Costa Rica– the land of volcanoes, lush rainforests, and endless entry fees to private “reserves”. If you have ever visited this beautiful country, you probably experienced the entry-fee fatigue that many outdoor enthusiasts start to feel a few days into their stay.
We are currently spending three weeks in the beautiful Monteverde region, and have already begun to dread that constant nickel and diming that happens when trying to access any hiking trails. For those of you who have not yet visited this country, here’s a heads up– all reserves and parks cost at least $10 per a person to access, with many as high as $25. This doesn’t seem bad (especially when compared to the high rates of the US National Parks), but after five or six days of paying every time you want to walk around a jungle, it becomes rather exhausting.
Last weekend, we decided to mix things up and head to the Arenal region for three days. Already dreading the high fees to famous areas such as Mystic Bridges and Arenal National Park, I decided to do some digging into options for free hiking.
Spoiler Alert: There is NO free hiking in Arenal. Sorry for baiting and switching you!
However, there are options to combine your lodging with unlimited access to a preserve, allowing for you to enjoy nature at your leisure.
The Arenal Observatory and Lodge is the only hotel inside of Arenal Volcano National Park. Situated at the base of the Arenal Volcano, guests who stay at the lodge have access to over 900-acres of land, which spans from secondary forests to primary rainforest. Two rivers and a frog pond also add a variety of wildlife and diversity to this property.
A standard room at the lodge averages around $120-160 a night. Options are also available for multiple-room villas, in case you are traveling with a group. When compared to budget hotels in Fortuna (the nearest town to the Arenal Volcano), these rooms are quite a bit more expensive. For reference, a 3-star hotel in the town will run about $60 a night, and Airbnb options are even less.
However, once you start adding up the expense of visiting the park and other reserves, the price of this lodge versus a cheaper hotel in town starts to even out. For example, entrance to Mystic Bridges Reserve is $27 per person, with reservations required. For two people, that is $54 just to access one reserve, one time.
But the difference in price doesn’t stop there. If you are visiting this area for multiple days, chances are high that you will be hiking everyday. Entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park is $15 per person, and the various shorter waterfall hikes around town average around $10-$15 per person per a visit.
Beyond the high entrance fees, all of these reserves close by 4pm. If you want to night hike (which you should, because this is when most of the wildlife comes out to play), then expect to pay an additional $45-80 per person for a guided night hike. By the time you have spent three days in Arenal, you could easily spend an additional $200 just to access the hiking areas.
By opting to pay more up front by staying at the Arenal Observatory and Lodge, you have access to free hiking whenever you want. This includes any night hiking you may want to do around the property on your own (just be sure to bring multiple flashlights). The property also offers a free, guided morning hike where you can tour the frog pond and surrounding area with an expert wildlife spotter for an hour each morning. We enjoyed hiking the trails at our own pace, and revisiting some of our favorite spots. Because we weren’t paying an entrance fee, we didn’t have the pressure to “see it all” in one day. Another perk? Because this area is off the beaten path, we had all the trails to ourselves. No waiting for that perfect selfie pic at the waterfall!
Worried you might miss out on cool scenery or wildlife by not visiting the other reserves? Don’t be! The Arenal Lodge property hosts four different waterfalls, two accessible rivers, a perimeter trail with views of the volcano, multiple hanging bridges, an observatory tower, a bird-viewing balcony with views of Lake Arenal, and beautiful gardens throughout the property. There is also a free visitor center and museum on site, so you can learn more about the ecological diversity and volcanic activity of the area. The lodge also has a pool, hot tub, and full-service spa (for #treatyoself days). There is also restaurant on location. Oh, and breakfast is included.
While staying on the property, we spotted a troop of spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, eyelash vipers, red-eyed tree frogs, other snakes I don’t know the name of, hummingbirds, motmots, a baby tarantula, and an anteater (ok, we actually didn’t see the anteater because we were napping, but our hotel neighbor said it was right outside our window).
