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

18 Reasons That You Should Go to Star Wars Celebration 2020

What is Star Wars Celebration

star wars celebration

(c) ABR 2019

If you’ve been to any comic convention, consider Star Wars Celebration to be THE convention for all things Star Wars. It’s that simple!

If you haven’t been to either, Star Wars Celebration is a gathering of people that love the franchise. This group includes celebrities, the people that helped make the movies and shows that we love, authors, artists, venders, cosplayers, and fans young and old. When you attend, you can shop the massive exhibit hall for shirts, art, collectibles, and all things Star Wars. You can go to panels to be part of discussions about the universe. You can listen to celebrities speak, or meet them for autographs and pictures. And there are often other activities throughout the con, like VR experiences, games, crafting and art spaces, and more.

For some, it’s a five day experience. For others, a single day of con is sufficient. And for the die-hard Star Wars fan, this is an event that might be planned for years.

Why You Should Consider Going

(1) Get close as close to the Star Wars universe as you can (without being at Disneyland or Disneyworld).
star wars celebration

(c) ABR 2019

The universe of Star Wars is full of alien worlds that many of us can only dream of ever visiting. However, many aspects of the franchise come to life at Celebration. The best cosplayers will make you feel like you are meeting the characters in real life. Some cosplaying groups also build sets and replica vehicles to explore and photograph. In 2019, Disney was also on the scene with an entire area devoted to its new, immersive Galaxy’s Edge land. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to visit one of the Disney parks, this is the best place to lose yourself in the world of Star Wars.

(2) Meet new Star Wars friends.

There are all kinds of Star Wars fans at Celebration, so no matter how hard-core you are, or what era of the films you love, you will be able to find your people at this convention. For the most outgoing among us, there are plenty of spaces to chat with new people in the halls and meet all kinds of cosplayers as they pose for pictures. There are also plenty of activities to bring people together; for shy people, these are great places to connect with new friends over a craft, game, or movie. Finally, there are even dating events, which can be a way to meet partners with similar interests. (Cosplay groups are also good for this. I met my husband at one.)

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A Budget-Friendly, Last Minute Disneyland Guide

Why Disneyland Doesn’t Need To Be Complicated

I’ve been traveling to Disneyland regularly since I was little. It’s one of my favorite places, and despite the growing crowds, I still love going. It’s odd, in light of my long track record of just going there, that there are so many detailed and lengthy guides for this huge California attraction. Looking at all this information, one would think that a trip to Disneyland requires months of planning and a budget just to buy all the gadgets that you will need before you even leave. So, can you do last minute Disneyland if you don’t live in the area?

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

Heck yes! Obviously, if you have kids, that makes things a little more complicated, but a trip to Disneyland can be simple and fun. Whether you’ve never been before or are an old pro trying to simplify, here are my Disneyland secret tips for a great time sans too much planning.

Tickets and Fast Passes

The main barrier to entry is of course, the ticket price. Seems like every year Disney increases the cost of a day at the park, so before you commit to going, always make sure that you update yourself on the current price for tickets. If you are on a budget, that will likely determine how long you can go for and that will influence every part of your last minute Disneyland plan. The most recent pricing scheme will make tickets more expensive during peak season, so factor the potential extra cost in. You can get up-to-date prices here: https://disneyland.disney.go.com/tickets/.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

While purchasing tickets you might also want to consider whether or not you’d like to pick up the MaxPass. This is an extra $15 and allows you to pick up FastPasses via an app. In theory, you can maximize your time this way and pick up passes faster than people without, although you are still limited to one active FastPass at the time. I am on the fence about this service being worth the money, although primarily because I experienced a service outage that lasted an entire day- making the MaxPass worthless. Luckily, if you just don’t think it’s worth it, or don’t have the extra cash, FastPasses in Disneyland still work if you bring your ticket to the kiosk at the entrance of the rides.

Hotels

There are loads of hotels around Disneyland, and as you might expect, some are more expensive than others. For those budget travelers among you, more distance between the hotel and the park means bigger savings, but you’ll need to find something that makes up for the cost of parking (if you aren’t willing to hoof it). If you park at Disneyland, you will be paying upwards of $30 a day.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

I’ve had some great luck with Hotwire for finding good deals in the area, but I will say, when it comes to finding a hotel that’s affordable but nice, you generally need time. This is one part of a last minute Disneyland trip that will be difficult for people on a tight budget.

