Category: U.S. Travel (Page 1 of 6)

Escape the City in 5 LA National Parks

Sometimes urban life gets the best of us, and our spirits need some time in nature to recoup and heal. Los Angeles is one of the world’s biggest cities, and it can make a person feel like they’re trapped in an endless urban landscape full of unending traffic jams. It does for me, anyway.

But LA also is a great city for nature lovers, because it is surrounded by some spectacular national parks that make for a wonderful weekend getaway or an epic tour of Southern California’s varied landscapes. For either one, this is your comprehensive guide to the LA National Parks. For a brief run down of the parks, see below:

LA National Parks

The Santa Monica Mountains (c) ABR 2018

(1) Joshua Tree National Park: Unique rock formations, plenty of trails, climbing opportunities

(2) Santa Monica: Coastal mountains, urban landscapes, plenty of trails

(3) Sequoia National Park: Giant redwoods, varied landscapes, small mountain towns, plenty of trails

(4) Death Valley National Park: Extreme desert ecosystem, plenty of trails

(5) Mojave: Varied desert landscapes, plenty of trails

Remember to always hike prepared. Bring proper clothing, sturdy shoes, and water/snacks. Bring maps, and when appropriate, let rangers know where you are going. You are always responsible for your own safety while exploring.

Joshua Tree National Park

LA National Parks

Official Website

Distance from LA: 3 hours (132 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 3.5 hours (222 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: $30 per vehicle

LA National Parks

Joshua Trees (c) ABR 2018

Joshua Tree is probably the most popular of the LA National Parks, particularly in recent years. The park is named for the unique plants that dot that landscape, the illustrious Joshua trees, but I’d say that the rock formations of the park are the big draw for me. It is a famous climbing location, but there is plenty to do here for people with all kinds of interests. For those of you who aren’t big on hiking, there is a beautiful road that you can drive down and see all of the sights. This goes from Yucca Valley in the north to the I-10 in the south, so keep in mind that this is not a loop road in the park, but it can be made into one if you enter from one direction and then head out from the other.

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

I will list three of my favorite hikes in the park below, but some other spots that you really should check out on your drive are Keys View, White Tank, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Keys will bring you up high enough in the mountains to see Palm Springs, and it is a great view of the surrounding mountains, as well. Arch Rock is amid some lovely rock formations where you can stop for a leisurely lunch and stroll. For those of you that have never seen a Cholla, the cactus garden is for you, but please, please stay on the trails here. Stepping on the roots of cholla over and over can hurt them, and they are also dangerous for you (so spiny!). Keep a respectful distance.

FAVORITE HIKES

Cottonwood Spring Trails

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

These trails will give you a pretty easy stroll through the ecosystem that Palm Springs is named for; wild springs with massive, wild palms growing around them. There are also some mining remnants that have left a lasting impact on both the landscape and history of the area. There is some incline on these trails, but not much, and there is a large spring near the trailhead. So, this is a great place to stop whether you are a hiking enthusiast or not.

Ryan Mountain

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

If you are looking to gain some elevation without committing to a big hike for a summit in the valley, Ryan Mountain is a great trail. It is only 3 miles (out and back) but you will pack on about 1,050 feet, so it is a great workout. The mountain is also located in the center of the valley so the views from the trek up and  at the top are absolutely amazing- you can just about see the whole park from up there.

Hidden Valley

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The Hidden Valley loop is a MUST-DO trail for any one that can make the walk. It is a short 1-mile loop, and it will take you through a narrow passage of massive rock formations into another world. Hidden Valley will make you forget that there is a larger valley surrounding you and the city will be the furthest thing from your mind while you are there. This place was once used by ranchers as a nature pen for cattle, but now it is a peaceful place for visitors of all kinds. That being said, Hidden Valley is easily accessible from the road, so this is one of the most crowded trails.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Official Website

Distance from LA: 1.5 hours (39.1 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (418 miles)

Best Seasons: All

Cost: Free

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

WOOLSEY FIRE: Currently, some big patches of the SMNRA are closed due to the Woolsey Fire. Please consult with the National Park website for up-to-date information on what is open.

The Santa Monica Mountains are a wall of stone and wilderness between LA and the coast to the west. So, they are a great place to escape the stress of the city, and view the ocean from above. I also love exploring them in order to understand more about what this place looked like before people came and changed everything. This is really a great place for hikers, despite the closeness of the park to the city. For long distance hikers, the Backbone trail is 67 miles through the mountains.

FAVORITE HIKES

Solstice Canyon Trail

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

This trails follows a canyon up into the mountains toward the historic Roberts Ranch. When I was here, not only was there water running in the canyon, but there were parrots playing in the boughs and whizzing through the air. This is a great hike for anyone that can deal with some incline and wants to explore the interior of the Santa Monica Mountains. This is just a 2.1-mile round trip (out and back), but there are plenty of other trails in the area to explore if you need to stretch your legs more.

Sandstone Peak Area

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Sandstone Peak is the high point of the Santa Monica Mountains, and there are miles and miles of great trails in this area. This hike is a bit more difficult, so as much as I love the views up there, I would not suggest this area for people that aren’t comfortable with heights, steep inclines, and rough terrain. We did a loop in this area and ended up hiking for about 6 miles. You could go for longer, or summit and then turn around for a shorter hike. This is honestly the best place to get a sweeping view of the mountains in all directions.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (210 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 9 hours (574 miles)

Best Seasons: Late spring, summer, early fall (Chains required with snow)

Cost: $35 per car

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Unfortunately for me, I did not have the opportunity to explore Kings Canyon when I visited the LA National Parks, due to snow, but Sequoia is a wonderful place to visit. As its name implies, there is a beautiful forest of giant redwoods here, but there is so much more, as well. At the entrance of the park, there are sweeping landscapes of grasslands and rolling hills that are in stark contrast to the forests that the road will begin to climb up through after you pass through the small town at the base of the park. (Be sure to stop here for food, or consider staying in one of the small lodges). After that, the road follows the canyon until it begins weaving its way up into the mountains that are crowned by the redwood forest. Be aware that several roads in this area are closed during the winter, so you may want to avoid it during this time. If you do visit when there is snow, you need have either four-wheel drive or chains.