I know I’m starting to sound like a marketing campaign, so let’s consider some downsides to staying at this lodge. The first concern (and the biggest for budget-minded adventurers) is that Arenal Observatory is remote in a good and bad way. It is over 30 minutes from La Fortuna, with part of the road still dirt and full of potholes. Our 2×4 sedan was able to make the journey just fine, but it doesn’t make it easy to pop into town for a quick lunch or dinner. There are no fridges or microwaves in the standard hotel rooms, so that leaves the only option for food the lodge restaurant.
Food here is delicious, but the average plate is about $15 and the meal portions are just average (meaning you might walk away still hungry if you just order an entree). In comparison, a meal in town can be as low as $6, or lower depending on where you eat. If you’re only staying a few days, this isn’t a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind for longer stays or for individuals who would like options when it comes to eating. We went into town to buy supplies for sandwiches so we could have our own picnics during the day, but still opted for the lodge’s restaurant at night.
This also means you are at least 30 minutes to the other attractions in the La Fortuna area, including white water rafting, zip lining, bars/clubs, and water tours of the lake. While the lodge does have horseback riding available, for those with serious FOMO, the extra distance might be too inconvenient.
Another point to consider is using this property to access Cerro Chato (the other volcano in this area which many people will hike). Many hiking guides will still state that there is an access trail on this property, but this trail was closed permanently a few years ago. This is true for the entire area of Cerro Chato, but some some hiking sites may not have updated information. Access to this area might open in the future, so it’s smart to check with the hotel if this is on your bucket list.
The standard rooms at Arenal Observatory Lodge do not have air conditioning. While this lodge is situated at a higher elevation than the town, it can still get hot here. The rooms come with screens, high ceilings, and a very powerful ceiling fan, but for those of us who are used to climate-controlled rooms, this should be a consideration. I loved sleeping with the sounds of the jungle around me, but the humidity did get sticky at night.
If you don’t want to stay at the lodge, you can pay a daily entrance fee to hike the grounds ($8 as of 2021). This still makes it quite a bit cheaper than the surrounding reserves, and you can easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything.
If you do find yourself here and would like more information on all the trails, check out our upcoming article on “Top Places to Spot Wildlife in Arenal”.
While the cost of hiking in Costa Rica is a major downside, this country is incredibly beautiful and still a very affordable destination. It is easy to focus on the individual prices of lodging when booking, but a little research and planning can make this country even more enjoyable.
We loved Arenal Observatory Lodge simply because it allowed us to enjoy nature at our own pace, whenever we wanted. The staff, grounds, and rooms were all incredibly fantastic, and I’m already planning my return trip there (where I’ll probably opt for one of those amazing villas).
Follow-up Tip: Be sure to check out similar lodges and preserves in your other Costa Rican destinations!
“Affordable” is not a word that’s usually associated with the Florida star of drunken nights and steamy days (prepare for an endless amount of romance puns in this one). I debated calling this weekend “affordable”, because, compared to my other adventures, this was definitely not on the cheaper end.
One of the most expensive parts of visiting Key West is the steep cost of accommodations. Even during the off-season, a weekend in a hotel within walking distance of Duval Street will run about $300-500 a night. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your expenses will come from where you sleep (or at least rest between bar hopping), then the rest of the weekend can be easy on your wallet without skimping on the romance or experience.
So, join me, your self-appointed Romance Connoisseur, on my top tips for How To Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West, Florida.
Tip 1: Drive
Nothing says romance more than driving past palm trees and blue water with the windows down, especially when you get to hear that motor purr at 45 mph (the top speed on the US 1 from Key Largo to Key West).
I currently live in Fort Myers, so driving to Key West is usually the easiest option for me. However, even if you’re visiting from the Great North, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and renting a car is still your best bet. The Florida Keys are scattered with small airports, including a commercial airport located in Key West. While this may seem convenient, a quick Google Flights search shows that not only is Key West airport typically very expensive to fly into, it is also coupled with multiple layovers and connections. (If you’re located near a major airport hub for Frontier, Spirit, or JetBlue, you have much better prices and connections. These airlines provide multiple nonstop services to Key West at a reasonable rate, but are very limited.)