Transportation

You have a few options for transportation and the most budget-friendly method will depend on where you are staying, but all can work for a last minute Disneyland trip. My favorite thing to do is stay close enough that I can walk to the park, and plenty of the hotels in the area have free shuttles.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

If neither of those work for you, Lyft and Uber can be a great way to get to the park without having to worry about parking. However, method will only be cost effective if you can get there and back for less than $30- that’s the cost of parking at Disneyland.

Food

One of the most budget-friendly Disneyland secret tips is that you can bring your own food and water into the park. While I love to eat all of the increasingly delicious foods in Disneyland, meals and snacks add up really fast, especially when you have kids with you. If you are all about trying all the good foods, you can also save a little bit of cash by bringing a refillable water bottle in with you and filling up at fill stations and water fountains.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

I have most recently become a Disneyland food fanatic, so I more than understand if you’d like to spend on some extra cash on food. I’d highly suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food on Youtube. They put out seasonal guides to all of the great treats and meals that you can try in Disneyland and California Adventure.

Suggested Itinerary

My favorite Disneyland secret tips are to try to spend a couple days mid-week in the park. These tend to at least give you a little bit of a break from the crowd, particularly in the morning. Quieter times in the park are the best times to jump in as many lines as you can before they get too long. Usually, I visit the park for 2-3 days, coming up from outside of LA.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

Of the two parks, Disneyland tends to be the more busy of the two (especially with the Star Wars section of the park opening in 2019), so I’d suggest going there first especially if that is the only weekday that you can swing on your last minute Disneyland trip. I can always spend more than a day in Disneyland, so if you feel likewise, you might consider returning for a second half-day or coming back for a third day. For you roller coaster riders, get fast-passes for Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones first.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

On the second day of your trip, take a little breather from the crowds and go to California Adventure. Overall, if you haven’t been before, this park doesn’t have quite the history or atmosphere of Disneyland, but it is becoming increasingly well-themed. If you like big rides, the fast passes to go for first are the Radiator Springs Racers, the Incredicoaster, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

For more California Travel Ideas…

…be sure to check out our Guide to California.

If you are looking to do a more thorough exploration of Southern California with Disneyland included on the itinerary, we also have the perfect travel plan for you.

last minute disneyland

last minute disneyland

Backyard Discoveries: Indiana Medical History Museum

Well, hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I haven’t forgotten about Backyard Discoveries, dear readers, even if this particular discovery is a little belated (by say, oh, maybe three months or so).

I visited Indiana in October, and one of the places I found on a list of must-sees was the Indiana Medical History Museum. I enjoy the weird and the historical, so this seemed like a perfect place to stop on a soon-to-be-rainy afternoon.

Indiana Medical History Museum

Things to Know Before You Go:

  • The museum is only about three miles west of downtown Indianapolis – stop by on your way to or from downtown!

  • If you visit, it’s through guided tour only. Which you’ll want anyway, because how else would you learn about the building and its history? Our docent was an absolute delight and firecracker. They were super knowledgeable about the museum, and also about the medical field – being a former nurse and current nursing professor.
    • No need to reserve a tour (unless you’re a larger group or perhaps need special accommodations),  as you can just show up. Tours are given every hour, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.
    • Admission is per person, but only $10 for adults and less for seniors and students. Might I also remind you that the museum is a non-profit and these fees help with funding (and so do donations, so feel free to give more if you feel so inclined).
  • Lastly and importantly, in case it wasn’t clear, this is a MEDICAL history museum. There are specimens. There is talk of cadavers. There is an autopsy table (pictured below). This building also was once part of the larger campus of a psychiatric hospital. If the thought of any of these things makes you or anyone in your party uncomfortable, do yourself and them a kindness and perhaps check out another Indianapolis attraction like the canal walk downtown instead!

The guided tour delves into the museum’s history, from the building’s inauguration in 1896 to its use as a place to study mental illness as a part of the former Central State Hospital.

You’ll get to see and learn about each room in this former pathological department, from a lecture amphitheater, to labs and even a photography room.

Not to be missed is the relics of their studies – slides, specimens and more. If you’re looking to see a slice of brain in a box or perhaps a full skeleton, this is the place for you.

That’s a wrap for this installment of Backyard Discoveries. And hopefully, it’s given you another idea of how to cure your little travel bug. See you next time!

