actually set foot on the island, I was dizzy, weak and shaking like a leaf…not a great combination for climbing 600 steep, death-defying stairs.  One of the salty preservation men bellowed, “Then why’d ya come at all, lassie?!?”  How do you explain to a pirate-y man with a ruddy complexion and copious amounts of chest hair that nothing makes you happier in life than seeing your children’s eyes wide with wonder?  What words really express the satisfaction a mother feels when she gives her son a rare and miraculous adventure that he will likely never have again?

Skellig Michael tip #5:  When explainging mother-y feelings to a pirate-y preservationist, just liken your love to the love he has for the island.  He will slowly nod and softly say, “I understand ye.”

 

 

 

 

My Top 5 Must-Haves for Air Travel

I get on a plane six times a year, on average, and it goes without saying that I always travel with snacks, water, my phone and something to read.  Over the last 8 years, however, I have also curated my must-have items for air travel.  Whether the flight is 2 hours or 12, these five things make travel less of a chore for me and my tribe.

  1.  Small backpack: I normally travel with just a carry-on, so having a small backpack to fill with in-flight necessities is a must.  My FAVORITE small backpack is the Swiss Gear City Pack Backpack.  I just love the design and layout of pockets, and this pack carries a lot of stuff!  The Patagonia Atom Backpack is also a nice size, and BONUS: the laptop/tablet pocket fits my MacBook Air.   Both of these backpacks fit under the seat in front without spilling into my “feet space.”
  2. Travel “cooler”:  I almost always travel with some type of fruit (If you pack fruit for an international flight, you MUST eat or dispose of it all before you land!) and keeping it chilled through security and boarding is easy peasy with an insulin travel case.  I purchased mine at The Container Store, but Amazon has many varieties as well.  The great thing about these, is that they are small, and the freezer packs contain gel, not liquid, so I’ve never had a problem going through security.  Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 8.22.09 PM
  3. Charging “Brick”:  I know that airports have MILLIONS of charging plugs, but just try to find one that’s working and available when your phone or tablet is at 2%.  Add children to the mix, and you’ll absolutely need one of these like you need oxygen.  We purchased our portable charger from Amazon, and it keeps us all charged!Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 8.33.26 PM
  4. Earbud/Charger pouch:  I LOVE my charger pouch from MochiThings.  It holds more than you think it will, and my earbuds stay tucked in the side pocket.  Plus, it’s easy to find in my backpack because of it’s round shape.  I’ve had mine for over 5 years, and it’s still in great condition.  I can normally fit earbuds, phone/tablet charger and a few other small things (like my car key and/or a flash drive) in my charger pouch, and still have room left over. Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 8.47.16 PM
  5. Foot rest:  Ok, about foot rests.  A foot rest is not, in any way, going to help your image.  They are not cool or nifty or neat.  They are utilitarian items which your spouse and children will make fun of any time you set it up.  Just wave, say “bye Felicia” and ignore those jokers.  Second, you can kindly disregard this recommendation if you are a normal to giant-sized person.  Foot rests are for Hobbits and short humans.  My rule of thumb is that if a flight is more than 3 hours, I pack the foot rest.  My wee legs get tired of dangling after about 120 minutes, but I can usually tough it out for a while if I know we will land soon.

    I bought this actual foot rest off of Amazon, and it’s the bomb.  Ten bucks for a world of comfort is a bargain, I say.

So in reality I pack a great deal more than the five items listed above along with my snacks, water, phone and book.  I’ve read enough zombie apocalypse novels to know that you should always travel with bandaids, Neosporin, a flashlight and a Sharpie pen.  But that’s a post for another day.

Happy travels, everyone!