Opting to drive Highway 1 through the Keys comes with additional bonuses. As mentioned above, accommodation in Key West is extremely pricey, regardless of the season. If you’re looking to book an extended weekend with that special someone (or yourself! #treatyoself), renting a car gives you the option of staying in the Upper Keys for some of your stay. While they aren’t cheap, the Upper Keys offer a wider area of hotels, Airbnbs, and campgrounds, bringing costs down to as low at $100 a night, depending on where you stay. The Upper Keys are also less crowded than Key West, granting you a bit more serenity and privacy if you want to take a dip into the ocean with your lady lover under a full moon (just don’t watch Jaws before this trip).
The Upper Keys also provide some great stops for sightseeing along the way that shouldn’t be skipped over. Some of my favorites include:
Keys Chocolate and Ice Cream on Key Largo- Best stop for key lime pie on a stick, ice cream, and gourmet sweets. If you go at night, you get the added bonus of enjoying their delicacies under a patio of twinkle lights, and what says romance more than twinkle lights? Nothing.
The History of Diving Museum on Islamorada- Okay, so this one may not get you a lot of romance points, but history can be sexy, right? Regardless, this is a great stop for any dive, ocean, or history enthusiasts, and is also a great option to escape the rain. Tickets are $15 a person, but you can easily spend a couple hours here.
Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key- You can think me later when this stop pays off in your favor (insert winky face). This park is definitely a major reason for driving. Located just under a hour from Key West, this park provides one of the best beaches in the Keys, as well as a great place for snorkeling, boat tours, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The old railroad bridge at the park also offers one of the highest vantage points in this area, so you can get sweeping views of the ocean as a backdrop for the cute couple photo that will be your phone’s background for the next 7-10 months. You can also reserve a campsite here if you want to see the bridge under the Milky Way. Nothing says “eternal love” like 10,000 no-see-ums and 10 billion stars.
Florida Keys Cafe on Big Pine Key- If you’re driving into Key West in the morning, this is a definite stop to grab a much needed coffee and delicious breakfast. Not only is the food divine, but this family-owned and operated restaurant is also very affordable (under $15 a plate, which is affordable in this territory). It’s not much to look at on the outside, but the inside is full of charm, sweet servers, and the nice aroma of salty fishermen. No one is feeling very loving when they’re hangry, so be sure to stop in here, pack in some grub, and continue on to the Southern Capitol of Debauchery.
Tip 2: Opt for the Nice Hotel
Now that you’ve made it to your destination, picking out the perfect place to call home for the weekend is going to impact the rest of this lovecation. Hotels in Key West are pricey (if I haven’t said this enough), but if you’re smart in your selection, then the cost will be worth the experience. Hotels are the most expensive close to Duval Street; however, if you’re banking on getting your plus one hammered with frozen cocktails, it works in you favor to stay within walking distance of the bars and attractions. Anything over half a mile from Sloppy Joe’s, and you’re officially too far to stumble your way home.
We stayed at the Old Town Manor, just around the corner from the main road. At $400 a night, this hotel was one of the most expensive I’ve ever stayed in, but it was more than worth the price (and still on the cheaper end of Key West accommodations). This B&B offered everything required for a weekend of romance, and relaxation. A converted residence from 1886, we had the option to stay inside the main house or in the converted carriage house outside (we chose the carriage house). Because we weren’t right on Duval, we were able to enjoy the party scene, but retreat to the quiet serenity of our own garden. Breakfast included a buffet of salmon, homemade jams, fruits, and a variety of bagels and freshly-pressed orange juice (with the added bonus of baby chicks running around). We stayed in the Jarcada Room, and we had our own patio overlooking the beautiful gardens and breakfast area. The house was also available if we wanted to pop in for some refreshing fruit-infused water, chat with the incredibly helpful staff, or escape the heat in the charming parlor or on the front porch. If you’re trying to convince your significant other that you need a trip here pronto, I will provide some extra photos to seal the deal.