Just what the doctor ordered,
Katie

Tips for A Unique LA Itinerary

LA itinerary

I grew up in Phoenix, AZ so I have been to Los Angeles more times than I can count. The last time that I visited, however, I forced my friends to come with me to some of the tourist spots that the city is famous for. My husband tried to warn me away from some of them, particularly the Walk of Fame, but let’s just say… sometimes I just need to see how bad something is before I can believe the stories. Luckily for me, it’s easy to go back to LA to discover the good about the city. Not everyone has that opportunity, so I’ve written up this detailed guide to some of the major attractions that you should and should not visit on your LA itinerary.

Famous Locations to Make Time For

Griffith Observatory

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

I’m going to be honest here and admit that I had no idea that the Griffith Observatory existed until I saw La La Land. So, the last time that I visited Los Angeles I wanted to give it a try and I ended up loving it. Whether you are a nature lover, fan of beautiful architecture, or just looking to snap a good picture of the Hollywood sign, this place belongs on your “what to do in LA” list.

The Observatory itself has a beautiful astronomy museum inside the building that is free to visit. There are talks and educational events throughout the day for all visitors as well. When I was there, I caught two talks, one about the iconic Foucault Pendulum in the entry rotunda and another about the mysterious Gottlieb Transit Corridor outside. In either case, it was a lot of fun to learn how these tools work and what we can learn from them. Adults and kids will enjoy the museum and it’s well worth an hour or more of your time.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Of course, you should also take some time to explore the outside grounds, because you will not only get a great view of the entire city from the Observatory vantage point, but the Hollywood sign is perched nearby. It’s a great place to indulge your inner tourist and snap a few pictures with the sign in the background.

Finally, if you are looking for a half-day experience, you might consider parking at the base of the mountain and then hiking up to the observatory. This will take you through a hilly, wooded area and give you a chance to escape the crowds for a bit.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Observatory itself is free, however parking is not. If you’d prefer to save some money or aren’t comfortable parallel parking, there is a bus that you can take up. The DASH Observatory bus will get you up the mountain from the Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line.

Disneyland

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Personally, as a Disney fan, I don’t think any LA itinerary would be complete without a trip to Disneyland. Even on the most crowded day, I just enjoy being in the park and taking in all the beautiful environments that have been created there. There’s really nowhere else in the world that you can wander from the Old West to a busy African marketplace in a matter a minutes.

Of course, Disneyland is a great place for families as well, although it is the most expensive attraction here by far. Some of my best memories as a kid were made in Disneyland, and of course, this is the best place to get great pictures with all of your favorite Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Besides the great rides, I enjoy trying all of the great foods in the park (something they have really upped their game on in the past couple years). If you want to keep updated on all the food news in Disneyland, I would suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food Youtube Channel.

All that being said, Disney recently increased their prices and last I read we are up to $150 a day during peak season and $104 otherwise. Parking is $25 per day on theme park grounds, so if you can, try to stay in one of the hotels that are within walking distance or have a shuttle. There are a few that aren’t overly expensive, surprisingly.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Lesser Known Locations that you MUST Visit

Little Tokyo

LA Itinerary

(c) ABR 2011

We have an entire post on Little Tokyo, so I always consider this in my “what to do in LA” lists. It isn’t a large area, but we never fail to spend a few hours there. In particular, if you have been to Japan, Little Tokyo will be a nice reminder of that beautiful country across the sea.

For a lovely afternoon in Little Tokyo, I would suggest going around lunch and planning to get dinner there as well. There is a lot of good food in this area, and they serve things that you really can’t get easily in other places. After lunch, take some time to visit the Japanese-American National Museum. This is a great place to learn about the history and vibrant lives of Japanese-Americans, from the shameful parts of our history to the beautifully unique art and culture that has resulted from the mixing of American and Japanese heritage. It is $12 dollars to get in for adults.

LA Interinary

(c) ABR 2011

After spending some time in the museum, taking in all the history and art, take time for a tasty snack or dessert and then enjoy the shopping in Little Tokyo. There is a ton of stuff that you would find in Japan, but also shops with unique items that mix Japanese and American culture with the unique character of the shop owners. It is a really great place to find a unique souvenir. Top the night off with some delicious Japanese food, or a downtown LA restaurant if you want to mix it up.

Parking in downtown LA is not free, so budget for parking; there is a big parking structure right next to Little Tokyo if you prefer to avoid street parking.

Santa Monica National Recreation Area

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

This is a massive national park unit, and there are definitely trails in the park that you will probably see in top ten lists here and there. But I would highly suggest getting out of the city a little bit to really explore this majestic slice of urban nature in your LA itinerary.

