Tag: Road trip

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

Cautionary Tales for the Concerned Traveler: The Story of the Key Deer and Speeding

The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect  and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.

Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.

Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here – https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/1997/Whats-Killing-the-Key-Deer.aspx).

So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.

Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

Beyond the Overseas Highway: Three Fabulous Places for Nature and History in the Florida Keys

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

For most, the Florida Keys is an alluring road trip destination due to the Overseas Highway, which takes drivers through the keys and over the ocean, as its name suggests. The sights and sounds of the Florida Keys may be a little bit disappointing to nature lovers when the ocean is out of sight, because human habitation here feels thick and unending. But as I always say, there is something for everyone in all destinations, and the Keys are no exception. So, fellow outdoorswomen and men, here are my top three activities for you in the Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Seventy miles west of Key West lay the seven small islands of the Dry Tortugas, now home to the historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Fort construction began in 1846 but even after 30 years of progress, it was never completed. This massive complex was meant to help the United States control the Caribbean Sea, its strategic position is pretty clear even to the casual onlooker. The fort itself offers at least an hour or more of thorough exploration, with three levels and the sandy trail that loops around its top and base. But aside from the fort, the Dry Tortugas are also a splendid place to snorkel, and in the right season, you can get some casual hiking in as well. Mid-October to mid-January is when the beaches of Bush Key are open – a unique ecosystem and an important nesting ground for several species of marine birds. The easiest way to get out here is with the Yankee Freedom, which can either take you out for the day, or deposit you on Garden Key for some camping.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Arguably, Biscayne is more part of Miami than the Florida Keys, but the main part of this Floridian wonder is the tail end of the Keys, along the shore of the mainland. There is a visitor center on the mainland, but this is really just a gateway to the keys that are part of this protected area including Adams Key, Elliot Key, and Boca Chita Key. While they are close to Key, they aren’t accessible by land, so taking a day tour with one of the companies that works with the National Park Service is necessary if you want to snorkel, kayak or hike in the park.

Florida Key State Parks

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

So, we have nice nature stops at the base of the Keys, and far out to sea past Key West, but what about all those islands in the middle? Is there anything other than concrete bridges and strip malls? Well, of course! First of all, there are plenty of places to park at near the bridges where you can stop to fish or walk around. But more importantly, there are multiple state parks throughout the Keys that give you a glimpse into what these islands were like before humans started paving them. Florida Hikes has a great post about this that I referenced when driving through. You can give yourself a driving break AND support Florida’s protected areas, making checking out these parks a true travel perk.

If you enjoy this post, you may want to learn more about the Florida Keys:

Travlinmad’s A First Timers Guide to Key West

If you want to see manatees in the Florida Keys, be sure to look at MBsees Manatees! Enough Said.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-16-18-pm

Guide to the Southern Arizona Ghost Town Road Trip (Day Two)

Made with Google Maps

Made with Google Maps

On December 1st, Nightborn Travel posted about Day One of our Southern Arizona Ghost Town Roadtrip, and this post will finish our guide to this journey through some of Arizona’s (sort of) abandoned and historic towns, including our stay in Tombstone, and our visits to Charleston and Fairbank. This area has a somewhat shared history, as Tombstone was once home to the silver mine that provided ore to the mills of Charleston and Fairbanks, which processed the ore into metallic bars that could be more easily transported for sale and refinement.

Tombstone Bordello (c) K. Arrington 2016

Tombstone Bordello (c) K. Arrington 2016

After deciding that Gleeson wouldn’t appreciate us snooping around, we drove the short 30 min road to Tombstone, where we were spending the night in the Tombstone Bordello. We wanted to stay in a hotel with some history, and the Bordello certainly has that because it was originally the home of Big Nose Kate. For those of you not familiar with Tombstone’s cast of characters, Kate is primarily known for her relationship to the infamous Doc Holliday, as well as her work in the “world’s oldest profession.” Although she is well known for her illicit activities, I think it is well worth noting that Kate made her way in the world in a time when options for women were extremely limited, and she was an legitimate entrepreneur as much as she took advantage of businesses that some would consider less legitimate. We enjoyed our time in the Bordello. The people working there were friendly, the rooms were very cozy, and the included breakfast was delicious.