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Be sure to check out hospital rock with its beautiful petroglyphs, and of course, the  stunning redwoods. The General Sherman tree area is a particularly great place to experience the majesty of redwoods on foot. Be on the lookout for signs asking you to keep your distance from some of the trees to protect their roots. Remember that these ancient trees are more important than your photo (you can always edit a photo to make it look more dramatic without hurting any trees).

Death Valley National Park

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (215 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (402 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: $30 per vehicle for 7 days

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Death Valley is many things, including the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States, but don’t let its name and these things scare you off. Death Valley is an absolutely breathtaking LA National Park with desert landscapes that are as unreal as they are harsh. I grew up and live in a desert, but I have never seen somewhere as stark at Death Valley. In fact, this might be one of my favorite national parks with the power to pull me back just like the Grand Canyon, and the Channel Islands.

LA National Parks

Artists Drive (c) ABR 2018

There is just something about the painted, dead mountains and cracked, salty bottom of the valley that speaks to both the majesty and danger of nature. When you drive through, be sure to stop at the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village, take Artists Drive through the Artists Palette, stop at the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and make time to spend sunset at Dante’s View. If you are a hardcore hiker/enjoy four-wheeling, I would also suggest trying to come with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, as there are many dirt roads in the park. It should go without saying, but be extra careful about having enough water in this park while exploring, and watch your car’s gas levels and monitor any issues with overheating. This place is no joke.

FAVORITE HIKES

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

You can easily view the Mesquite Sand Dunes from your car or from the parking lot, but I really enjoyed trekking out into the sand towards the largest dune in sight. Of course, there was a fair amount of sand to be poured out from my shoes on a regular basis, but I think that there is no better way to experience the dunes than by immersing yourself in them. There isn’t really a trail here, so you can wander where you’d like and for as long as you’d like.

Ubehebe Crater

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Again, you can just view the crater from the parking lot, but I think you will get a lot more out of the 1.5-mile trail that loops around the crater. Not only will you get to view this beautiful place from all angles, but you will get some wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, too. This is one of the northernmost places that you can easily access with all vehicle types in the park. You might also be ambitious enough to hike down into the crater, but be forewarned, it is quite steep.

Golden Canyon

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The entire time that I was in Death Valley, I was enchanted by the canyons that snaked away into the skeletal mountains of the valley – these places that seemed utterly without life. Golden Canyon Trail, which links to a variety of trails, was a great way to get a taste of the heart of the most characteristic mountains of the valley. The canyon itself could be home on any dead and rocky planet like Mars, and the vibrant colors of the rock make it seem even more otherworldly. There are also breathtaking sandstone formations on the trail such as the Red Cathedral and the Manly Beacon. When we did this hike, we made a loop of Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch, which was around 3 miles in length.

Mojave National Preserve

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (177 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 4.5 hours (252 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: Free

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The Mojave National Preserve is one of the more secluded parks on this list. Although it is not quite as far from the city as some of the other LA National Parks, it is far less visited. That being said, it has an amazing variety of landscapes and offers some of the same draws as the other places on this list, including Joshua Trees and a huge stretch of sand dunes. The Mojave National Preserve is also home to some completely unique places, and the historic Kelso train depot, making it well worth visiting in its own right.

FAVORITE HIKES

Teutonia Peak Trail

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

This short, 3-mile out and back trail will introduce you to the unique desert of Mojave. This is especially striking if you have seen Joshua Tree NP recently, as there are Joshua Trees here but they are markedly different than those of the other park. As you approach Teutonia Peak, you will have the opportunity to walk through a forest of these unique plants, and you will also be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Cima dome on your way up the mountain. Unfortunately, the end of the trail was unclear to us when we visited, so I can’t say much for the summit itself. Even so, I think this was a great place to get a taste of why this national preserve is so special, while also getting a sense for what connects it to the other places in this list.

Hole in the Wall and the Rings Trail 

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

I loved this trail because of the beautiful rock formation that you get to explore while taking it, and also because of its unique character. At the beginning or end of the trail (depending on which way you start) you will be required to climb down steep stone passageways by clinging onto large metal rings that form ladders in the rock. As you can imagine, this wouldn’t be a great activity for people with a fear of heights, or at any time when the metal might get hot in the sun. However, if you’d like to avoid the rings but still see the rock formations, you can hike in from the other direction and just stop as soon as the rings appear.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins: What’s The Big Deal About San Nicolas Island?

island of the blue dolphins

From Pixabay

I’ve been in love with the Channel Islands of California since I first read Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a little kid. The first time that I glimpsed them in person was on the horizon while on a family vacation. I was so fascinated in the shadows that came and went out on the ocean that I convinced my dad that we needed to see if there was a way to get to them, and a few days later we were on a day trip to Anacapa.

Since then, I have gone to camp on Catalina, snorkeled on Anacapa, kayaked on Santa Cruz, and hiked across Santa Rosa. But there are two Channel Islands that are off limits to visitors, San Nicolas and San Clemente. These are both owned by the Navy, and have active bases on them. So, going there as a casual camper or explorer is simply out of the question. Even so, I have been just as fascinated and in-love with these islands as the rest of the chain. This year I made a monumental effort to work as a short-term environmental contractor on San Nicolas so that I could finally experience this unique and amazing place.

