Great Smoky Mountains National Park | June 2021

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of my favorites from our trip. Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, this stunning park spans over 500,000 acres and is the most biodiverse park in the entire National Park system! This means that there is more life here (both in quantity and in variety) than any other national park. That is pretty crazy. More than 19,000 species have been found and there are an estimated 80,000 - 100,000 ADDITIONAL species that may also call the park home. Holy shit.

We only spent two nights in the park, but we saw a fair amount. Our first night was spent camping in Cades Cove. The following day, we went for a horseback ride through the area (which was nice because on Wednesdays there is no vehicle traffic allowed on the Cades Cove Loop! Also, I was so tempted to write 'on Wednesdays we wear pink' as I was typing that). We hiked and explored and moved to our second campground - Elkmont. Now, every single thing we did in the park was awesome, but there is one thing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that should be on everyone's bucket list....

Synchronous Fireflies

You guys, the fireflies. Oh my god, the fireflies.

Every summer at the end of May/early June, a species of firefly (Photinus carolinus for you nerdz) that synchronizes their flashes begin their mating season. Sounds good, right? Fireflies are always fun to see. Okay, well think about how cool it is to see random fireflies here and there on a summer evening and then multiply that by a gazillion.

The fireflies are found in the Elkmont Campground area. As dusk was settling in, we walked from our site to the trail where the most activity is seen. It's a long stretch of road/trail that leaves plenty of opportunity to space out and not be crowded with a bunch of other people. Most people brought camp chairs. We were dumb and did not so we just stood around while we waited. Then, as the dark really began to take over, a flash. Just one or two at first. Then more. And then more. And then before you know it, there are flashes of green everywhere lighting up together. Thousands of tiny lights, then as they go out, another group of thousands respond, almost as though they are conversing in some language that we can't understand but we know it's beautiful. My description can't even do it justice. I straight up shed a tear. It was really THE MOST magical thing I have ever seen in my entire life and I've seen a lot of cool stuff. I feel like the only thing that could maybe rival this would be seeing the Northern Lights.

These insects do this every year. It's just what they do. And we humans make a huge spectacle of it and I love it. I love that people have to sign up for a lottery to even try to get a parking pass to see it, that's how popular it is. And with good reason. I just can't say it enough..... it is incredible!

If you want to see this amazing natural event for yourself, you'll have to sign up on Recreation.gov for the lottery. Alternatively, you can book yourself a campsite in the campground. Forewarning, though - these sites fill up fast for the weeks right around the firefly event. We were lucky to get a night after lurking on the reservation system for a couple of weeks! Plan in advance and snatch a spot along the river for a most excellent experience!

Great Smoky Mountains | June 2021

Note: I have zero photographic or video evidence of how amazing the fireflies are because an iPhone is insufficient!


Cuyahoga Valley National Park | June 2021

A true hidden gem of the National Park Service (no really, I had never even heard of this park before planning this trip), Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located in Peninsula, OH (outside of Akron). The park is scattered amongst the quaint suburbs of the area, making it a little difficult to navigate (or maybe that's just me). I relied heavily on the AllTrails app to navigate me to the trailheads!

When we arrived in the park, we had been in the car for a looong time. It was about a 7 hour drive from Mammoth Cave. We were desperate to stretch our legs before heading to our Air BNB (there is no camping in the park). 

Oak Hills Trail

We decided to hike the Oak Hills trail to regain blood flow in our legs. When we got to the trailhead, it was definitely raining but I didn't care at all because I was desperate for some fresh air and movement. Luckily, the canopy of the forest protected us from most of the rain. I gotta tell you..... hiking in a forest while it is raining is pretty magical. The sounds of the raindrops bouncing off the green leaves of all the plants. The smell of wet soil and humid air. The refreshing splashes of the cool raindrops. Pure bliss. Okay, back to reality.

