Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur, California

Breakfast in Hollister
Hollister Hog Rally
During the fourth of July of 2014, I flew from JFK to San Francisco International Airport direct via Jet Blue to spend the weekend in Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur. I arrived in San Francisco late Friday night and spent the night at my friend's apartment in the Dogpatch neighborhood in the city. On Saturday morning, we woke up early and drove approximately two hours to Pinnacles National Park, currently our nation's newest national parks. The drive to Pinnacles is nothing special. The most exciting part was stoping at a diner in Hollister for lunch. Interestingly there are two Hollisters in California, and the one we stopped at is not the one known for surfing. It is known, however, for a Fourth of July hog rally (which we did not participate in). 
Heat warning in Pinnacles
After stopping for lunch, we arrived in Pinnacles and were greeted by a number of signs warning us of the dangers of heat stroke. Undeterred, we asked the ranger for a hiking recommendation and hiked to Balconies Cave. Pinnacles is known for its rock spires and caves, though its caves are not as impressive as the caves I visited in Mammoth Cave National Park or Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Despite the heat, the hike was a pleasant way to spend the day (and it was quite cool in the caves; bring flashlights). After hiking all day, we drove about an hour and 45 minutes to the Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer State Park, stopping at a biker bar for dinner along the way.
In the cave at Pinnacles National Park

Big Sur Lodge was great - our cabin was a two bedroom cabin that comfortably slept four and could have slept even more. (It had a king size bed, a queen bed, and two single beds.) The cabin overlooked the pool and had a nice deck. The restaurant at the lodge was wonderful - for both breakfast and dinner. 
Enjoying our cabin at Big Sur Lodge
Our cabin at Big Sur Lodge
We spent our second day exploring Big Sur. We spent the day hiking near the hotel via the trail to Pfeiffer Falls. After this hike, we had lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant, where the views were amazing. After lunch, we enjoyed tanning and relaxing at Pfeiffer Beach. When we had enough of the beach, we traded the beach for the river, where we had some delicious Northern California wine while sitting in lawn chairs in the river at Big Sur River Inn. We enjoyed dinner at our hotel - and some late night swimming before retiring for the night.
Enjoying the river
Hiking to Pfeiffer Falls

Enjoying dinner at the Big Sur Lodge
We spent the last day of the holiday weekend in Santa Cruz trying out stand-up paddle boarding. The paddle boarding was a great way to explore the water. We saw a lot of seals while paddle boarding. The stand up paddle boarding was a lot harder than I thought it would be though. After paddle boarding, we drove back to the city (after stopping at Dairy Queen), where I took a red-eye back to New York. (I need to make it back to Santa Cruz to explore the boardwalk, beaches and UC Santa Cruz.)

All in all, a great trip, though Big Sur eclipsed Pinnacles National Park in terms of impressiveness. Big Sur should be on everyone's must-do travel list!

Pfeiffer Beach

Monday, August 31, 2015

More Adventures In Utah: Zion National Park


Fly to Las Vegas and then drive to Springdale, Utah (approximately three hours). Spend the afternoon hiking in Zion National Park.  (Fun fact - Utah has five national parks, but Zion was its first.) Spend the night at the La Quinta Inn in Springdale.


Go on an ATV tour near Zion National Park.



Fly to Las Vegas and drive to Springdale, Utah. Arrive in the late afternoon, check into the La Quinta, and spend the evening relaxing.  Springdale is a great town. It is very small, but very cute with a number of restaurants and art galleries. So far, on this adventure to see all of the national parks, Moab and Springdale are my favorite national park towns. Interestingly, St. George, Utah, the major town en route between Las Vegas and Springdale is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (We didn't get a chance to explore it though, unfortunately.)

The La Quinta Inn in Springdale was a great hotel option. We chose it because it allows dogs, but it is close to the park, new, clean, and it has a great pool and hot tub. We also received cookies upon check in (major bonus!). In retrospect, the Cable Mountain Lodge also would have been a great choice because it is closer to Zion National Park and therefore you only have to take one bus to see the attractions instead of two, but overall, I have no complaints about the hotel and would stay there again.