But why drive for two days, volunteer three work days, and fly out into the middle of the ocean where no phones were allowed (for our group)? What’s so special about San Nicolas?

THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS

island of the blue dolphins

Juana Maria from Wikimedia commons

The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is one of the first chapter books that I remember reading. More importantly, it is the first book that I ever read with a female, Native American protagonist. This story started to open my eyes to the realities of American expansion on Native people. I also had the chance to look up to a female hero, something, which was rare at the time, particularly among the stories that I enjoyed most.

O’Dell tells the tale of Juana Maria (we will never know her real name), a Nicoleño woman who was left alone on San Nicolas island for 18 years. While his book is historical fiction, the story itself is real. Juana Maria’s people, had been living on San Nicolas for hundreds of years (possibly more). In the 1800s, they found themselves at the center of a brutal conflict when the Russian-American Company fur company targeted their home for its thriving otter populations. At some point, the RAC hunters on the island decided that the local people had killed one of their men and in response they massacred the residents.

After this, Juana Maria’s people were removed from their home, although the reasons for this are not clear. The boat, however, left her behind. Again, no one is entirely sure why she wasn’t taken with the rest of her people. Some say that a strong storm drove the boat away from the island before she could get aboard. Others believe that she leapt from the boat because she thought her younger brother had been forgotten.

A Survivor, Strength Unmatched

island of the blue dolphins

Statue of Juana Maria from Wikimedia commons

Utterly alone, Juana Maria survived for nearly two decades on San Nicolas. She built herself a home, and expertly utilized all the resources of the island to stay alive. A few footprints on the beach sand, and food left out to dry eventually led to her being found. After that, she was brought to the mainland. Sadly, the rest of her people did not await her there. She died only seven weeks after being reunited with society.

Juana Maria’s story is one of horrible tragedy, but as a person, I consider her a hero. While I can’t say what her own people thought of women, I believe that Juana Maria shocked the Europeans and Americans with her strength, ingenuity, and iron will to survive. She did what none of those people thought that she could. I will always see her as one of the great figures of female survivors and outdoor experts.

It was amazing to walk in her footsteps (so to speak) and see the island that she once called home.

OTTERS IN THE SOUTH

island of the blue dolphins

From pixabay

Otters were once common across the long coast of California. Thousands of them made their homes along the beaches that are now so famously loved by the West-coast enthusiasts. They played an essential role in the ecosystem of the coast. In the 18th and 19th Century, however, hunters killed them in such extreme numbers that they were considered extinct in California by the 1900s.

Luckily, this was not the case, as a single small population remained after the hunting efforts were ended. All of the current otters that live in California now came from those few that managed to survive. From a conservation scientist’s perspective this makes California’s otters vulnerable. Those left don’t have much by way of genetic variation. When genetic variation is low, diseases and environmental changes are more dangerous for a species. For example, more variation means that there is a greater chance that more individuals will have a natural immunity or ability to recover from an otherwise fatal disease.

Welcome Back To San Nicolas

island of the blue dolphins

From Pixabay

In order to address this problem, US Fish and Wildlife decided that a second population of otters was needed. They chose San Nicolas Island for this purpose, and brought several otters there. They thought that the animals would be safe from any problems that arose in the north there. Unfortunately, everyone underestimated how far otters could travel. Most of the animals dropped off on San Nicolas actually swam home, across the open ocean and up the coast. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!

The project didn’t go as smoothly as wildlife managers were hoping, but there is a small population of otters on San Nicolas now. These little guys are some of the most  special animals that anyone can see in southern California. It’s only fitting that they can now make the Island of the Blue Dolphins their home once more.

My Journey to San Nicolas

Last week I posted about my trip amazing trip to San Nicolas and the great work that the Channel Island Restoration team does.

The Forgotten Caribbean: Travel to Vieques

Last week we covered some history and attractions on the small island of Culebra, and this week I am going to sum up Nightborn Travel’s coverage of Puerto Rico with Culebra’s sister island, Vieques. This is the larger of the two Spanish Virgin Islands. It faces many of the same challenges that we talked about in regards to Culebra. This includes a history of military exploitation, and small local communities struggling against impending buy-out from expats and the larger tourism industry. At the same time, Vieques and Culebra are utterly unique. When you travel to Vieques you will have the opportunity to see beautiful low-land forests, free-range horses, and one of the best bio-luminescent bays in the world. There’s an almost endless list of things to see on this little island and it’s time that it was forgotten no more.

travel to vieques

EARLY HISTORY

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Vieques was home to indigenous peoples such as the Taino, who left archeological remains throughout Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the Spanish colonizers went to war with the native people here and enslaved everyone left when they were done claiming the land for themselves. The Taino people currently live on through modern Puerto Ricans who still incorporate some of the traditions of Taino culture in the unique Puerto Rican way-of-life.

As with much of the Caribbean, and mainland Puerto Rico, sugar plantations were a major aspect of life on Vieques. This activity led to immigration onto the island as workers, investors, and slaves moved or were moved to take advantage of the small island’s fertile soils.

travel to vieques

The Fortin on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

RECENT HISTORY

In the 1940s, this changed when the US military purchased more than half of the island. This had large-scale negative impacts on the economy of the island. It put many local people out of work, and forced physical relocation for anyone that lived on the land that was now owned by the US government. The land purchased was utilized for the testing of weaponry, and much like Culebra, the island is still haunted by this legacy. Although this is something that you pick up more from talking to local people when you travel to Vieques, as there aren’t tanks laying around here.