Big Nose Kate's Saloon in Tombstone (c) ABR 2016

Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone (c) ABR 2016

Our experience of Tombstone itself was less pleasant, so I will preface this short review of the town by saying that many people do enjoy it, so doing some of your own research on the location and what it has to offer would be good. Tombstone has been very transformed by tourism in both good and bad ways. Tourism has allowed this historic town to persist in fairly good health into the modern era, which is wonderful, but it has commidified nearly everything there. There are some spots, like Boothill Graveyard, which are not too expensive, as they only request a donation for entry, but just about everything else has a price tag. The food options in the main tourist area are also subpar in terms of cost, service, and taste. The cool thing about stopping here is that if you walk down Allen Street, it is easy to imagine that you are in a western movie. The buildings are classic, and if you don’t mind spending some money, there are some interesting spots, like the Bird Cage Theater, which I hear is haunted.

Remnants of Charleston (c) K. Arrington 2016

Remnants of Charleston (c) K. Arrington 2016

Charleston was our first stop on Day Two, once we had packed up and left Tombstone and the lovely Bordello behind. It was actually quite hard to find, because it has been all but destroyed. This is due to the fact that Charleston’s abandonment after Tombstone’s mines began closing was exasperated by an earthquake in 1887, and the remnants of the ghost town were further decimated when the US army used the site to train for urban warfare during WWII. All that we managed to find were the foundations of some of the town’s buildings, and our guide was not specific enough about how to find the site. So, here are some updated directions: If you are traveling from Tombstone, take Charleston Road for 8.3-8.5 miles. Look for a fire danger sign on the right side of the road, and turn onto the dirt road on the same side that is just behind the sign (this will also be before the bridge that crosses over the San Pedro River). You will pass a trailhead there, but we suggest driving a little further past the bathroom and parking at the second trailhead. There are signs there for the Millville petroglyph discovery trail. Take this for a short ways, and then turn left down a small side trail after a warning sign about used munitions in the area. PLEASE HEED THE SIGN! If you want to visit Charleston, you should keep your eyes peeled for anything potentially dangerous left behind from military testing there.

Bridge over the San Pedro (c) K. Arrington 2016

Bridge over the San Pedro (c) K. Arrington 2016

After we snapped a few pictures of Charleston, we also took this opportunity to visit the San Pedro River near the bridge. I would definitely suggest doing the same, and if you are a hiker, you might consider setting aside enough time to hike up to Millville (which we were unable to do). This trail also connects to Fairbanks, but unless you want to hike all day, and/or have a shuttle up there, I wouldn’t suggest it just due to time constraints.

Post office in Fairbank (c) K. Arrington 2016

Post office in Fairbank (c) K. Arrington 2016

Finally, when we were done in finding Charleston, we drove to Fairbank, which is a ghost town that is now maintained for visitors by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and is free to visit. Due to the fact that Fairbank’s historic nature has been maintained, and is set aside for people to come and experience, it was my favorite ghost town of the entire trip. It was much more comfortable to wander around in than the towns where people still lived, and it lacked the tourist flavor of Tombstone. While many of the buildings here have not been restored to the point that visitors can enter them, the schoolhouse has been renovated and also serves as a museum and visitor’s center. The people working here were extremely friendly and knew all about the history of the town, as well as the wildlife and trails of the area. Besides the town itself, there is a nice loop trail that you can take to the Fairbank graveyard (home to many unmarked graves belonging to people murdered in Charleston and tossed in the river, coincidentally), as well as what is left of the mill that sustained the town in the past. The hike up this trail was beautiful, and overall, Fairbank offered me the best window into this region’s past.

Fairbank's graveyard (c) ABR 2016

Fairbank’s graveyard (c) ABR 2016

We would appreciate any comments that you have on this post! What do you think about ghost towns? Have you visited any that are discussed here? What was your experience? Also, please feel free to ask us any questions about the trip, as we would be happy to help anyone looking to explore these locations. Finally, come back on the 20th to learn about Katie’s journey to Red Rock Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah.

Summing Up the Trip to Scotland

Made with Google Maps

Made with Google Maps

Day 1: Rest in Edinburgh. We took this day to explore the Royal Mile a little bit, and travelled by bus. Accommodation: AirBnb

Day 2: Edinburgh to Inverness (~3.5 hour drive). People in Edinburgh were dubious that we could make this drive in a day, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is because these people weren’t used to driving long distances. Google Maps says that this drive takes about 3.5 hours, although the two lane roads will slow you down. I would suggest leaving early in the morning for this drive, as there are some really cool things to see on the way. We stopped to hike around Loch Morlich in Cairngorm National Park. The hike was great, but we ended up not being able to ride the train up Cairngorm because we were too late. Accommodation: Touchwood House – This place was quaint but nice, and with free breakfast. It is also in a VERY nice neighborhood of Inverness.