The Oak Hills trail is only 1.5 miles and is a pretty easy hike. The trail was pretty flat and well maintained and there was little to no gain in elevation. It was perfect for what we were looking for. It took us through the forest, around a pond, and looped back around to the parking lot. There are restrooms at the trailhead but they are just pit toilets so be sure to fill water bottles ahead of time!

After the hike, we were damp and ready for hot showers and some clean laundry. Our Air BNB was the cutest place and was perfect for what we needed  - a washer and dryer, rural setting (with farm animals but because of the rain, we didn't play outside and see them), a super comfortable bed, air conditioning, and a TV. Plus, our hosts were great and were very accommodating! We got clean and warm, did two loads of laundry, made some burgers for dinner, and fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Brandywine Falls + Brandywine Gorge Trail

The next day, we started off by hitting Brandywine Falls, a 60 foot waterfall. It was really beautiful and there are multiple viewing areas. They have a boardwalk that you can walk down for a viewing area, a lower viewing area that's a bit more challenging to access, and you can view it from above on a paved road/trail. We pretty much viewed it from all areas and additionally hiked the 1.4 mile Brandywine Gorge trail. Because of all the recent rains, the trail was pretty muddy and slippery in a few spots, but we managed to survive without falling (which is rare for us).

Ledges Trail

After lunch, we headed towards the Ledges trail. This was my favorite part of the park. The trail is 2.2 miles, rated as moderate, and has lots of opportunities for climbing over and between rocks. Big rocks. There are some points at the beginning of the trail where it's basically two big rock faces right next to each other with a small area in between that you can walk through. Most of the rocks were covered in bright green moss and the forest was so damn fragrant. It was really beautiful. The trail also takes you past a cave, which has been closed in order to protect the bats that reside in it. You can still walk to the mouth of the cave and holy crap, the temperature change was insane. It dropped like 10 degrees around the cave.

As you keep adventuring around the rocks and forests, you eventually come to a nice overlook area. From there, the trail loops around and brings you back to the parking area. This is a great hike for kids that like to climb and explore!

Have you visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park before? What is your favorite thing to do or see there?

 

 

Cuyahoga Valley | June 2021


Shenandoah National Park | June 2021

Our first stop of the second half of the road trip was Shenandoah National Park, located in the Appalachians (including the Blue Ridge Mountains) in Luray, Virginia. This area is so forested that the name 'Blue Ridge' comes from the haze that is created by all the plants photosynthesizing! It was gorgeous, duh. I mean, views, lush forests, and mountains.... it's hard to go wrong.

We had two days in Shenandoah and camped in Big Meadows. There is absolutely no way to see the park in two days. We were really only able to explore the area around Big Meadows and didn't have enough time to get much farther than that. The park is pretty stretched out. We entered at the northern Front Royal entrance station and it was still a 90 minute drive to Big Meadows, which is about halfway in on Skyline Drive. Since we didn't have nearly enough time, we had to pick and choose what to do with the time that we did have. Here are three great things to do while spending time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

See Waterfalls

With Lily being in school now and us having to travel during summers, we are getting to see waterfalls that we typically would miss out on with a visit in late fall. There are numerous waterfalls in the Big Meadows area. The first one we hit was Dark Hollow Falls. This was a perfect hike for us to do in the evening after we arrived. The trailhead was extremely close to the campground and it was a short hike at only 1.4 miles round trip. The hike takes you 3/4 of a mile down to the falls and is an out and back trail. The trek was relatively easy on the way down, with some areas getting slippery towards the bottom. The hike back up was a little bit of a climb but not too bad. One thing to note is that no pets are allowed on this trail!

The next day, we hiked the Rose River Trail, which is a 4 mile loop that takes you to Rose River Falls. This trail can be connected with the Dark Hollow Falls trail if desired. This trail is classified as moderate. I would lean toward the difficult end of 'moderate'. The entire second half of the loop is uphill and it sucked. It may have been worse for us because apparently we went the opposite direction than what is suggested (did not realize this until later) and we went down the fire road first... but damn it was quite a hike!