Sleep in, have breakfast at the hotel, and then swing by the Zion Guru to talk about gear needed to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park. Stopping at the Zion Guru  (conveniently located right next to our hotel) was great; the man running the store was incredibly helpful, friendly, and funny (and a Michigan grad much to Ryan's liking). He convinced us to rent boots and walking sticks to use in our hike on the Narrows. Renting these was a great move as it made the hike through the river much easier and much more enjoyable. Hiking the Narrows is a must do in Zion. The hike takes you through a river, and the trail is actually the river itself. We probably hiked about three or four miles, so we didn't hike all of the Narrows, but we definitely enjoyed it. To get to the Narrows, we took the Springdale town bus to the entrance station at Zion National Park where we switched to the national park bus which we took to the Narrows (and then around the park later that day). 

Hiking the Narrows

After hiking the Narrows, we had lunch at the Red Rock Grill at the Zion Lodge (where it would have been great to stay had we been able to get a reservation). We then set out to hike Angel's Landing. (Angel's Landing and the Narrows are Zion National Park's most famous hikes.) Angel's Landing is a difficult hike, but well worth it for the view.

Angel's Landing

Climbing Angel's Landing

After leaving the park, we grabbed a quick dinner at Amigo's and then went to bed - exhausted after a busy day of touring. We were on the second to last bus out of the park after a long day of hiking; luckily the Springdale town bus sent a special bus to pick us up. (Springdale should consider having the town buses run for a certain amount of time after the park buses end.)

Because we were so tired on Friday, we ended up skipping the drive to Bryce Canyon on Saturday and just exploring Zion. Trying to do both parks in only a three day weekend was probably a bit too ambitious. It would have been totally do-able in a four day weekend though.


We woke up early and drove about 45 minutes to Hurricane, Utah to do a four hour ATV tour in Sand Hollow State Park. I was reluctant to do the ATV tour, as I had no real interest in ATV'ing and had some qualms about the environmental impact about ATV'ing in general. After getting over my initial fear of ATV'ing, I loved it. We saw some amazing sites, such as Jurassic Park, that we wouldn't have been able to see any other way. Our guide was great too, and taught us a lot about the local flora, fauna, and geology. I would definitely do another ATV tour. After ATVing, we had lunch at Wildcat Willies (recommended by our jeep guide). The lunch was great (order the turkey sandwich). We then spent the afternoon lounging by the pool before driving back to Vegas to catch flights home.

All in all, Zion ranks at the top of my national park trips. (Top parks so far include Zion, Arches, Yellowstone, Sequoia, Saguaro, and Carlsbad Cavern.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Utah Adventures: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks with some Salt Lake City and Park City thrown in

Labor Day of 2014 took me to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Getting to Arches and Canyonlands is easy from New York; we hopped a direct flight from JFK to Salt Lake City on Jet Blue. (Salt Lake City is about a 3.5 hour drive from Arches National Park.) We arrived in Salt Lake City close to midnight and drove about a half hour to Park City where we spent the night at the Hyatt Escala Lodge. We got a great deal with Priceline Name Your Own Price; the resort did not disappoint. Our room was huge and gorgeous with multiple fireplaces. We easily could have fit more than just the two of us in there. (The only downside to staying at the Hyatt Escala Lodge in the off season is that there is no room service. I also regret not bringing my dog; the Hyatt Escala Lodge is dog-friendly.)

Park City, Utah
We spent the first morning of our trip enjoying our luxurious room at the Hyatt Escala Lodge and seeing the beauty that is Park City. The real highlight of the day was visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Temple Square is the seat of the Mormon Church (like visiting the Vatican for Catholics). Non-Mormons (like us) aren't allowed in the temple so we couldn't visit the temple, but we enjoyed taking a tour of Temple Square and learning about the Mormon religion. The tours are given by Mormon teenagers on their missions. Our tour guide, Natalie, was great. She and the other tour guide (whose name I don't remember) answered all of our questions. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and we could not have enjoyed the tour more. (The tour gives some background of the Mormon religion, and takes one into the visitor's center which contains Mormon art and an 11 foot statue of the Thorvaldsen's Christus (the savior).) A highlight of our visit included talking to a Mormon family whose daughter was celebrating her 12th birthday and therefore able to enter the temple for the first time. (Women are not allowed in all parts of the temple though.)