This misuse and mistreatment of the island and its residents came to a tragic head when David Sanes was killed by military activity in 1999. This event led to ongoing protests that were spearheaded by local people but supported by activists from all over the world. By 2001, there was a presidential guarantee that the military would begin leaving in 2003, and on May 1, 2003, the process began.

travel to vieques

A map of military impacts on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

While the protests led to the ceasing of the US government’s activities on Vieques, the road to recovering the island has not been easy. Cancer rates on Vieques are high and many local people believe that this has to do with the tests that took place there. Furthermore, health services are not readily available on Vieques and what there was was all but destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Environmental and social recovery is still underway. Bu many Vieques natives have had to move away from their home due to lack of resources, jobs, and health care. This leaves the island vulnerable to a new kind of exploitation from the mass tourism industry.

GETTING THERE

As with Culebra, you can travel to Vieques via a ferry or a plane ride.

The most affordable way to get there is the ferry, which runs from Fajardo/Ceiba to Vieques multiple times a day and the fare is under $10. However, taking the ferry has its risks as the schedule is not 100% dependable and tickets can sell out. Check the Guide to Vieques for more information.

travel to vieques

Getting off of the tiny airplane on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

Personally, I traveled there with Vieques Air Link, which flew from San Juan to the island. These flights leave from the much smaller domestic airport in San Juan, and use very small planes, so if you are scared of 4-6 seat planes, you might opt for the ferry. If you have the extra cash for this mode though, the views from the plane are absolutely amazing and Air Link was on time for all of the flights I took with them. The only difficultly with this mode of transportation post-Maria was that the companies were a little hard to contact and we had some difficultly getting our tickets and confirming our seats. I would hope that this will consistently improve as things get repaired in Puerto Rico.

travel to vieques

View of San Juan from the tiny plane to Vieques (c) ABR 2018

WHERE TO STAY

There are lots of places to stay and different kinds of experiences, from AirBnb to hostels and luxury hotels. As always, my main suggestion would be to stay somewhere that’s smaller, and locally owned. You will even have some options in terms of whether or not you stay near the town centers or out in the more rural areas of the island when you travel to Vieques.

WHAT TO DO

Hiking

No, surprise, but my first suggestion would be to go hiking. There are tons of trails, but here are a couple that I enjoyed.

Cayo de Tierra: This short, little trail goes out onto a beautiful peninsula that is just right outside of town. Day Trips says that it is unusable since Hurricane Maria, but I had no trouble hiking it in April. You just need to follow the red markings along the trail.

travel to vieques

Looking through the forest and out to the land bridge (c) ABR 2018

Playa Negra is the black sand beach of Vieques. It takes a bit of hiking to get there, down through a small creek bed, but it is well worth the walk. Just expect your shoes to get wet and be prepared. I will also note that there is not a lot of parking at the trailhead, so please be sure that you move your vehicle out of the road when you head out.

travel to vieques

Playa Negra (c) ABR 2018

The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is another hot spot for hiking, although when I visited, it was closed down after the hurricane. Hopefully it will be opened again soon.

Other Stuff to Do

Vieques is also home to one of the best bio bays in the world, although it has been badly impacted by Hurricane Maria and climate change. I would still suggest checking it out, as at worst you will get to go on a nice, guided night kayak on a beautiful bay. There is a nice list of companies to consider going out with here.

Fortin Conde de Mirasol is a great historic location on the island, which is a must-see for any travel to Vieques. It is both a great place to learn more about the story of the island, and it is home to an organization that supports local education. There is a great little museum here as well as a lovely gift shop.

travel to vieques

The Gran Ceiba (c) ABR 2018

Make sure that you stop by the absolutely beautiful Gran Ceiba tree. It is said to be about 300 years old. Just make sure that you don’t step on the roots! Keep your distance.

Finally, there are tons of tasty restaurants right on the beach in Esperanza. The village is a great place to stop by for a relaxing walk through the town. There is plenty of Caribbean fusion, Puerto Rican, and American food on offer, so there is something for everyone.

TIPS FOR THE ISLAND

(1) Use your travel to Vieques as a tool for supporting local people. You can do this by supporting locally owned hotels, restaurants and guides. You can also learn more about the culture and history of Vieques and share it with other people. The more the world knows about the struggles of this little island and the strength of its people, the better!

(2) There is still unexploded ordinance on Vieques, and although rare, sometimes people still find things while exploring. If you find anything that you can’t identify, do not touch or move it, just report it to the authorities.

travel to vieques

The closed National Wildlife Sanctuary (c) ABR 2018

(3) Vieques has a very high amount of murder, statistically speaking. For the most part, this is not something that visitors need to worry about. The residents of Vieques are kind people and the island overall has a small-town mentality. That being said, stay out of trouble and don’t go looking for drugs, etc. (not something I condone anywhere).

(4) When you drive on Vieques remember that this is a small island; there are often people and horses walking along the road (sometimes turtles even try to cross!). Embrace island life and drive slow and respectfully. If people want to pass you, just pull out of the way. Enjoy the scenery!

(5) Hiking, traveling and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends. It is your responsibility to travel and explore responsibly and take care of your own safety. (Adapted from www.hikearizona.com).

Cave Creek Hiking: Go John Trail

There is alot of variety to Cave Creek hiking, and Go John Trail is one well known trail in this area. It was previously showcased by Sweat Magazine as reader’s choice best hike.