Day 3: Inverness to Wick (2.5 hour drive). We drove a little out of our way on this day in order to see Urquhart Castle. The castle itself is mostly in ruins, but it is located on the shore of Loch Ness, so it is a great stop. Accommodation: Ackergill Tower– This is a very expensive hotel built on the northern coast of Scotland in what appears to be a stately castle. If you have the money to stay here, I would recommend it. For more info on this leg of the journey, see my blog entry here.

Day 4: Wick to Lochinver (~4+ hours). Our first stop this day was John O’Groats, or Scotland’s most northern point (not including its islands). Then we headed down into the highlands, and stopped at Smoo Cave on the way. This was the most scenic day of driving, but it was also fairly difficult. This part of road has many long sections of one lane roads- yes, one lane. You have to drive slowly, and when someone is coming in the opposite direction, you need to pull over and let people pass. It is not a place for impatient or rude drivers, so if you drive yourself out this way, be sure to expect to travel at a leisurely place, and be prepared to let people pass you in either direction. Accommodation: Inver Lodge Hotel– Nice, but pretty standard.

Day 5: Lochinver to Shieldaig (~2.5 hours). We did a good amount of hiking on this day as we took our time traveling south. This included a leisurely stroll in Little Assynt Estate, and a hike along the coast near Gairloch. Here we learned that you should be prepared for mud and ticks when hiking in the highlands. For more info on this leg of the journey, see my blog entry here. Accommodation: The Shieldaig Lodge: Very cozy little place, that has some nice character and good food. I would highly recommend it.

Day 6: Shieldaig to Portree (~2 hours straight). We did a lot more driving on this day than the time between the two cities that we stayed in suggests, because we took this day to not only get to the Isle of Skye, but to explore as well. We went to the Fairy Pools first, had to park about a mile away from the trailhead due to how busy it was, and then we hiked for a couple hours. After that we went to Dunvegan Castle, which I would honestly say wasn’t worth leaving the pools early to see. It was my least favorite of the castles we experienced. After that, we drove around the northern peninsula of the island, hitting the Museum of Island Life, the Kilt Rocks, and we stopped for a far away picture of the Old Man of Skorr (which was again very busy so we opted to not walk all the way down the street). Accommodation: The Portree Hotel. This was a nice historic hotel, with pretty small but updated rooms, and a nice restaurant.

Day 7: Portree to Oban (~3.5 hours). On the way down to Oban, we stopped at the Nevis Range, and took the gondolas as high as they go. There was some beautiful hiking up there, as well as a restaurant, which didn’t have great food, but it was a nice enough snack. I wanted to actually hike Ben Nevis, but we weren’t prepared, so this was a nice alternative. In the evening, we went to explore Oban, but we didn’t really find much to do there. Accommodation: The Royal Hotel. This was our second to least favorite hotel on the trip, so I would suggest staying somewhere else if possible, and if you have to stay here, don’t allow them to put you on the top floor. It is really really hot up there in the summer.

Day 8: Oban. We took the Three Island Tour on this day, hitting the Isle of Mull, Staffa, and Iona. Sadly, this tour doesn’t spend much of any time on Mull at all, you just drive across the island with an automated explanation for a few things. The visit to Staffa and Iona was perfect though, and I really enjoyed this day. For more info on the Inner Hebrides, see my blog entry here.

Day 9: Oban to Edinburgh (~3 hours). On our way back down to Edinburgh, we stopped in Stirling (I would have loved to see Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park as well, but we didn’t have time). While there we spent a few hours at Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which I would recommend. Accommodation: Dalmahoy Marriot. After staying in Scottish hotels throughout our trip, this was place a rude awakening to the mediocre nature of cookie-cutter hotels. More so, this was an expensive hotel that didn’t live up to its price, in my opinion. The food and service at their restaurant was subpar and there is nothing included in the price of the room (aka no free wifi).

Day 10: Edinburgh. We went back to the Royal Mile for the day. We really needed more time there, and we managed to hike up Arthur’s Seat, see Edinburgh Castle, and do Mary King’s Close in one day. Of these, I would really highly suggest Arthur’s Seat to anyone who enjoys hiking, although it is just as busy as you would expect an urban hike. Mary King’s Close is also a great tour to check out as you get to see a new side of Edinburgh and learn from neat history along the way.