Solstice Canyon is a must-do. The trail there is not difficult or long, but the canyon is beautiful and ends at the ruins of a mansion. The nature and architecture tell a story unique to Los Angeles, so it is a great place to find a mix of my two favorite things, culture and nature. There is also a lovely picnic spot at the trailhead that’s the perfect place to eat lunch with the family.

For those of you looking for a harder hike, head up into the mountains to summit the tallest peak in the range, Sandstone Peak. It’s only a little over 3,000 feet, so it’s not extremely challenging but there are unparalleled views from the top. The ocean will be on one side and the city on the other, sandwiched in the middle will be you and the wilds of the mountains.

Best of all, this park is free, so you can wander at your leisure.

What to Avoid in your LA Itinerary

Walk of Fame

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Walk of Fame is my least favorite thing that I have ever done in LA, and I insisted on going the last time because I see it on so many “what to do in LA” lists! I just wanted to do the tourist thing and experience this place, but I ended up just absolutely hating it. Parking was extremely expensive compared to everywhere else in the city, and as soon as we walked out onto the street it was impossible not to notice how dirty the street was. The stores were little better for the most part.

Like any tourist trap, basically everything that you want to do here, besides just walking around will cost you something. And I just got a very predatory feel while I was there. I doubt that this is an area that many local people go to, so coming to the Walk of Fame just slaps a TOURIST sign on you. I’ve never liked that feeling and a few pictures of the Chinese Theater and the stars just don’t make the experience worth it.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The worst part of the whole thing was the people wandering around in costumes. Unless you want to pay to take a picture with one of them, stay far, far away. They like to fluster people with handshakes and then pull you in for a picture. One of them even grabbed a friend of mine in a very inappropriate way. It was very uncomfortable. As far as I know, none of these people are actually sanctioned to be there as those characters either. As an example, you might get manhandled by a Mickey or Chewbacca, and it’s not something that Disney would ever allow.

I’m sure there are people out there who have had a good experience on the Walk of Fame, but in my opinion, it just really isn’t worth your time. Save your money and go elsewhere. You can get great Hollywood pictures from Griffith Observatory, and there are plenty of unique spots in LA that you can go without the tourist scams and people trying to pull you into pictures with them for a buck.

Downtown LA in general

LA itinerary

From Wikimedia Commons

Besides Little Tokyo, I find downtown LA to be one of the worst downtowns that I have ever been to (and I’m from Phoenix). There is some really good food here, which is still worth the trip, but I would never spend the day walking around in the city like I would elsewhere. The streets are just dirty, and there isn’t a lot to see when you are walking around.

That being said, I feel a lot more ambivalent about this than the Walk of Fame. I think people that really love the city could keep this on their LA itinerary and have a good time. There are certainly some cool museums in the city and instagrammable spots, so it wouldn’t be impossible to enjoy an afternoon there. However, it certainly won’t be the best downtown experience that you have, and if you have limited time, this is definitely something that you can skip.

If you like this post, you might also enjoy:

LA intinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Enthusiasts

Escape the City in 5 LA National Parks

Nightborn Travel’s Guide to the California Channel Islands

LA Itinerary

LA Itinerary

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Enthusiasts

Southern California is an absolutely wonderful place for hikers and national park enthusiasts. There are deserts, beaches, mountains, and cities with attractions that I think any nature lover will enjoy. If you are like me, and love getting as much out of your vacation time as possible, this intense itinerary for a Southern California road trip is for you.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE

(1) Set up your trip to the Channel Islands with Island Packers in advance, and buy necessary permits from the National Park Service.

(2) If camping, be sure to have all of your permits squared away.

(3) Reserve your hotels/hostels/etc. and your rental car. If possible, rent an off-road vehicle.

(4) Bring all necessary safety equipment and hiking gear. Make sure a friend and/or family member has a detailed itinerary including the trails that you are planning on hiking.

DAY ZERO: STARTING IN LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles is a great starting place for this Southern California road trip, because it is the definitive capital of life in Southern California. There are tons of flights into the city and some of them are a great deal. That being said, there are some things about Los Angeles that make it a little difficult as well. LAX is a massive airport and can have issues with delays and construction, and the city itself is a warren of highways and crowded streets. I would suggest doing your best to time any drives through the city around traffic hour because it can literally take 2-3 hours to get across the city without lots of traffic jams.

DAY ONE: MT. BALDY

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

Mt. Baldy is the tallest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains that hem in the city from the east, and the trail to the summit is no joke. With about 3,900 feet of elevation gain and 11.3 miles from start to finish, the trek up this mountain is a challenge for all but the most seasoned of hikers. If hiking is something you enjoy, however, and you don’t mind the challenge, I highly recommend this hike. It took me about half a day to complete it, and to this day is probably one of the more difficult summits that I have completed.