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

General Information

Location: Cave Creek Regional Park
Run By: Maricopa County
Fee: $6 per car
General Difficulty: 2.5 (1 being easiest and 5 being hardest)
Round Trip Length: 5.4 miles (8.7 km)
Accumulated Gain: 1,260 feet (384 meters)
Crowd Levels: Moderate
Other activities: Camping, picnicking, visiting the nature center

Recommendation

Go John trail is a good place to visit if you are a local who hasn’t been, or a visitor looking to experience lots of Sonoran plant diversity. There are better trails for scenery and work outs. This trail is also fairly far from the city center.

Description

First Half

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

The Go John Trail starts at the parking lot at the very end of the road in the recreation area. It is a loop hike that you can start heading north or east. The first section of the trail (if you head north on the Maricopa Trail) rises up over a saddle in the mountains. It’s not a particularly steep incline, but it was sustained enough to get my heart rate up. This is the hardest part of the trail, in my opinion, and after you make the top of this rise, Go John will take you down into a valley where you will meander through fluffy, desert washes.

Before you descend onto the main length of the trail, however, I would suggest pausing to enjoy the view. The saddle is a great place to snap some pictures of the valleys to either side, one with the heart of Phoenix and one still wild. The rest of the trail is fairly low elevation, so there aren’t tons of other spots for pictures until  the end. That being said, the mountains in Spur Cross will  be at eye line for most of your trek, so the horizon-to-horizon beauty is there.

Second Half

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

Once you hike down into the washes, you will have some wonderful opportunities to see Sonoran desert biodiversity, with a multitude of plants growing in this relatively lush part of the Phoenix valley. Birds abound as well, and if you know where to look (and how to be both safe and respectful of the animals) there is also come good herping here.

The way back towards the trailhead goes require you to gain some elevation again, but it is much more gradual than the first half of the trail. The descent to the parking lot is really nice and gradual as well.

go john trail

5 Things I’ve Learned from Getting Stuck at Airports

I’ve gotten stuck waiting at a LOT of airports, so naturally I’ve picked up a few things that have made it a little easier for me when faced with traveling inconveniences.

1) Travel delays are less of an ‘if’ and more of a ‘when’, so try to plan accordingly.

These days, it feels like a delay at some airport is almost inevitable, if even for a short amount of time. Unfortunately, sometimes even the slightest delay can throw everything off schedule. I know it’s not always possible, but for big events (usually weddings), it’s a good idea to give yourself a couple days leeway before the occasion to account for any hiccups.

For example, I was traveling from the U.S. to Manila for a cousin’s wedding. All of my connecting flights went smoothly, until the very last one at the Narita Airpot. I was supposed to board at six, which turned to seven, eight and nine and when we finally boarded the plane, they herded us back off because by the time we would arrive in the early a.m., there would be no crew to welcome us. Oh, and the next available flight? Not until 1 p.m. the next day.  I lost nearly an entire day, making me extremely glad the wedding was later in the week.

2) Travel as light as you can…

Good advice for when:
a) Your gate suddenly changes after your last flight delay made you late, and you have to haul your butt across three airport concourses to make it to you connection in time.
b) You’re traveling solo and need to drag your bags everywhere with you. There’s nothing like trying to cram yourself into an airport bathroom with a bunch of luggage.
c) Your connecting flight, for whatever reason, doesn’t transfer your bags with you and you have to go through the whole rigmarole of baggage claim and check-in AGAIN.

3) … But, bring back-up essentials in your carry-on.

This has come through for me AT LEAST twice. I mentioned my sweet stay at the Narita Airport up above – after spending more than 12 hours at the same airport gate, I’m SO glad I had clothes to change into and toiletries to refresh myself. The second time, having learned from Narita, I was flying to Manila again with maybe two or three days worth of extra clothing in my backpack. It served me well after my having to switch flights – I arrived fine, but my baggage took three days to find me, having flown on my ORIGINAL connecting flight.

Things to Keep Handy:
– Extra clothing (especially undies)
– Toothbrush/toothpaste (just remember to keep that tube small enough size for TSA approval)
– Face wipes (good for make-up removal/other face gunk and generally TSA-approved)
– Small stick of deodorant
– Portable phone charger/power bank (in case you’re faced with full or broken outlets)

4) Learn about the airport beforehand, especially if you have multiple connections.

It’s just a great idea to know the layout of the airport(s) you’re traveling to you’re not surprised by what you’ll find when you arrive. If you have the time, then you’ll know where you want to eat, shop and relax. If you don’t have time, then you can move around with ease and book it to your next destination. It also helps to know some other miscellaneous details like if the airport has wi-fi (and is it free?), what currency the airport will accept if you’re traveling to another country (Narita actually accepted USD, which was pretty convenient) and if they have places to stay inside the airport should you need a rest (Narita actually had hotel rooms available – but when I was delayed we were asked to remain by the gate – booooooo).

5) Don’t panic.

If delays happen, if you get stuck in an airport like I did, try your very best not to freak out, take a deep breath and then figure out your next steps.

When I ended up chillin’ like a villain in Narita I:
a) Used the wi-fi to use my messaging apps to see of my family members was online so I could get in contact with them and let them know what’s up and not to worry.
b) Didn’t get mad or berate the staff for a weather delay they couldn’t control, but stuck around, listened to what updates they had and did what they asked of us.
c) Made the best of it. I got to try consommé-flavored Pringles (which I didn’t even know existed) and learned how to make a curry MRE (which actually tasted pretty dang good), I talked to an extremely nice missionary couple that ended up watching out for me while I got some nap time in (still using my carry-on as pillow so I would know if anybody was trying to mess with it) and explored the Narita Airport while purchasing enough green tea Kit-Kats to keep me happy.

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Mmmmm. Soup.

Really, my hope for every flight and for you is that you don’t get stuck with your buns warming an uncomfortable airport gate seat for hours. However, if you do, remember my advice and perhaps it’ll make things a bit more bearable.