Day 11: Caerlaverock and Craignethan Castles. We ran out of things to do in Edinburgh, and got tired of the crowds, so we drove down south to see some more castles. Both of these are more like ruins than the Stirling or Edinburgh Castles, but they are in better shape than Urquhart. I would highly suggest them to anyone with the means to make it out there, as they are fun to explore and are surrounded by some lovely countryside. See Castles and Cities of Scotland for more information.

Another note for hikers:

(1) Walkinghighlands.com was the best resource that I found for looking up hikes in Scotland. If you are hoping to do some hiking (walking) in the wilderness, please give this website a peek. They rate the trails, and provide really good directions.

For September 1st, I am not going to be posting new material. The semester is starting up again, so I think it will be nice to have a little break, but I also want to get some pages up on my blog here and get all my social media outlets connected. So, I will be working on that for the next couple weeks.

The Scottish N500: The Scenic West Coast of Scotland Part Two

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Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

One of our first stops on the N500, after John O’Groats, was a place called Smoo Cave . I simply love caves (although I have not had the chance to go caving, I have visited caves in several different countries and continue to make it a priority when I travel), so based on that and my immediate love for the name, I just had to check this place out. The outer part of the cave that opens out onto the beach is a sea cave, while the inner cave, past the waterfall is a karst cavern. For the casual passerby, there is a section of Smoo that is freely available to anyone that hikes down the path that winds its way down the sea cliffs from the parking lot to the beach-front. This includes a large, stone room that is covered by a thin carpet of green, and a wooden walkway that leads back to a view of the waterfall that is the main visual prize of the location if you can’t go on the tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the tour ourselves, although it was very affordable, because we weren’t sure when the last group had left, and we didn’t want to wait around for a half hour for the next one. Pretty lame excuse! But we did still have a lot of driving left to do, and the weather was steadily going downhill, so we weren’t even sure that there would be another tour at that time, since rain can cause flooding in the cave.

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The bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh (c) ABR 2016

The views coming south from Smoo Cave south to Lochinver were some of my favorite from the trip, and heavens, I was sad that we weren’t prepared for a hard hike. For one, if you ever drive this way- please stop at the turn off just north of the bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh. The bridge isn’t particularly artful, although it is oddly pleasing to the eye… perhaps due to the juxtaposition of the concrete structure and the towering highland mountains beyond. The Lochs are breathtaking too, and I hate to say it, but in my opinion, much more beautiful than Loch Ness, although they are much smaller and lack a prehistoric monster (as far as we know). Driving past the bridge (south) you will then get some great views of the mountains that have stuck in my mind ever since the trip- three peaked Quinag to the west and Glas Bheinn to the east. Even when we visited the Isle of Skye, there were not mountains that outmatched these for beauty and mystique, in my opinion. And regardless, they are both great examples of highland mountains, and worth a gander if you like challenging hiking.

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Little Assynt Estate (c) ABR 2016

There is also some easier walks that you can check out on the way down from Lochinver to Gairloch. For instance, the Little Assynt Estate has a very nice area to walk around in with great views of a little loch and the mountains, as well as a place to sit and relax (and maybe fish as well?). The trails are dry and mostly flat here as well, so they make for a nice break from driving if you don’t have the proper equipment for a highland hike. We also walked up from Gruinard Bay to Eas Dubh Falls – which was a nice stroll along the beach, but the hike itself, up from the ocean into the hills to the waterfall, was quite boggy. Due to this, and our lack of proper, high-top hiking boots, forced us to walk through the bracken more than I would have liked, and I ended up getting a tick. So, do plan ahead, bring good, waterproof shoes, and be aware that Scotland does, in fact, have ticks. I definitely did not regret this second hike, however, as the waterfall was beautiful and the trail was deserted.

If you want to see more picture of my journey through Scotland, as well as past pictures, check out my travel Tumblr here.

On July 1st, I am planning on posting about the cities and castles of Scotland.

Feel free to leave relevant comments and/or questions below.

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Eas Dubh Falls (c) ABR 2016

Nevada Road Trip: Day Three and Four: Valley of Fire State Park and Stops Along the Way

Generated on Google Maps

Generated on Google Maps

After our morning at Lehman Caves, we started our way south, and took the park ranger’s advice on things to see as we headed towards the Nevada town of Mesquite where we were planning on staying for the night. Our first stop was the semi-obscure Parowan Gap Petroglyphs in Utah, which we were fairly certain we would miss on the road. However, just north of Cedar City we managed to see the signs pointing to the petroglyphs, and stopped to check them out. The area is named for the geological feature called a “gap” which is formed by wind and ancient rivers as they carve their way through rock. The gap is now home to a paved road, but as much as it attracts travelers in modern times, the gap attracted historic

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Native Americans as well, who left their beautiful art behind. The area is currently managed by the BLM, and while there is little more here than a fence keeping hikers away from the ancient carvings, and a dirt road to park, the Parowan Gap isn’t far from the main highway, so it is worth a stop. Petroglyphs are some of the most ancient art that we have, and it is always good to connect with the people of the past, and appreciate the landscapes that inspired them to create.