The trail itself is really beautiful, and has some unique sections. The Devil’s Backbone was one of my favorites, where you follow the ridge of the mountain with major drop-offs on either side of you. There are also stretches of forest with tiny waterfalls, and of course the view from the top of the mountain may be one of the most amazing for this Southern California road trip.

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

If hiking isn’t your thing, not to worry, there is a ski lift that you can take up to the lodge part of the way up the mountain during the weekends. You can also enjoy the trails lower down on the mountain for nice day excursions.

If you’d like to go for the summit, however, park just past the Mather Flats Campground and hike towards San Antonio Falls. Just past the falls, you will find yourself at a fork in the trail. The trail to the right will take a more gradual (but long) route up the mountain to the ski hunt, and the other trail is a steeper, more direct route to the top. I would personally suggest taking the steeper route up, which I think will allow you to appreciate Devil’s Backbone and Baldy Bowl more, and you won’t destroy your legs with a steep downhill.

DETAILS
southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

For more detailed information on this hike, see Hikespeak’s post, which I used to plan my own trip. Note that you will need to purchase a pass for the national forest, and these can be picked up at the nearby gas stations on the road into the mountains.

STAY: Los Angeles Area, potentially near the Santa Monica Mountains if you’d like to avoid driving more the next day.

DAY TWO: THE SANTA MONICA NATIONAL RECREATION AREA

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The Santa Monica Mountains are partially managed by the National Park service, and they offer some really varied hiking as well as ocean views. I would suggest warming up in the morning in the foothills so that you can experience some of the rolling grasslands that are so characteristic of coastal southern California, then moving onto a visitor center to grab a park stamp and speak with the rangers. From there, I did the Solstice Canyon trail, which is pretty gradual and relaxing, and has the perfect picnic area for lunch.

For hikers, my next stop would be Sandstone peak, the high point in the Santa Monica Mountains, where you can get some amazing views of not only the city and the ocean, but the backbones of the mountain range itself.

In case you don’t want to do more hiking that day, you can also head out from Solstice Canyon and spend the day exploring Malibu and enjoying the beach.

DETAILS
southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Hiking in Santa Monica is free in National Park lands.

For more information on the Santa Monica Mountains see our guide to the best hikes in the park.

Note that the Woolsey Fire damaged this area in 2018, so I would suggest checking with the park website and/or rangers to get the latest information on what’s open at the time that you visit.

STAY: Ventura, CA

DAY THREE: THE CHANNEL ISLANDS

southern California road trip

Santa Rosa (c) ABR 2018

There are an endless number of trips that you could plan for the Channel Islands, and I would suggest looking through our guide to help you decide. If you only have a day to spare on your Southern California road trip, I would suggest taking a day trip to Anacapa or Santa Cruz. But if you have more time, consider camping on Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa where you can explore the unique landscape of the islands more thoroughly on the trails and sea (if you like kayaking/snorkeling). If water-based activities are more your thing, Anacapa can also be a great place to camp, because there is a ton of kayaking and out-of-this-world kelp beds there.

DETAILS
southern California road trip

Santa Rosa (c) ABR 2018

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you have reservations with Island Packers before you leave for your trip, because without that, you won’t have access to the islands. If you are camping, you will also need a reservation with the park service. Prices will vary with the location that you choose and the length of the trip you decide to devote to these beautiful islands.

STAY: Ventura, CA

DAY FOUR-FIVE: SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

It’s about a 4-hour drive from Ventura to Sequoia, so get an early start. Once you reach the foothills, consider enjoying a picnic near Lake Kaweah or grabbing food in one of the small cafés in the Three Rivers Area. Then work your way up into the mountains through Sequoia. Of course, the stars of this park are the redwoods, which you will start to see in the higher reaches of the mountains. On the way up, stop by Hospital Rock, the Crystal Cave (summer only), and the Giant Forest Museum. But of course, make sure that you leave plenty of time for the redwood forest. The General Sherman Tree is a must-see and there are lots of lovely trails among the giants to explore.

On day two, continue exploring the forest landscape in Kings Canyon (if you go during the summer). Enjoy the beautiful views of the canyon, and enjoy some mild hiking (unless you still have tons of energy). Note that the road through this park is closed during the winter.

DETAILS
southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The $35.00 vehicle pass covers both parks and lasts for 1-7 days.