These are only two of many trails that will lead you to some magical waterfalls in the park!

Hike up Stony Man

We started our second day in the park with a hike up the Stony Man trail. This mountain gets its name from the rock formations at its peak. They appear to make up the face of a bearded man. You can try to use your imagination to see this from the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive.

This trail is only 1.6 miles round trip and is easy peasy. It's low effort for big reward because when you get to the top, daaaamn the view is beautiful. You can the Shenandoah Valley for miles.

Drive the entirety of Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive is the drive that goes from end to end through the heart of the park. It's 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and it's a gorgeous drive. There are a ton of overlooks along the road with pullout areas so you can safely hop out of your vehicle and take pictures of the dramatic scenery along the way. From top to bottom, the whole drive takes about three hours. There is gas in the park at Big Meadows so if you didn't top off before entering the park, you will have an opportunity to fuel up if needed about midway! We did the first half of the drive as we entered the park, then left through the southern portion so we got to see it all. There were wild turkey everywhere and cruising through the beautiful forests of the park was so, so lovely.

Shenandoah National Park has soooo much to offer and we only scratched the surface, but if you're really short on days in the park, you can't go wrong with these three itinerary items! Entry to Shenandoah National Park is $30 per vehicle, but I always recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass! It's $70 and can pay for itself in a single road trip. It covers your entrance fees for all National Parks and all other federal recreation sites!

Shenandoah | June 2021


Two Week Travels | To Pennsylvania & back

Hard to believe our big summer road trip has already come and gone. We're still riding that natural high that a fantastic trip gives you. We went up to Pennsylvania for an old friend's wedding and made the most of the trip by stopping along the way at some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen! Here was our route to Pennsylvania and back! More to come about the fabulous places we visited!

Pennsylvania itinerary


Two Week Travels | Utah Big Five

With school letting out for summer in a couple of weeks, road trip season is approaching. Especially with COVID restrictions lessening little by little as more and more people get vaccinated, things are opening up and our options are widening. I think we are all ready to start getting back to some level or normalcy again.

If you're ready for a road trip but aren't sure where to go this summer, you can't go wrong with Utah. The whole state is like a big outdoor playground. We visited in October 2018 and hit the Utah Big Five + more in 11 days. Here was our route, which started and ended in Salt Lake City (we got our flights super cheap in and out of Austin-Bergstrom).

Utah Itinerary

*Page, AZ consisted of Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and Antelope Canyon.

 


White Sands National Park | April 2019

Today kicks off National Park Week and we are celebrating by revisiting our trip to White Sands National Park! When we visited in 2019, it had yet to earn the title of National Park and was still a National Monument. Though the name has changed, the beauty hasn't. This was one of Lily's favorite spots of the whole trip. She loved rolling around on the dunes, making shapes out of the pockets of sand somehow sticky enough to stay together. We had planned on spending a full afternoon here and then heading out of the Alamogordo area early the next morning, but she demanded we return for a second visit and so we did the following morning.

The namesake white sand is made of rare gypsum sand and the park is part of the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Nestled in the Tularosa Basin between the Sacramento and San Andres mountain ranges, this landscape is really beautiful. Seemingly endless white dunes stretch all the way to the base of the mountains in the distance.

The park doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles (and it doesn't need it). You'll find a visitor's center and store, an eight mile road called Dunes Drive, which is half paved half not, some trails, and a boardwalk. They also offer backcountry camping, but we stayed in a hotel in Alamogordo because we were ready for a shower and some clean laundry.

The first thing we did in the park was walk along the Interdune Boardwalk. This is a half mile boardwalk that goes into the dunes and gives a nice view at the end. It's an ADA accessible trail, too, so that's nice! There are interpretive signs along the way that explain the fragility of the interdunes ecosystem and point out some of the plants and animals that reside in it. This was a really nice introduction to the park.