Thorvaldsen's Christus
Mormon Temple
After visiting Temple Square (and buying some souvenirs at the gift shop and mall across the street), we drove three and a half hours to Moab, Utah. The drive, in the dark, was long and boring - if you go, I suggest doing the drive during the day. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Moab. The hotel was great - amazing views of the red rocks in the distance and a fun swimming pool and hot tub (which was amazing after hiking)!!

Swimming at the Holiday Inn in Moab
Our first day in Moab (which is a cool town) took us to Canyonlands National Park. We signed up for a guided tour of Horseshoe Canyon with Navtec Expeditions. Our guide was great, and the hike was fantastic (though long). We hiked down the canyon where we traversed the floor until we found rock art dating from 2000 BC to AD 500. Our tour guide was great, and the tour was well-organized. That said, we probably could have done the hike on our own. A couple of us hikers made the mistake of not bringing enough water; luckily our guide helped us out, but we should have brought more ourselves. Also, if you do this hike, note that it is a long, all-day hike. (Swimming afterward and sitting in the hot tub felt great!)

Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon

The next day took us to the Moab Music Festival; a great music festival that we read about in a magazine in our hotel room in Park City. We did a hike with the music festival where we hiked with musicians to a nice red rock overlook where we enjoyed a classical music concert. Many of the hikers were elderly people who were slow hikers so we spent a while hanging out on the rocks waiting for the concert to start. The weather was gorgeous though so it was enjoyable. We were also some of the first from the group to return to Moab afterward.

Musicians coming out on the red rocks
Hike to concert

We spent the afternoon touring some of the arches in Arches National Park, and we spent the evening enjoying horseback riding at the Sorrel River Ranch. After horseback riding, we enjoyed more music at the Moab Music Festival at the Sorrel River Ranch. (The Sorrel River Ranch looked great; next time I travel to Moab, I hope to stay there!)
Delicate Arch

Our last morning in Moab was spent hiking in the Fiery Furnace. One has to hike Fiery Furnace with the guide unless one has hiked it before. None of us had hiked it before so we had to go this route. The rangers lead free tours of the Fiery Furnace, but unfortunately we did not sign up in time for one of the free tours. Luckily, we were able to sign up for a last minute Fiery Furnace guided hike with the Moab Adventure Center. This hike was great and a must do for anyone who goes to Moab.

Fiery Furnace
Arches in Fiery Furnace
Fiery Furnace
After hiking the Fiery Furnace, we drove the 3.5 hours back to Salt Lake City. En route we stopped in Provo, where we toured Brigham Young University and bought some candy and ice cream at Pop'n'Sweets Candy and Ice Cream Parlor. The ice cream parlor carries candy from around the world and makes great ice cream floats. Brigham Young University has a gorgeous campus. We read a number of articles about women at the university, all of which were quite interesting.

All in all, the national parks and learning about the Mormon religion, made for a great trip. I highly recommend the trip and it can be easily done in a long weekend!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Southwestern Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park

I have years of national park visits to write about. I thought about putting them in order of how much I liked them, but then I decided reverse chronological order was easiest since choosing a favorite national park is difficult! Read on to learn about my last national park trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Colorado.

Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is no easy feat from New York. The closest major airport is in Montrose, but there are no direct flights from New York. Friends of ours flew from New York to Dallas to Montrose. Our trip was mainly based in Telluride, Colorado, with only a day trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Since Telluride is roughly equidistant between Montrose and Durango, Colorado, we flew into Durango (via Denver). Our flight into Durango got in late so we spent the night in Durango then drove to Telluride the next morning.

A couple of tips if you also fly into Durango. First, Durango is a really cool town. I spent a week there at The Lodge at Tamarron in 2001. Accordingly, if you have time, spend a couple of days in Durango. Second, make sure your car rental company is at the airport itself. We got a very cheap car rental but it ended up being so cheap because it was quite far from the airport. We were exhausted, having gotten into Durango late (and due to the two hour time change) so spending two hours getting a rental car was not pleasant. (Also, make sure to remember to turn off your car rental lights! We made that mistake too and had to get the car jumped the next morning.)

On our first full day in Colorado, we drove approximately two hours from Durango to Telluride, where we checked into The Peaks Resort in Telluride. What a great resort! We came for a ski weekend, and the resort could not have made skiing easier or more pleasant. The resort is ski-in, ski-out, and there is a ski valet so no lugging of skis or boots is necessary. Instead, simply take your skis off at the door where the valet will put them away until you're ready to ski again. (Leave your boots with the indoor valet.) In addition, if you need to rent skis like we did, you can do that right next to the ski valet. The quality of the skis, boots, and helmets was high and the entire process could not have been easier.