Bisous,
Katie

The Un-Planner’s Guide To: New York City (Day 2)

Hello, wonderful person! If you’ve made it here, that means you’ve made it to the second and final part of  Un-Planner’s Guide to New York City.

I hope my itinerary, and I use that term VERY loosely, for Day 1 serves you well. Now, let’s get the show on the road for Day 2, we don’t have much time to waste.

Day 2:

Herald Square

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  • Plan to meet up with family for breakfast, but start your day off a little bit earlier so you have time to wander.
  • Realize that you’re a block from Herald Square and its Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street fame. Use store as a landmark to return to because it’s impossible to miss, considering it takes up an ENTIRE city block.
  • Pick a completely random direction to go in and enjoy strolling at your own leisure while watching sleepy businesses open and traffic buzz by.

Koreatown

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  • Be lucky that Koreatown is close enough to Herald Square that you can stumble upon it by accident.
  • See a street sign for Korea Way. Follow the sign.
  • Decide that Korean food would be an AMAZING breakfast. Meet up with your people and tell them so.
  • Find that there’s an abundance of Korean (surprise, surprise) places to eat that you know nothing about.
    • We interrupt this guide for the Un-Planner’s Mini-Guide to: Selecting a Restaurant (A guide within a guide. Guide-ception.)
      1. Yelp it.
      2. Be indecisive.
      3. Walk up and down the street looking at menus.
      4. Wonder how you ever make any decisions in your life.
      5. Say “to heck with it” and just walk into a random place.
  • Fortune smiles upon you and the restaurant you’ve chosen is New Wonjo, a popular Korean BBQ eatery that also happens to serve a really dope breakfast.
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This beef and kimchi soup was as delicious as it was enormous. Pictured in the background are all our side dishes or banchan, plus some excellent fried veggie dumplings.

  • Be thoroughly stuffed, but it’s fine, because you’ll need all those calories for all the walking you’re about to do.

American Museum of Natural History

  • Take your first subway trip of the day.
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For this iconic blurry subway train picture, I stood just a little too close to the platform edge and got the breath sucked out of me as it went by extremely quickly.  100% DO NOT RECOMMEND. Seriously, take your blurry photo from a distance.

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KNOWLEDGE.

  • Buy the Super Saver pass because you want to do all the things and then realize you may have made a mistake because you have roughly three hours and 5 floors of museum. TRY TO DO IT ALL ANYWAY.
  • Run around from floor to floor ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at things, but mostly getting lost because seriously, how is this place so large.
  • Pause to watch a planetarium show about the universe. Or more accurately, watch two minutes of the show and fall asleep because the chairs are comfy, the planetarium is just the right amount of dark and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice is really soothing.
  • Spend the rest of your time enjoying the dinosaur exhibit the most because they are GREAT.
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SO MAJESTIC.

Central Park

  • Morning has somehow quickly bled into afternoon. Head over to Central Park, which happens to be just across the street.
  • Walk through Central Park while thinking, “I think I’ve seen that in a movie.”
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I can’t tell you what part of Central Park this is, but you’ve probably seen it in a movie.

  • Keep walking a find yourself amidst a lot of hubbub you don’t understand. Tourists are standing in a circle and taking photos of the ground (and of themselves and the ground).
  • Make it to a break in the circle and it suddenly all makes sense. You wandered into Strawberry Fields, an area paying tribute to late Beatles member, John Lennon.
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Imagine all the people… trying to take a photo with this mosaic. It was a lot.

Chelsea Market

  • It’s time to regroup with the rest of the family, so back to the subway you go.
  • Really experience the ride. People watch. Read the poetry that the MTA has put up in the cars, or the other fascinating literature other passengers have left behind.
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Uh, where exactly is this train going, again?

  • Decide on Chelsea Market because your group cannot agree on dinner. Thankfully, the market is a block long and chock full of a variety of restaurants and shops.
  • Let the smell of french fries take you to the Creamline for a burger and fries that you practically inhale. Then for dessert, the mini-donuts that your brilliant father has gotten from the Doughnuttery.
  • Roll out of Chelsea Market.
  • Struggle to find the right train station with machines to refill your metro card.
  • Arrive at correct station.
  • Zombie walk to hotel because you’re full of a combination of sun, food and exhaustion.
  • And finally, sleep.

That’s all she wrote, folks. Thanks for joining me for this brief and devil-may-care tour of NYC!

Happy Un-Planning,

Katie

The Un-Planner’s Guide To: New York City (Day 1)

Welcome to the first installment of the Un-Planner’s Guide, a wholly un-serious and unusual approach to travel itineraries.

I’m Katie, and I’ll be your host through approximately one-and-a-half days of New York City, NY.

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Yes, this hat is part of our required tour guide uniform.

 Trip Pre-work:

  • Know about the trip, in my case, AT LEAST a year in advance.
  • Book your flight accordingly, apparently for domestic flights the magic number is 54 days for cheapest fares.
  • Have ample time to pack and let that dwindle down to months, weeks, days and mere hours before your trip.
  • Go out to dinner with friends and/or family the night before your flight.
  • Struggle to pack within the window of 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. (Stop mid-packing to justify your procrastination.)
  • Sleep for 2 hours.
  • Wake up to leave for airport and hate yourself a little bit.

Day 1 (or Day 1/2):

Getting There

  • Be at airport.
  • Go through security rigamarole.
  • Fly.

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  • Land and realize you lost half your day because of time changes. Curse.
  • Rideshare from the airport to your hotel and get stuck in traffic. Learn your lesson and take the subway for the rest of the trip.