Tip 3: Find Free Activities for the Day Time
Because you might be experiencing sticker shock over the price of your hotel, spend the day enjoying the town without opting for the expensive excursions. Key West has a lot of offer to the hardy traveler who isn’t afraid to brave the heat and put some miles on their shoes. The neighborhoods spanning out from Duval Street are filled with colorful, historic homes and Spanish-moss draped avenues. You can easily spend a lazy morning strolling down the sidewalks and just taking in the sights.
If you’re more of a destination person, check out the West Martello Tower and Garden. This Civil-War era fort turned botanical garden is free to the public (open 9:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week).
Ferns, trees, flowers, butterflies, chickens, and beautiful views of the ocean make this a great place to spend an hour or two. Most of the paths are shady, so it is also a good place to escape Florida’s oppressive heat. Pack your sunhat, sunscreen, and skip the cute shoes for something more comfortable as this spot is about a 30 minute walk from Duval Street. However, it brings you closer to the Southernmost Point of the US marker, so you can knock off two things on your “must-see” list.
From here, you can make the short 10-minute walk to the Southernmost Point of the US. This marker is a fan-favorite for all visitors, and your trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick selfie. Try to get here early, as a line does form for pictures and the heat can be rather dreadful. There’s a great little grocery story just across the street where you can pick up some key lime pie on a stick or a cold drink to make up for the long jaunt.
At the end of the day, head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, courtesy of the more colorful residents of Key West. An hour or so before sunset, this square starts to fill up with visitors, exhibitionists, and the occasional chicken. This is one of the better places on the island to catch the sunset over the ocean, and there’s plenty of places to grab a delicious cocktail to sip on while you wait. (While a lot of people watch the sunset right at Mallory Square, if you walk Harbour Place Condos, you can get a better view and a bit more privacy).
The real attraction though comes from the assortment of freelance performers who put on free shows around the square. You can catch everything from an old guy walking a tightrope to a kid spinning fire– it just depends on the day. Be sure to bring some cash to show your appreciation for your favorite performers.
Tip 4: Splurge on Food and Drinks
If you’re in Key West, chances are very high that you’re here to have a drink or two. Since you’ve opted for a hotel with breakfast and skipped the expensive tours, you have a bit more room in your budget to splurge on some yummy drinks and food. Restaurants can get pricey here, so it helps to do a bit of research if you want to be more strategic in your approach. One of our favorites was Garbo’s Grill at Hank’s Bar. This low-key, outdoor bar offers free, live music and an affordable happy hour ($5 beer in Key West, anyone?).
The best part of this place though is the food truck behind the bar, named Garbo’s Grill. They feature a variety of bar food, including fish tacos, beef tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, and poke bowls. However, the true winner of the show (and the reason we kept coming back to it the entire weekend) is the Korean Bulgogi Burrito. Unless you’re a monster, you love Korean Bulgogi as much as the rest of the world, and this place does not disappoint. Food costs $10-$15 a plate, which is much cheaper than many of the sit-down restaurants in the area.
Spend your evening checking out the colorful and unique bars that fill Duval Street. Like everything else here, drinks aren’t cheap in Key West (most cocktails will cost around $10-$15, depending on how fancy you are), but you’re here for the experience. To save some money, check with your hotel to see if they have coupon cards for some of the bars. We were able to snag a couple Buy One, Get One coupons for some places, which saved us about $10 for each order.
Tip 5: Opt for the Off-Season
Key West shines when the rest of the country is buried under ten feet of snow. December through April is peak tourist season for this tiny town, meaning prices for hotels skyrocket and everything gets a bit too crowded for comfort. Remember, there is only one road leading down to the keys, and it can quickly turn into a traffic nightmare on a busy Friday evening.