(c) AB Raschke

Kolob Canyons (c) AB Raschke

Heading further south, past Cedar City, we ran into a small part of Zion National Park- Kolob Canyons. I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing our visit here, because I think Zion deserves an entire post on its own, and I actually haven’t had the opportunity to visit the main section of the park. At any rate, Kolob Canyons is a great place to visit while traveling down the 15 towards Arizona. It showcases the red rock mountains that make Zion so famous, and so it is nice place to site-see and hike. Unfortunately, when I visited, there was still snow on the ground, which created a beautiful contract between the green of the sparse, ever-greens, the red of the mountain-sides, and brilliant white of the snow. However, this also meant that the trails were muddy, and hiking in my normal, light-weight Merrell Lithe Gloves was somewhat difficult in the circumstances. In better weather, and with better equipment, hiking during the early spring would have been nice. Kolob Canyons was fairly quiet when we visited, which is most likely rare during the high season.

(c) AB Raschke

Valley of Fire (c) AB Raschke

I’m a little hesitant to say it, but Zion wasn’t the highlight of this leg of our trip though. Rather, the Valley of Fire , a Nevada State Park that I had no idea existed before the Great Basin park ranger told us about it, turned out to be one of the most amazing things that we saw. In my defense though, it was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1968 (according to Wikipedia), and it has been a park since the mid 1930s, so I guess its appeal has been long-term as well. The park itself is characterized by some literally awesome sandstone formations- most of them a brilliant red in color, but the park is also home to formations of a variety of colors, which create some unbelievable vistas.

For travelers like us, who just had a few hours to spend in the park, but wanted to see as much as possible, the size and organization of the park is perfect (although, as I write this, I wonder about its impact on the ecology). There are picturesque roads leading to all the best formations, which can be easily reached and explored. There are also some moderate-easy trails for visitors like

Valley of Fire (c) AB Raschke

Valley of Fire (c) AB Raschke

myself that want to wander. In fact, some of my favorite memories from the Valley of Fire come from the trails where you can walk though narrow canyons of sandstone or over massive waving, dunes of ancient sand deserts.

There is also camping in the park, and a very nice visitor center, so overall, it is just a great place to visit, and definitely a highlight of our Nevada trip. The other nice thing about the Valley of Fire is that it is right next to the Lake Mead Recreational Area, so we were able to avoid driving through Las Vegas on our way home, and enjoyed the beautiful and varied landscapes that surround the lake.

I think I will be taking a break coming up, so don’t expect a post on May 1st. I have way too much going on with my graduate research right now.

If you have any questions about my experience in Nevada and Arizona or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

Nevada Road Trip Part One: From Phoenix to Great Basin

Created by Google Maps

Created by Google Maps

I have a life goal to see all of the national parks in the United States, which is easier said than done, because there are a lot of them! But so far, this has led me to visit more than a few places that I didn’t previously know existed, and I haven’t regretted any of them. One of the national parks that I had never heard of was Great Basin, which seemed fascinating based on its name and its location north of Las Vegas in Nevada, an area that I had never explored. My dad and I were further intrigued by this place after learning that it is home to the Bristlecone Pine, one of the longest lived life forms on the planet. Finally, when we had a few days free, we decided to take a road trip up to Great Basin, and without much planning we ended up visiting several beautiful and intriguing places. The following account will mostly cover the places that we visited during this road trip, but I will also highlight a few places along the way that would be worth stopped at but which we didn’t have the time to visit.

Day One: Setting Out

(c) Sweet Tea @ http://www.rentcafe.com/blog/cities/great-phoenix-day-trip-lake-pleasant/

Lake Pleasant (c) Sweet Tea @ http://www.rentcafe.com/blog/cities/great-phoenix-day-trip-lake-pleasant/

The first day of our road trip didn’t start until 15:00, so our only goal was to make it up into Nevada for our first night. Luckily, the drive between Phoenix and the Las Vegas area is pretty nice, and it would actually have several good stops along the way for travelers with a full day. First, Lake Pleasant is worth a stop for anyone that hasn’t been, as it is a good example of Arizona’s artificial lakes, even if it isn’t one of the most beautiful. After living in the desert for a few years, it is hard to not appreciate water where-ever you find it, and besides some good desert winds for sailing, Lake Pleasant also has some nice hikes nearby in the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Furthermore, this area is home to wild burros, which I have seen on several occasions, and they are some great charismatic megafauna to see in the Sonora.