Ice Cream Break

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It has to be soft serve. From a truck. No exceptions.

  • Wrangle large group of Filipinos (who are your family so it’s okay) and proceed.

Oculus – World Trade Center Transportation Hub

  • Take subway to get to the Oculus, which is the World Trade Center’s transportation hub.
  • Exit train and enter Oculus. Be impressed. Take a moment to admire the architecture.
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The structure of the Oculus was like being inside the skeleton of great beast.

National September 11 Memorial

  • Cross the Oculus, meaning just walk straight across it and up a flight of stairs, and you’ll find yourself back at street-level and able to walk right over to the National September 11 Memorial. There’s a museum there, as well.
  • Visiting the memorial, as you would imagine, is a truly sombering experience. But beautifully moving, too, if you take in not only the construction of the memorial but the fact that they place white roses next to the names of the people being remembered on their birthdays.
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The day we visited, there were two birthdays.

One World Observatory

  • Check out One World Observatory. It’s just a short trip across the street. The building itself if stunning, but it also offers you 360-degree views of the city from 100 stories up.
  • The trip up to the observatory does require admission, so expect to pay about $30+ for a single person.

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If you were to ask me what part of the city this way or what any  of those buildings were, I couldn’t tell you. They had these tablet thingies for purchase that you could point out at the city, like a virtual tour guide, but I was more keen on just looking.

Chinatown (And Little Italy, Sort Of)

  • Find that after all the subway riding and walking you are famished, as one ice cream alone cannot hold you down.
  • Fumble through the subway with your herd and somehow make it to Canal Street.

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  • Arrive late enough that most of the shops are closed, but just in time for the restaurants to be bustling with business.
  • Let your dad pick the place, though his relationship with Google is tentative at best, and then let him lead the way (???).
  • Walk into an unfamiliar neighborhood almost to the point of concern until you reach Shanghai Asian Manor. Note that this restaurant only accepts American Express or cash.
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Eat delicious food and not realize until later that this is actually a really popular place.

  • Leave and enjoy the light sprinkles of rain as you walk. Let your family make ill-advised hat purchases at a souvenir shop about to close.
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Pass up Little Italy (sad-face) because majority rules to go to Times Square.

Times Square

  • Arrive in Times Square and be baffled by the fact that the city is still buzzing at 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. Assume that maybe all the huge electronic billboards are making people think it’s still daylight.
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SO BRIGHT. MY EYES.

  • Be horrified by the discount store-looking nightmares that are parading around as notable characters. Pull your unsuspecting aunts away from a particularly disturbing Minnie Mouse and Woody.
  • Decide you’ve had enough of these shenanigans and decide to turn in so you can get up early for more exploring tomorrow.

Well, that’s it for the first part of The Un-Planner’s Guide to NYC! Come back next week for part deux.

Your Humble Host,

Katie

 

Backyard Discoveries: The Shrine on Chihuahua Hill

If you’re up for a little bit of hike in Bisbee, AZ, the jaunt up Youngblood and Chihuahua Hill is an excellent way to get the heart pumping and to see life in this former mining town in a different way.

Like we mentioned in our handy itinerary, you can take OK Street up to the base of Youngblood Hill and take time to check out all the local homes (trust me, you’ll want to – they have a lot of character). If you start your journey earlier in the morning (maybe around 7 a.m.), you’ll benefit from pleasant temperatures and having the town (and trail)practically all to yourself before the sleepy town becomes a bustling tourist stop.

Blue Jesus (I’ve called him this because he is both literally painted blue and because of his sorrowful expression) is the marker of your trail up Youngblood, but also a good wake-up call for groggy hikers because from a distance you can’t tell if it’s a statue or a person waiting at the trail.

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A couple important notes before you ascend:

  • Beyond Blue Jesus is private property, so be polite and don’t go exploring a local’s front yard.
  • The path up to the hills is steep, narrow and slippery. If you’re not a strong hiker or don’t have appropriate shoes, it’s best to come back another time. There is also a bit of incline when getting to the top of both hills, so stay hydrated and listen to your body to stop when needed.

If you do make it up Chihuahua Hill, you are rewarded with a great view of the town below and are privy to a shrine that’s maintained by its residents. You can see some of our photos from the site below, but it’s really worth a visit in person. There’s a sense of peace, joy and love you get when you look at these colorful tributes.

Pay your respects and please move around with care.

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Five Reasons to Love National Monuments

A MONUMENTAL STORY
Reasons to Love National Monuments

Many national monuments across the west are currently under fire from the federal government, but I think there are plenty of good reasons to support the continued protection of these areas, no matter what side you’re on. Here are some of mine:

  1. Monuments keep the American culture alive. National monuments (and the US’s many other protective parks) are a great way to maintain a beautiful country for ourselves and future Americans. Ours was a country built on the frontier and exploration, and national monuments play a key role in keeping that culture alive through the ages.

    Natural Arches NM, Utah (c) ABR 2017

  2. Monuments provide a long-term source of economic growth. Many of the alternative uses of monument land only provide short-term gains. Let’s take uranium mining as an example. This is a finite resource, and once it is removed, there is no way to renew its value to the communities involved. Furthermore, the land left behind is permanently (in the scope of a human lifespan) degraded (an example from Navajo lands). Alternatively, an industry like tourism does not consume a finite resource, and while it can degrade the environment in a variety of ways, these effects can be mitigated by policy and repairs are possible.

    Agua Fria NM, AZ (c) ABR 2017

  3. Monuments are a source of American pride. Did you know that the concept of national parks were developed in the United States? The system of land protection that we have has been one of our most successful legacies around the world. National monuments are a part of that, and it is something to be proud of. People travel from ALL OVER THE WORLD to see our beautiful country.