Although we were probably in Telluride during one of the worst snow weekends of the year (the snow started as we were leaving, of course), the skiing was great. The resort is huge with a lot of options - we had beginners and black diamond skiiers in our group, and everyone had fun. There are a lot of restaurants interspersed throughout the resort, many with outdoor campfires and live music so ski breaks are a lot of fun too. The apres ski at The Peaks was great and the dinner options in the town of Telluride were good. Getting to the town of Telluride from The Peaks is a lot of fun, as you have to take a gondola down the mountain. When it's not snowing, the views are incredible.
Skiing in Telluride
The culinary highlight of our trip to Telluride was eating Detroit style pizza at Brown Dog Pizza. I had never even heard of Detroit style pizza before trying this restaurant that was recommended to us by a local, but I am glad I learned of it, as it is one of the most delicious foods that exist. Basically Detroit style pizza is a pizza with an incredibly thick crust (and cut rectangularly). Unfortunately our meal at Brown Dog Pizza was our last meal of the trip. If it had been our first dinner, I think we would have eaten there every night.

Now onto Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Unfortunately we chose the worst day of our trip to visit the park, as we went the only day it was snowing. (We should have gone on one of the days without snow for an easier drive and better views.) It is about two hours from Telluride to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The drive is scenic, though there isn't much to stop at along the way. We chose to go to a ranger program at the park. The program was supposed to be a snowshoeing program, but unfortunately there wasn't enough snow on the ground for us to snowshoe so we ended up doing a ranger-led hike.
Learning about animals on our ranger-led hike. (Note the pelt came from an animal that was sadly hit by a car; it did not come from a hunted animal).
The rangers at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park were great. They could not have been friendlier. I usually like all national park rangers I meet, but these guys definitely take the cake as some of the best. We learned a lot about local animal life during the hike - and saw some fleeting views of the canyon when the show clouds parted. Unfortunately due to the weather we didn't experience the vast views that most probably do when they visit the park. I'll have to go back and visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park again in the summer for comparison.
View of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison obstructed by snow
Unfortunately our drive back from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to Telluride was treacherous due to the snow storm. We made it back though and had time to enjoy the amazing spa at The Peaks, which includes an outdoor pool where you can swim under the stars and snowflakes, an outdoor hot tub, several indoor hot tubs, a water slide, a lap pool, and a myriad of saunas and steam rooms. We headed back to NY after two days of skiing and one day of national parking (though that trip ended up taking much longer than anticipated due to the snow - instead of flying from Durango to Denver to NY, we had to fly from Durango to Denver to Baltimore, with a overnight stay in the Baltimore airport, then to NY). We made it though, and all in all, it was a great trip!
Snow greeting us on our last day in Telluride; this is just the snow in the morning. It continued snowing for the entire day, making our trip home difficult. Unlike the Telluride schools which closed so the kids could ski (and unlike many businesses in Telluride which allow employees to come in late on days with great powder), we had to return to NY to get back to work.
Travel tip - if you visit Telluride and/or Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, you can also take a trip to Mesa Verde National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park. I visited both of those parks, as day trips from Durango during my trip to southwestern Colorado in 2001. Mesa Verde National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Mesa Verde National Park is home to thousands of archaeological sites and hundreds of ancient cliff dwellings. Seeing how ancient people lived - and the abodes they built - is fascinating.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the coolest national parks I have been to. It is a huge compilation of sand dunes that seemingly arise out of nowhere in Colorado. The landscape near the sand dunes is nothing like the sand dunes themselves. Unfortunately, when I visited Great Sand Dunes National Park, I did not go sandboarding or sand sledding. Hopefully I can partake in those activities during a future trip to the park! Interestingly, Great Sand Dunes National Park advertises splashing in Medano Creek as an activity in the park. I remember seeing people sitting in the creek and thinking it looked completely unappealing (think a small, muddy trickle), but maybe I was just there on a dry day. I'll have to investigate during a future trip to the park.

*I have no pictures of Mesa Verde National Park or Great Sand Dunes National Park to post since those trips occurred before digital cameras! If I can dig out actual photos, I will scan them and then post them.