Starting in May, the tourists start to disappear, as temperatures in the rest of the country start to rise and those poor, pale Northerners get to peak out their front doors and see the sun for the first time in months. While it is hotter and way more humid in the summer, hotels get to be a bit more reasonable and you won’t feel like you’re fighting crowds everywhere you go.
If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to pack clothes that breathe easily, a good sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. It is also smart to do most of your exploring in the early morning and late afternoon, spending the hottest part of the day by the pool of that adorable hotel you opted for.
Key West is definitely one of America’s more unique destinations, but it is also definitely not for everyone. I’m spinning this to be a weekend for couples, because this really isn’t the best destination for kids. Girls weekend, Lonely Boys Days Out, and romantic escapades are all great fits for this colorful destination, but Key West lacks the beaches and kid-friendly attractions that are typical in the rest of Southern Florida. Not to mention the hoards of drunken debauchery that descends upon this town once the sun goes down…
While it doesn’t fit the tune of our normal, budget-friendly destinations, Key West can still be done on a rather affordable budget. It is a great destination for a long weekend with your amore of the hour (or life, whatever floats your boat). Just be smart in your planning, be willing to cough up a bit more for a nice hotel, and most of all, get drunk, make-out in public, and have a great time.
Last year, a friend and I hit the road for a great adventure across America’s West. For 6 weeks, we cruised through mountains, camped in a temperate rainforest (and froze our baby toes off), basked in hot springs, and drooled over towering redwoods.
We spent most of our trip along the classic Highway 101, the coastal road that hugs the water along the Pacific Ocean from Washington to California. The road is beautiful in all three states, but the drive along the Oregon Coast is truly spectacular.
There is so much to stop and see on this route, and one could easily spend months pulling into small towns and meandering along sea cliffs.
Below, I’ve listed out my top “Must-Sees” along Oregon’s Highway 101. The list starts with the northernmost stop and continues south. Remember, driving times are estimates and 101 is a two-lane, curvy-road for most of its length. Traffic does happen and should be planned for.
Astoria is the first town you hit when crossing the Columbia River from Washington into Oregon. It is a bit dated, and much of the river is consumed by large barges that carry cargo up the river. However, Astoria is a great place to begin your journey along the 101 as you get to experience crossing the Columbia on the Astoria-Megler Bridge.
This truss bridge is the longest of its kind in the United States, and offers spanning panoramas of the Columbia River basin. Eagles, hawks, and ospreys are common sightings as they dart above the bridge, and the height of the bridge grants you spanning views of Oregon’s hills that you won’t gain elsewhere on this journey.
If stopping in Astoria, check out the Astoria waterfront trolley, which takes passengers along a 3-mile route through the historical port-city. We weren’t able to jump aboard due to Covid-related closures, but it looked super cute from the road, and very instagrammable.
Cannon Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) (40 minutes south of Astoria)
This town wasn’t on our agenda when we first headed out. We were suppose to spend a few days in Seaside, Oregon, just 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. Every blog I read spoke about how amazing Seaside was, and I almost booked an Airbnb, sight-unseen, to stay here.
I am beyond glad that we took the risk and went through the town first. Seaside is cute, in a 1950’s, carnivalesque, where-is-the-line-between-corny-and-quaint kind of way. But it is incredibly busy, packed full of arcades and outdated motels, and it misses the mark on the quintessential coziness that images of the Oregon Coast represent. We drove in, had a look around, and then immediately headed back out for hopes of something different.
My tip? Skip Seaside and its cheesy attractions and head straight for Cannon Beach. This town represents everything that a visitor to the coast is looking for.