    Sunset Crater NM, AZ (c) ABR 2017

  4. Monuments protect American history. The Antiquities Act was designed to protect relics of the past, and landscapes are a part of that. Some of the best stories from our history, especially in the West, comes from the harrowing tales of women and men trying to make their way in an unforgiving and wild environment. Having the opportunity to see those landscapes as our ancestors did keeps our history alive and helps us appreciate what it took to build our country.

    Cabrillo NM, CA (c) ABR 2017

  5. Monuments provide many different services and resources to local people and visitors alike. I’m going to go back to the uranium example here (just because it is relevant to several of the western monuments). Mining provides jobs to miners, can support a community while the resource holds out, and it provides taxes as well. It is unlikely that many other services (e.g. clean water, recreation, etc.) will come from land used for this activity, and the companies selling this resource will take the lion’s share of benefits from uranium’s extraction. Monuments, on the other hand, provide jobs through tourism and management, revenue from fees, recreational opportunities, and a variety of services that support human health and happiness.

    Wupatki NM, AZ (c) ABR 2017

    If you’d like to let the government know what you think about national monuments, public comments are open until July 10th, 2017. You can comment here or through Monuments For All.

A Weekend in Bisbee: A Three-Day Itinerary for Nature and Culture in Southern AZ

Bisbee is a former mining town (current artist colony) south of Tucson near the AZ/Mexico border. It is the perfect place to experience historic, small town America.

Starting Point: Phoenix, AZ

Day One: Travel to Bisbee

The drive from Phoenix to Bisbee is about 3.5-4 hours depending on traffic.

Take your time driving down to scenic, little Bisbee.

If you leave in the morning or early afternoon; Tucson is a great place to stop by on the way.

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If you have time, the Mission San Xavier Del Bac or “White Dove of the Desert” is peaceful and great cultural stop in Tucson.

Day Two: Exploring Bisbee

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Can we tell you a little secret? 7 a.m. is prime strolling time around downtown Bisbee – not much is open, but the weather is wonderful and you get to walk around before the crowds.

 

If you are up for a morning stroll, walk up OK Street which will lead to the base of Youngblood Hill and will take you by some adorable Bisbee homes.

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You can a nice view of the town from either hill.

For strong hikers, there is also a trail at the end of the street that climbs up Chihuahua and Youngblood Hill. This path is steep, narrow and slippery, however, so hike at your own discretion. Be safe.

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There’s a shrine up on Chihuahua Hill that is definitely worth seeing. However, these are tributes to people’s loved ones so we cannot stress enough that the site needs to be treated with the utmost respect.

After going for a walk in the cool morning, head over to Lowell’s Bisbee Breakfast Club (http://bisbeebreakfastclub.com/locations/bisbee) for a diner experience, complete with massive portions.

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These pancakes are delicious and as big as your head – we’re not joking.

Head back to downtown Bisbee for a tour of the Copper Queen Mine (http://www.queenminetour.com/), where you will get to ride a little train into the heart of the mountain and learn about old copper mines from former miners. There are several tours throughout the day.

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These are our excited faces. But seriously, the mine tour is a must-see (especially if you’re a REALLY big fan of mining, or a history buff or just want to cool off.)

Spend the day strolling through Bisbee, checking out galleries, visiting historic hotels, and enjoying this small, colorful town.

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ALIENS.

After dinner, if it suits your fancy, wander the streets at night and learn about the many ghosts of this small town with Old Bisbee Ghost Tours (http://www.oldbisbeeghosttour.com/). These take place at 7 p.m. each day of the week.

Day Two: Kartchner Caverns and Getting Home

Catch breakfast in Old Bisbee or Sierra Vista.

Stop by Kartchner Caverns (https://azstateparks.com/kartchner/) to see one of the United States’ most colorful, living caves. You will not be disappointed in this special, natural attraction. It is about an hour from Bisbee to Kartchner.

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In the Visitor’s Center, you can take silly photos in the replicas of cave openings that the Kartchner explorers had to squeeze through and be thankful they did all the work for you.

 

 

Stop for lunch in Benson or Tucson, and then head back to Phoenix. It is about 2.5 hours from Kartchner to Phoenix depending on traffic.

Ending Point: Phoenix, AZ

Prep:

  1. Reserve a place to stay.
  2. Reserve a tour with the Old Bisbee Ghost Tours and Kartchner Caverns.
  3. Learn about some of the historic landmarks in the town to visit.
  4. Know the weather! Stay safe.

Solid Gas/Food Stops Along the Way:

  1. Tucson
  2. Benson
  3. Tombstone

Note: There are numerous small towns that also dot the way to Bisbee, but if you want guaranteed gas stations, fuel up in Tucson or Benson.

Parking

  1. Mostly free parking in Bisbee (there’s like one paid lot in the entire city), but be prepared for the lots (which are small) to basically be full after 10 a.m., at least on weekends.
  2. There’s plenty of street parking available, it just depends on how far you’re willing to haul your butt up and down a hill.
  3. Before you park, check if it’s residential. Don’t be a jerk and park in someone’s spot.

Places to Stay:

  1. Copper Queen Hotel (http://www.copperqueen.com/): This is a historic hotel in the middle of town. Perfectly central to all Bisbee’s attractions, and a great place for ghostly activity (for anyone interested).
  2. Hotel Lamore/Bisbee Inn (http://bisbeeinn.com/): A smaller alternative to the Copper Queen, this place is just as historic and ghostly. But it has traditional shared bathrooms, it will really bring you back.
  3. Plenty of alternatives throughout the town, and some good AirBnbs as well.

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