Sunday, October 23, 2016

Long Weekend In Florida: Dry Tortugas, Biscayne, and Everglades National Parks

Instead of spending a long weekend in Florida at the traditional haunts (or if you want to check out some off the beaten path locations after having seen the main attractions in Florida), why not head to all three national parks located in Florida (south Florida to be exact), where you can avoid the crowds and enjoy world-class snorkeling, beaches, and wildlife? 

Gator in the Everglades
Start your weekend by flying into the Miami International Airport. Spend your first full day in Everglades National Park (approximately 90 minutes from the airport). Say hello to the alligators and make sure you check out at least one of the pontoon boat tours. (Lodging tip: if your flight gets in at night, consider staying near the airport and driving to the park the following morning.)
Pontoon Boat Ride in the Everglades
Exit Everglades National Park and head toward Key West (approximately 3.5 hours from the Flamingo Visitor Center in the park). Those who want a shorter drive can make hotel reservations on one of the more northern keys. Cheeca Lodge on Islamorada is lovely. More budget-conscious travelers may want to consider the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon - clean and conveniently located. Be sure to book early if traveling over a holiday weekend. Get some gator for dinner and get a good night’s sleep since you will be heading to Dry Tortugas National Park in the morning.
Gator for Dinner
On day two, get to Key West by 7 a.m. to sign in for your trip to Dry Tortugas National Park via the Yankee Freedom. More extravagant travelers may want to consider taking a seaplane to the park (which is about 68 miles west from Key West and only accessible via air or sea). Visitors to Dry Tortugas national Park can visit one of the islands on the archipelago. Visitors should be sure not to miss snorkeling in the least disturbed coral reefs of the Florida Keys, and they should relish in the fact that they are in one of the least visited national parks. (Dry Tortugas only gets about 60,000 visitors per year. The least visited national park, Gates of the Arctic, gets about 11,000 visitors per year, and the most visited, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, gets over 300 million visitors per year.) Spend your time at Dry Tortugas (which was named after giant sea turtles who were swimming in the water near the park when Ponce DeLeon discovered the park) swimming, sunbathing, and most important, snorkeling. Guests can also explore the fort, though it pales in comparison with the snorkeling adventures guests can have. Enjoy dinner and key lime pie in Key West before heading to Biscayne National Park in the morning.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Biscayne National Park is about two hours and 45 minutes from Key West. Once in the park, enjoy ranger-guided canoe trips and snorkeling. Biscayne National Park is best known for its protection of offshore barrier reefs, and 95% of the park is underwater (so make sure to do some snorkeling while there). The park is also known for an extensive mangrove forest (which you can learn about while snorkeling with the rangers).
Canoeing In Biscayne National Park
After enjoying the day in Biscayne, head straight to the airport in your wet bathing suit to maximize time in the park (which is 42 minutes from the airport). Note that food options in the park are lacking; you may want to head into Miami (about 30 minutes) to get Cuban food for lunch. 
All in all - a great long weekend for those seeking lots of adventure (along with sunshine, exercise, and great food) in a short time.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Mt. Rainier National Park and Seattle

Mt. Rainier National Park

For my birthday (in the fall), I wanted to visit a national park. I figured one of the ones near Seattle (Mt. Rainier, Cascades, or Olympic) would be good for a weekend due to the ease of direct flights to and from Seattle. Originally, I was leaning toward Cascades National Park, but then realized that Cascades National Park is gigantic and would require a long weekend to see in its entirety. Thus, we landed on Mt. Rainier National Park, an easy hour and 45 minute drive from Seattle.

We landed in Seattle late Friday night and checked into the Hotel Monaco, one of my fave hotels (and not only because it's dog friendly).

The gold fish in our room at Hotel Monaco
Saturday morning (my birthday) began with us renting a car and driving to Cascades National Park. We started off at the Longmire Visitor's Center where we did two short hikes - Trail of the Shadows and Twin Firs Loop Trail. (Neither were "must sees.") We did not anticipate how much colder and foggier the park would be than Seattle so we ended up having to buy sweatshirts at the visitor's center - dress in layers if you go to the park!

After lunch at the Paradise visitor's center. (Tourist tip - the food at the visitor's center was not very good; we should have eaten outside of the park.) We spent the afternoon hiking the Nisqually Vista Trail and Morraine Trail to see the glacier. Although we only spent the afternoon in the park, we felt as though we got to see what we wanted in the park and did not feel rushed.

We returned to Seattle that evening, enjoyed dinner, and spent the next day exploring Pike's Place market, the glass blowing museum, the first Starbucks, and the city in general. (Note - one of the best tourist sites in Seattle is the underground tour, something I did on a prior trip. Another good thing to do is the gold rush national park site.)

Space Needle Reflecting In A Glass Museum Sculpture 
Glass Museum
Glass Museum

Glass Museum

Glass Museum

Deja at the first Starbucks

All in all a great trip - easy to do on a weekend. Perhaps I'll spend my birthday this year at Cascades or Olympic national parks.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

I spent Memorial Day 2016 in Capitol Reef National Park, in Torrey, Utah (listed by The Weather Channel as Utah's best kept secret). The best way to get there is to fly to Salt Lake City and then drive the approximate three hours south to Capitol Reef National Park. (Check out my prior post for touring ideas in Salt Lake City, but with two added recommendations - Mexican food dinner at Red Iguana and staying at Little America or Grand America - don't get a garden room at Little America though - be sure to get a tower room.)