Though there are established trails in the park, we opted to just romp around on the dunes after the boardwalk. We drove all the way to the end of Dunes Drive, stopping in various spots along the way to frolic. The sand was cool under our feet and in our hands. We climbed to the top of the dunes and sat admiring the mountains in the distance. It wasn't very busy when we were there and it was rather overcast so it was really peaceful.

One interesting thing about the park is that it is adjacent to an active missile range. There are warnings on the website to not mess with any debris you may see in the dunes as it may detonate. Yeah, that's relaxing, huh?

White Sands National Monument got designated as a National Park about eight months after our visit. All of our souvenirs say "National Monument" so I guess they're vintage now, right?

White Sands | April 2019


Big Bend National Park | April 2019

Oh, Big Bend, my heart belongs to thee. Big Bend National Park, and the whole Big Bend area in general, is one of the most amazing places in the world. In the remotest corner of Texas, far from shopping malls, McDonald's, light pollution, traffic, and all the mundane bullshit in our lives that we allot too much space for, there is a place where the desert stretches across the vast land, the mountains jut out from the dry ground, an island amongst the sea of dirt and scrub, and the river powerfully carves it's way through the rock, engraving it's legacy slowly but surely. Even just thinking about it makes me feel dreamy.

Big Bend National Park | April 2019

Okay, back to reality. I brought Lily to the park for her first visit (of many) in 2019. We spent two nights in the Chisos Basin campground, the best of the three developed campgrounds in the park. Being up in the mountains offers more comfortable temperatures than down on the desert floor, there are amazing views, and some of the best hiking trails are up in the Chisos.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a thread about Big Bend on some website and was surprised to see many people saying that it wasn't ideal to bring kids to the park. It's dangerous, it's wild, it's scary. It is indeed all those things, though only scary in its vastness in my opinion. Not a place you'd want to get lost. That being said, though, it is actually a great place for kids. It's dangerous, but then again so is driving. The possible hazards that may be encountered in Big Bend offer a great opportunity to teach kids about trail safety, awareness of your surroundings, wildlife, and leaving no trace. It's wild, a rugged landscape with boulders for climbing up and around and over, a place that cannot be tamed. It is a place where kids can experience dark skies and solitude, where they can test their boundaries and get dirty. Some things in the park are better suited to older kids/adults, but Lily was only five years old when we went and there was more than enough to keep us busy and she absolutely fucking loved it. Here are some of the child friendly activities that we did.

 

Hike to Balanced Rock

This hike is high reward for low effort. The most difficult part of hiking to Balanced Rock is getting to the trailhead. To get there, you have to drive down Grapevine Hills road, a dirt road that has potholes and big rocks and is slow going. It's certainly not 4WD level - we did it in my old Honda CRV - but it's a bumpy ride. It took us an hour to drive the six miles to the Grapevine Hills trailhead. Once on the trail, though, it's easy going. It's pretty flat up until about the last quarter of a mile, where you do a nice scramble up some boulders to get to Balanced Rock. Lily loved this part - anything that has to do with climbing she's on board with. You can get some fun photos at Balanced Rock before heading back to the parking lot.

There isn't much shade on this hike so plan ahead by wearing a hat and sunscreen. The hike is a little over 2 miles round trip so it's a great warm up for a day of hiking in the desert!

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Once you're back on the pavement from the Grapevine Hill road, it's easy to hop onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive route by taking a right onto the main road. This is a thirty mile scenic route that highlights some of the history of the area. Turn off the main road at Castolon (see more below). Keep going until you reach Santa Elena Canyon. There are a number of stopping points along the way to enjoy, including the Sam Nail Ranch, Mule Ears Viewpoint, and a number of overlooks. Be forewarned: the kid(s) may sleep through the drive, but that's okay because the nap will help energize them and prevent crankiness for the rest of the day! They'll need the energy for the next hike.