Final travel trip if you go to TellurideThe Peaks is extremely dog friendly. I should have brought my dog!

I should have brought my dog to the Soggy Dog at The Peaks for some beauty treatments while I skiied

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Love Nature, Hate Camping: A Manhattanite's Quest To Visit All 59 National Parks

Love Nature, Hate Camping: A Manhattanite's Quest To Visit All 59 National Parks

I'm a 31 year old woman living in Manhattan. Sadly, because of where I live, nature isn't a big part of my daily life (drinks at the Boat Basin, bike riding in Central Park, and tanning at the Jersey Shore don't really count as bouts with nature, as fun as they are...). Despite the lack of nature in my normal life, in fall of 2011, I found myself in Rocky Mountain National Park, celebrating my 28th birthday with one of my closest friends from college and one of my closest friends from high school. During a long hike, I mentioned that I love visiting national parks and that I wish I had visited more while I lived in Los Angeles since so many are more accessible to West Coasters. This lead to a conversation about how many I had visited at that point. The answer was 12 (Acadia, Glacier Bay, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Sand Dunes, Haleakala, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Mesa Verde, Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Yosemite). One of my friends said that must be nearly all of the national parks and suggested I try to visit all of the ones I hadn't been over the next two years - before I turned 30.

Great idea, I agreed, until we did the research and realized that there were 58 national parks (not the 15-20 we had thought). (Note there are currently 59 national parks, the latest, Pinnacles, was added in 2013 after I started my quest.) Due to the voluminous nature of the national parks, my quest became a quest to visit 30 national parks before I turn 30 (which I've accomplished), 40 before I turn 40, and all 59 before I turn 50.

One thing I must add - though I love national parks, I hate camping. I tried camping twice as a child and hated it both times. I have no desire to sleep on the ground with no running water. Accordingly, all of my national park trips involve hotel stays, preferably nice hotels, where available. (I haven't tried glamping yet though; I don't think I'd like it.)

On my quest, a common question I get is "what are the national parks?" Below is a list of our nation's 59 national parks. The parks in red are the ones I have visited (and will be blogging about). The parks in green are the ones I still need to visit.

American Samoa
Big Bend 
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 
Bryce Canyon  
Capitol Reef 
Carlsbad Caverns
Channel Islands 
Crater Lake
Cuyahoga Valley
Death Valley
Dry Tortugas
Gates of the Arctic
Glacier Bay
Grand Canyon
Grand Teton 
Great Basin
Great Sand Dunes 
Great Smoky Mountain
Guadalupe Mountains
Hawai'i' Volcanoes
Hot Springs
Isle Royale
Joshua Tree 
Kenai Fjords 
Kings Canyon
Kobuk Valley
Lake Clark
Lassen Volcanic
Mammoth Cave
Mesa Verde
Mount Rainier
North Cascades 
Petrified Forest 
Rocky Mountain
Theodore Roosevelt
Virgin Islands
Wind Cave 
Wrangell-St. Elias  

I would like to clarify that my quest is only to visit national parks. I am not trying to visit national historic sites, national sea shores, national forests, or national monuments (though many national monuments eventually become national parks). I have nothing against these other national treasures. I simply had to put some boundaries on my quest. 

What's the best part of visiting the national parks? Not only getting into nature, learning about our country and our environment, but also taking fun trips with friends of mine from around the country. My national park trips have been with a wide assortment of friends from all parts of my life (college friends, high school friends, law school friends, NY friends, LA friends, boyfriend, family). Great revelations about boyfriends, fiances, finances, and jobs - as have minor revelations (e.g., that there's a tv show called "Pregnant and Dating") - have been had on these trips. So, follow in my footsteps, jump into nature, and rekindle your connections with your family and friends!

Read on to learn more about my quest to visit all of the national parks. Read on to learn about the national parks, the best (non-camping) places to stay when visiting the parks, and the best activities to do while visiting them. Borrow my itineraries and learn from my mistakes. 

P.S. - my other blog is not going on hiatus. I am simply going to focus that blog on my non-national park adventures and this blog on my national park adventures. (Where to put the international national parks I have visited is another question...)

Finally, if you want to take your own national park trip (which I highly recommend), feel free to retain me to be your personal national park planner! (Send me an email if you would like help planning a trip.)