Further down the road, there is also the Hassayampa River Preserve just outside of Wickenburg. I actually haven’t made it to this area before, so I don’t have any personal experience with it yet, but it is somewhere that I hope to visit in the near future. Another oasis in the desert, the river preserve protects something that is rare now in Arizona, a river still flowing in its banks, thanks to the Nature Conservancy. There are plenty of trails here, and like Lake Pleasant it is good to experience any water that the desert has to offer, even more so, in places where some natural riparian ecosystems remain.

Hoover Dam at Night (c) AB Raschke

Hoover Dam at Night (c) AB Raschke

Of course, the biggest attraction between Phoenix and Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam, which we hit around 20:00. When I initially envisioned this trip last year, I had hoped to visit during the day and take a tour of the Dam. There is actually quite a bit there to see and do during the day, and in any case, this place is a major historical landmark for the country, and it has also shaped the Southwest in a very serious way. Las Vegas certainly owes its size to the resources provided by the dam, and the life-line of the Central Arizona Project shows the link between Phoenix and the Colorado River. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a tour this time around, but the dam is open to visitors until 21:00. So, we at least got to drive across the dam, park and take pictures of the landmark at night. It was a very peaceful place without the crowds, and there were some good views of the stars to boot.

Our day ended in Boulder City, where we spent the night in a Quality Inn a mere five minutes from Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Day Two: Through the Desert to the Great Basin

(c) AB Raschke

Lake Mead (c) AB Raschke

Before we hopped in the car for the day, I dragged my dad to Lake Mead, because I had to get my national parks passport stamped and I wanted to go on a little hike before our journey. As it turned out, we found a really great little trail outside of the fee area, and we both really enjoyed this stroll. The Historic Railway Trail is right by the entrance to the park, and as its name implies, this trail follows the former track of the railroad that brought materials from Boulder City to the site of Hoover Dam as it was being built. Besides the great views of lake from the trail, we really enjoyed getting to see the massive tunnels that were built through the mountains in order to fit the large pieces of dam equipment through. From the trailhead to the first tunnel is about a mile, so it was a great section of the trail to walk when we only had a limited amount of time.

From Wikipedia

Lower Lake Pahranagat Lake From Wikipedia

From Boulder City to Baker was quite a drive. Most of the towns that we passed, besides Las Vegas, were quite small. Alamo, which is perched just north of Pahranagat Lake, didn’t have much to offer along the side of the road, and when we asked about places to grab lunch there, the gas station attendant only told us about two different restaurants. We ended up at the Windmill just north of the town, and it was quiet enjoyable. Not only did they have some good standard American fare, but they also had a nice little bakery where we got a fresh cookie and a lemon square.

From there on out, we entered the Great Basin region, which gave us a taste for what we would see and learn more about in the National Park. This region is characterized by parallel ranges of mountains, which remind me of the sky islands in Arizona, rising up out of the dry lowlands to peaks of lush forests. The lowlands, instead of being Arizona desert, however, were large, flat plains of sagebrush and grasses, where we spotted herds of cows and even a few ranchers on horseback.

Once we got to Baker, we were somewhat surprised at how small the town at the gateway to Great Basin NP was. In fact, since we traveled to the park out of season, there were no open restaurants, and according to Wikipedia the population is 68. That being said, we had a reserved a great little place to stay for the night called the Get-Away Cabin. The owner was very friendly and welcoming, and she even bakes her guests delicious little loaves of banana bread.

Baker Archaeological Park (c) AB Raschke

Baker Archaeological Park (c) AB Raschke

After getting some tips about what to do in the park the at the visitor’s center for the next day, we drove a few miles out of town to check out the Baker Archaeological Site, which wasn’t much more than a few outlines of Fremont buildings among the sagebrush. There was some good information in a little guide book that the BLM provided at the site, however. After a short stop there, we made it out to the Border Inn where we enjoyed a delicious dinner, and picked up some groceries.

Day 3 and 4 to come on April 1st! And Washington DC… someday!

If you have any questions about my experience in Nevada and Arizona or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

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