Visit Santa Elena Canyon

At the end of the scenic drive, try to find a parking spot and take the Santa Elena Canyon trail, a 1.7 mile round trip hike that takes you into the canyon until there is nothing but rock and water. There's a bit of a climb at the beginning of the trail, but it's very doable (and paved just about all the way if I remember correctly). Once you've entered the mouth of the canyon, there is some shade with the river cane and some trees, plus some rock overhangs that you can sit under. When we finally reached the water, there were groups of people wading around so we decided to join them. We rolled up our pant legs, took off our shoes, and in we went. Lily then proceeded to 'accidentally' fall in... yeah right. I am 99.9% sure that she just wanted to swim, but it's okay. It was a great way to cool off after the hike and the water felt amazing. You can't leave Big Bend without doing this hike and standing in the water of the Rio Grande River between two massive rock faces, one the United States, the other Mexico. Being sandwiched between two countries is pretty cool.

Stop by Castolon

On your way back from Santa Elena Canyon, you can stop at Castolon Historic District. Err... well... at least you used to be able to. Unfortunately, a wildfire severely damaged the area in 2019. The area housed historic buildings dating from the early 1900s. The Visitor Center and La Harmonia store were burned extensively, but they have a temporary visitor center set up now in a different building across the way. Stop by and learn about the history of the area, mourn the fire damage, and envision what lies ahead in the future for this part of Big Bend.

Visit the Hot Springs

Hot Springs Historic District houses a number of historic buildings, including a post office and the remnants of a bathhouse built by J.O. Langford. The drive to get to the parking area is narrow and unpaved, so drive cautiously! The sign in the parking lot warned to not leave valuables in your vehicle - I assume they have some issues with theft there but we had no problems. All of our important belongings went in our backpack anyways.

The hike to the hot springs is only about half a mile and is really easy. Explore the remnants of the stone buildings along the way and look for pictographs on the rock faces. When you reach the springs, you can soak in the water where you're in the foundation of the old bathhouse that was constructed. The area is usually fairly crowded so don't expect quiet or privacy. We dipped our feet in for a bit but didn't actually soak since we didn't bring appropriate attire. The river flows adjacent to the springs, with Mexico just across the way. You will likely see small trinkets, walking sticks, and other items for sale, set on the ground of the United States by Mexican artists/craftsmen. Anyone that purchases an item leaves their money and the person comes to collect it. Be aware that this is illegal. You can purchase legal crafts made by Mexican merchants in some of the camp stores in the park or if you cross into Boquillas. Note: as of the time of writing this, this area is currently closed due to COVID-19.

Visit any of the visitor centers

There are multiple visitor centers scattered through the park. They're all worth a visit. They provide information about the park, environment, and wildlife, are staffed by rangers so you can ask questions and get suggestions or recommendations, and they've got stores that sell souvenirs, books, and some of them sell grocery/camping items, as well. The Chisos Basin visitor center has a taxidermied mountain lion that Lily enjoyed.

 

There is no way to see all of Big Bend in two days, but we pretty much tracked to all the edges of the park. Be prepared to drive a lot - the park covers more than 800,000 acres. You can definitely get through a visit without leaving the pavement, but where's the fun in that? We can't wait to get back. Now that Lily is older, she is able to hike longer distances. The trails we've got on our list for next time are Lost Mine, Window, Mule Ears, Chimneys..... ugh, so much to explore, so little time.

Have you visited Big Bend with kiddos? What are your favorite things to do?


Two Week Travels | West Texas + New Mexico

As we enter another April, I find myself reminiscing about our Texas/New Mexico road trip that we took in April of 2019. We had such a great time and explored mountains, caves, canyons, and dunes. We did a 10 day trip and, while there were a couple of places that we wish we had more time at (cough BIG BEND cough), we felt like we still got to do and see plenty without feeling rushed.