There are lots of road closures in both parks during the winter as well as strict rules about chains and four-wheel drive when there is snow. You can rent chains in the Three Rivers area on your way up if you need to, just keep your eyes open while passing through the small towns.

STAY: If you can, I would highly suggest trying to get a room in one of the lodges in the parks. If that isn’t possible, stay in one of the small towns in the mountains.

DAY FIVE-SIX: DEATH VALLEY

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

It is about 5.5 hours from Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park, so I would plan a quiet day driving to some of the main spots in the park. Mesquite Flat Dunes, the Badwater Salt Flats, Artist’s Palette, and consider Dante’s View for sunset are some of the main things that you could consider checking out to get your lay of the park.

On day two in Death Valley I would pull my hiking boots back on. We have a detailed list of my favorite hikes in the park, but there are so many trails in Death Valley. There really is something for everyone. In order to see the most while you are there, I would suggest a mix of short trails and more moderate length trails and a nice mix of the different aspects of this unique desert landscape. If you want to do a major summit hike, Death Valley also has options like Wildrose Peak (8 miles) and Telescope Peak (14 miles).

DETAILS
southern California road trip

Road trip rental car in Death Valley (c) ABR 2018

The park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle for 7 days.

STAY: There aren’t a lot of places to stay near the park, so if you can afford it, I would try to stay in Furnace Creek.

DAY SEVEN: MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Mojave National Preserve is one of the lesser known spots on this epic Southern California road trip, but this desert is full of unique landscapes and hikes. It is a great place for hikers and nature lovers to escape the crowds and see a place that mixes some of the best aspects of Death Valley and Joshua Tree.

We have a detailed description of hikes in this National Park unit here, but I would highly suggest the Teutonia Peak and Hole-In-The-Wall trails. These aren’t too hard but offer some amazing views of the park, as well as some very fun trail experiences. There is also a historic landmark in the park, the Kelso Depot, and access to Mitchell Caverns State Park ($10 entrance fee and $10 for a cave tour- get reservations ahead of time here).

DETAILS
southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The Mojave National Preserve has no entrance fee.

It is about 2 hours from Death Valley National Park to Baker, CA just outside of Mojave; it is then 1.5 hours from Kelso to Twentynine Palms.

STAY: Twentynine Palms area

DAY EIGHT: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Joshua Tree National Park has become extremely well known in the past couple years for its climbing, fascinating rock structures, and its chill vibe. For hikers, and road trippers, this national park has a huge variety of stops and trails. Hidden Valley is my personal favorite spot in the park and is suitable for people of all hiking abilities. Ryan Mountain offers a more difficult trek, although it is relatively short, and for those looking for a big summit challenge, consider the Pinto Summit (details here). Other spots to see in the park include Keys Views and Cottonwood Spring, although if you have time I would give all of the big points in the park a stop. For more details.

DETAILS

$30 vehicle entrance fee

STAY: Palm Springs

DAY NINE: PALM SPRINGS

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

By this point, I would be pretty tuckered out, so the next few days will give you time to rest and ready yourself for the journey home at the end of your Southern California road trip.

First stop for this rejuvenation is Palm Springs. This small city is known for its mid-century modernist architecture, adorable downtown stretch, and characteristic palm springs. If you are interested in seeing some of the architecture, look here for details. If you still have the energy to hike, this guide will give you the details about hikes to some of the desert oases that this city is named for.

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

I would highly recommend the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for any kind of traveler. It is about $26 dollars to ride, and the views from the tram and top of the mountain are absolutely beautiful. There are also hikes and nice walks at the top so you could make this into a whole day if you wanted, or a half day trip.

STAY: Palm Springs or Los Angeles

DAY TEN: LOS ANGELES

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

After all your hiking and exploring, it is time for the last day of the Southern California road trip before you head home.

If you are a Disney fan, treat yourself to a day in Disneyland/California Adventure.

If you want to get a taste of Los Angeles before you leave, I would suggest visiting the Griffith Observatory, which is free, and Little Tokyo in the downtown area. The Observatory has some more hiking, if you are a real champ, but there is plenty to see there even without a trek. There is a small museum in the observatory which is free (although you will need to pay for parking), and this is a great place to take pictures of the Hollywood sign and the city.

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Little Tokyo is also free to visit, but you will need to pay for parking. There is TONS of Japanese food in this area as well as great shopping. I usually spend 3-5 hours here shopping, eating and visiting the Japanese American National Museum ($12).

STAY: Los Angeles

NEXT DAY: HEAD HOME

southern California road trip

southern California road trip

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

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