Situated between Ecola State Park and Hug Point Recreation Area, Cannon Beach is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs, towering pines, and beautiful hiking trails. The town has a spanning beach with tide pools and towering sea rocks (such as Haystack Rock and The Needles). These rocks are the nesting sites of dozens of sea birds, including the Tufted Puffin. (Fun Fact: This is the most accessible spot in the Northwest to view these adorable birds.) If that isn’t reason enough to visit, then you are all a lost cause, but here’s an additional bonus. For my 90’s kids out there, this is also the filming sight to the much beloved classic, “The Goonies“. If you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, leave now, watch it, and come back. You can thank me later for expanding your cinematic education.
The downtown of Cannon Beach is comprised of quaint, northwestern seaside architecture. Think grey shingles on everything, and you’ve got a good picture. There are family-owned seafood restaurants, cozy bookshops, eclectic hippie stores, and perfect little cafes to grab that much needed coffee to ward of the ocean breeze. Cannon Beach is also a haven for fancy people with too much money, so you also get the random shop of luxury clothes and overpriced rain jackets (ogle at some windows and then go grab yourself a gelato).
We opted to rent an apartment in town and stayed for a couple days. It rains often in the Pacific Northwest, so this gave us the best chance of a few sunny days to enjoy the outdoors. Cannon Beach is a great place to spend hours walking the shoreline, grabbing a delicious calm chowder, hiking in the nearby state parks, and spending an evening on the beach with a fire while watching the sun dipped below the Pacific Ocean.
Rockaway Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Cannon Beach, Oregon
Rockaway Beach is a town the hit its heyday a couple decades ago. The town is cute, but many of the condos are outdated and Cannon Beach still wins in a “perfect, Oregon town” race. However, Rockaway is a great stop along Highway 101 to stop and stretch your legs.
Diamond Beach is a beautiful beach for a morning stroll with a coffee, offering spanning views of the ocean with a sea arch in the distance. Rockaway Big Tree Trail is a great, family-friendly boardwalk offering a nice break from the road as you walk amongst massive ferns and towering trees. This is a great stop to get out and get some air, before continuing along your way.
This is a great stop for those looking for a more strenuous hike– check out Cape Lookout, South Trail for a great 6-mile trail down the cliffs and to a remote beach. There is a campground here for those looking to experience camping on the beach, and the pin above links to a spectacular overlook, where you might catch sight of whales in the summertime. The campground offers tent sites, RV sites, as well as yurts and deluxe cabins, so this could be a perfect overnight stop to spend a night with the stars and surf.
However, this is also just a great route for those looking for a beautiful drive and scenic overlooks. South of Rockaway Beach, Highway 101 stays inland for awhile. If you have time, put in this state park into your maps so you can stick to smaller county roads that stay along the coast. After the state park, you can connect back with 101 south of Pacific City.
Depoe Bay, Oregon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 10 minutes south of Cape Lookout State Park
This was by far one of my favorite stops along the entire stretch of Oregon’s 101. The town of Depoe Bay sits on the precipice of a cliff, with adorable shops situated along the main road and sweeping views of the ocean. Sea lions and seals are frequent visitors on the rocks below, and there are countless seafood restaurants and novelty stores that can easily fill up an afternoon.
The town is famous for its tiny, 6-acre harbor hemmed in by the cliffs and houses. It is claimed to be the smallest navigable harbor in the world, and visitors can walk along the bridge above this picturesque harbor to get a first-hand account of just how adorably small it is. You can also spot seals sunbathing on the rocks around the harbor. (I would share my picture of the seals…but they look like very blurry logs instead of adorable sea creatures. Enjoy this harbor shot instead.)
My favorite part about this town? We visited in the summer, and were able to hop aboard a whale watching tour with Tradewinds Charter. For just $25 each, we got an hour-ride out of the bay, along the coast, and got up and personal with some beautiful gray whales (Gray whales migrate along this path December-February as well as March-May, but some stick around all summer).
Compared to the prices of whale watching tours up in Washington (sometimes running as over $100 a head), this felt like a steal, and we got to see the Oregon Coast from the water– which is a must for any visitor! Our boat had about 15 guests with 3 crewmen, and we were able to move about freely throughout the ride.