I'm sharing our itinerary as the first of our Two Week Travels series. These are going to be either itineraries that we have done or possibilities for the future  (I am seriously obsessed with planning trips) and all will be two weeks or less. Customize this route for yourself depending on where your beginning location is!

West Texas New Mexico itinerary
*these are the primary destinations; side trips not included

 

In honor of the two year anniversary of this trip, through the month I'll be revisiting some of the parks and places that we visited along the way, starting with one of my absolute favorite places on Earth: Big Bend National Park.


Yosemite National Park | November 2019

The holiday season has been a whirlwind. A week before Thanksgiving, Lily and I hopped a plane to LA. It had been 9 years since I'd been to California - the last time being when my college pals & I road tripped out there the summer after graduating. Needless to say, I was overdue for a visit.

We spent the night in Austin and headed to the airport at the crack of dawn the following morning. The trip started off kind of hectic and crappy, with our flights getting delayed repeatedly. By the time we finally made it to LA, we were four hours behind schedule and still faced a 5ish hour drive to Yosemite National Park. Since it gets dark so damn early there and we'd be fighting the daylight, we opted to spend the first night in Pasadena with Ben & Rebekah instead of in Yosemite. It ended up being a good choice - we got to catch up, drink a couple of beers, and relax after the stress of travel.

We woke up early the next morning and bid our farewells to them until Thanksgiving and off we went, headed north to one of the most iconic National Parks in the country. The drive was long and not terribly scenic, but after almost six hours in the car, we had arrived and I was just flabbergasted at how beautiful it was. It took us a while to get from the park entrance down to our campsite in Yosemite Valley, but god damn the views were amazing.

Once we got camp set up, we headed to the store down the way and got some firewood and supplies (read: local beer and snacks), then made dinner at the campsite. We played some games as we sat by the fire, and by 5:30pm Lily was in the tent. I stayed up for a bit, reading Desert Solitude by lantern light, then it was lights out for me, as well. The following day would be busy - we had to pack in as much of Yosemite as we could with the shortened amount of time that we had!

After breakfast, we hiked the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. The falls were dry, but the landscape was still stunning. The fucking rocks were SO BIG. I swear, every place I go I end up amazed at the rocks. After that, we hiked to the Vernal Falls Footbridge on the Mist Trail. We contemplated continuing on to the top of Vernal Fall, but we were getting close to check-out time and still had to pack up camp.

Once camp was clear, we hopped in the car to slowly begin making our way out of the park. On our way out of the valley, we stopped and did the short hike to Bridalveil Fall, which WAS actually flowing so it was nice to see an actual waterfall. From there, we drove the scenic Glacier Point Road up to the overlook. Wowwie. Lily was obsessed with Half Dome. We stood up there for quite a while, just staring out into the vast wilderness.

From there, we continued on back out of the park and set our sights on our next destination - Three Rivers, CA and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks.

 

Yosemite | November 2019


Colorado | October 2015

Fuck, I don't even know where to start here. We had an amazing trip in Colorado. We played outside and saw snow and drank craft beer and ate delicious food. I realized a lot about myself. And about my life. I think I am on the verge of a major metamorphosis and it is scary and exciting and difficult and exhilarating all at once. Good things lay ahead. And I'm doing it for myself. I deserve it.

Colorado. It was beautiful. We covered probably 800 miles in five days. At least. We started in Denver and explored downtown and Red Rocks. We visited Aurora, Colorado Springs, Idaho Springs, Boulder, and Trinidad. I caught up with an old friend while meandering through Garden of the Gods, dug my toes in the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park, admired the peaceful beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park, stood at the top of a waterfall in Cheyenne Canyon Park. We smiled at a double rainbow in the San Luis Valley. We stood atop the continental divide and let the snow fall around us. It was just... exactly what I needed. I found a new part of myself on that trip. A part of me that I want to nurture and help to flourish.

I have no fucking idea what the future holds but I am ready for it, come what may.

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See the pictures from our trip here!