We grabbed lunch on the way to Capitol Reef National Park (note that after you hit the Flying J rest stop, there aren't many dining options) and checked into our hotel, the Capitol Reef Resort, upon arrival. The hotel doesn't look like much from the outside, but it was a great place to stay. It's the closest hotel to the park (well, tied with the hotel across the street from it), with nicely appointed rooms with wonderful views, a pool, a hot tub - and fun teepees and covered wagons in which you can stay if you don't like the regular room option. The hotel also has fire pits and horseback riding on premises. The only thing that wasn't great about the hotel was the restaurant (mediocre at best).

Horseback Riding at Capitol Reef Resort

Covered Wagons at Capitol Reef Resort

Following our arrival, we headed to the ranger station to get a recommendation as to what to do. We settled on hiking the Chimney Rock Trail after checking out Petroglyphs Point (not to be missed). It was a gorgeous hike - it took about two hours and was moderately strenuous. Be sure to bring plenty of water. We followed that hike with three short hikes - Panorama Point, the Sunset Point Trail, and Goosenecks Overlook. Goosenecks Overlook is well worth the hike. Following our afternoon of hiking, we enjoyed dinner at The Broken Spur. (One of my travel companions is trying to taste wine in all 50 states - she enjoyed a made in Utah wine at the restaurant. Surprisingly, there are a number of made in Utah wine options.)
Capitol Reef National Park
Petroglyphys at Petroglyphs Point

Capitol Reef National Park
Utah wine tasting

Our second day started out with a four hour horseback ride with Outlaw Trails Guide. The trail ride was gorgeous - and the guides were amazing. This is a "must do" in Capitol Reef National Park. After enjoying some delicious Bison Burgers at Red Cliffs Restaurant (recommended by one of our trail guides), we headed back into the park to hike the Golden Throne trail. This hike takes about three hours and is strenuous - but well worth it for the gorgeous views (including the views on the scenic drive on the way to the hike).

Horseback Riding in Utah
Great trail ride with Outlaws

Following our wonderful trip, we headed back to Salt Lake City for the night, stopping at Country Cafe in Loa, Utah for dinner. (The food at Country Cafe was great, and the owner was really friendly; well worth the stop.)

Our trip could not have been better except that it was too short. If I were doing it again, I'd plan to stay an extra day and do some fly fishing. (Also, if I had a week, I'd plan to do all the Utah Parks in one trip - Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Virgin Islands National Park


Unlike my other national park trips, a trip to the Virgin Islands National Park doesn't require a detailed itinerary. It basically just requires a bathing suit and some flip flops - maybe some sneakers and shorts if you want to do a hike. Virgin Islands National Park is located on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. To get there, fly to St. Thomas International Airport and then take a boat to St. John - most of the hotels on St. John have their own boat, and there are public ferries you can take, as well as water taxis. To get to one of the public ferries, you have to take a taxi from the airport. Be sure to take a shared taxi if you don't want to spend $90 getting to the ferry.

I've been to St. John and Virgin Islands National Park twice. Both times I stayed at the Westin, which is wonderful. Caneel Bay Resort is another lodging option. It looks amazing, and it is located within the national park. (I highly recommend getting dinner at Zozo's at the Sugar Mill at Caneel Bay Resort; be sure to make a reservation well in advance.) There are only two other resorts on St. John - Gallow's Point Resort and Concordia Eco-Resort. I'm not familiar with them so I cannot recommend (or not recommend) them. There are a number of bed and breakfasts, house rentals, and campgrounds as well. One of the campgrounds - Cinnamon Bay Campground - is located within the national park. The island of St. John is small - roughly the size of Manhattan - so if you do not stay within the park, you won't be far from it.

The best way to explore the park is to spend a different day at each beach. The various beaches all have gorgeous views. Some have snorkeling - and Trunk Bay even has an underwater snorkeling trail. (You can rent snorkel gear at the beach itself.) Cinnamon Bay has good snorkeling as well. Other beaches, like in Haulover Bay, require you to hike to them for access. The National Park Service is now offering yoga on Saloman Beach (which requires a hike to get to). I missed out on that this year, but hope to do it next year. 

If hiking is more your thing, be sure to check out the Reef Bay Trail. I have hiked it on my own, but hope to do the ranger-led hike next year. I also hope to enjoy kayaking and horseback riding on St. John. I hope to check out the British Virgin Islands next year as well - and possibly even do a long weekend in Puerto Rico on my way home. (El Yunque National Forest looks amazing!)

If you want a relaxing national park trip, Virgin Islands National Park is the right choice for you. 

Trunk Bay
Trunk Bay

Swimming at Haulover Bay

National Park Ranger

Donkeys all over the island

The Westin St. John
The Westin St. John
The Westin St. John

Ready for the national park tour

Cinnamon Bay

Hawk's Nest Bay

The beach at the Westin