If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to sit this part out, or stock up on dramamine. ThePacific Ocean doesn’t like to play the smooth and calm game.
We stumbled upon this stop just driving along the coast, and it was a great place to get out and take a nice walk along the beach. Seal Rock is known for its towering rock formations just off the beach, and the coastal area is full of tide pools to check out as you walk along the sand (check tide tables here, and plan to go during low tide). The walk from the parking are to the beach is steep, so those unsteady on their feet may want to jump on the back of a trusty family member. There is also an overlook area here that you can easily access from the parking area without doing the great descent. Sea lions and seals frequent this area, so keep a sharp eye out for these lovable creatures.
Pro Tip: The town of Seal Rock is also a great overnight destination for travelers looking for a quaint, coastal town. While my favorite is Cannon Beach, I can’t deny that this town was definitely adorable and I could easily spend days here. A quick perusal on Airbnb also revealed some great options for houses and apartment. We stayed just down the road in Yachats at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge. While the rooms are small, this is a beautiful, privately-owned coastal motel that just screams American road trip. I was here with a friend, but this is a great romantic stop (you can thank me later).
Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (Google pin here) 20 minutes south of Seal Rock Recreational Site
Just south of the infamous Thor’s Well, is a little pullout on 101 overlooking the ocean. We stopped here for photos (and to wipe sea spray off of the windshield), but found a small hiking trail leading down from the overlook to the rocks below. I mention this stop because these rocks contained the best tide pools by far that we saw on all of the Oregon Coast. The best part? They also had no one else around (unlike Thor’s Well).
Sea-stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, and fish fill this area, with the occasional seal popping up just beyond the surf to say hello. We showed up just as low tide was turning, so we enjoyed about an hour of adventuring along the rocks and peering into the underwater world before the rising water forced us to turn back. This adventure requires sturdy shoes, solid feet, and the acceptance that you will probably slip on seaweed, but if you’re up for it, give it a go! Just be careful where you step, as this is a fragile ecosystem. Stick to dry rock without any barnacles so you’re not damaging the creatures we all love.
Heceta Head Lighthouse (Google pin here) 15 minutes south of Neptune Viewpoint
Ok, honest moment. We actually didn’t stop here (thank you, bad weather), but we did see it from the road–so that kinda counts. This list wouldn’t be complete without a picturesque light house, so here you go. Heceta Lighthouse has an easy overlook just south of the turn, and it offers panoramic views up the coast with the charming light house front and center. This is also a bed and breakfast, so if you’re feeling fancy, check it out!
The famous Sea Lion Caves (pin here) are a few minutes south of here, so if you haven’t had a chance to see a sea lion yet, pull off here, pay the $14 to get in, and bask in the glory that is flubber and fur.
Okay, so if you’re looking at a map, you might have some questions. I skipped a lot between the last stop and Port Orford. Most notably, Coos Bay and Dunes City– both featured in most travel guides for this area. However, in my quest to stay honest, I did not find the southern portion of Oregon’s 101 as picturesque as the northern portion. Many of the towns (especially Coos Bay) felt run-down and outdated, missing the quaint shops and welcoming aura that perforates villages along the northern stretch. We stopped in many areas along the way, but didn’t find anything to beat what we had already seen, until we hit the stretch of road between Port Orford and Brookings, the final hour of 101 in Oregon…
This portion of the road can arguably be the most stunning and jaw-dropping of the entire route. While northern Oregon wins in cute towns, this stretch wins in twisting curves, dropping cliffs, and spanning views of pine trees, redwoods, and roaring waves. I included this as a route rather than a stop, because I feel like this entire area is a stop, and should be treated with leisure. To break up the drive, you can stop for a hike at Cape Sebastian Trail, a 6-mile (roundtrip) hike through the trees down to the beach. This trail is steep, so it may not be for everyone in the family (like the one who chose to wear flip flops today).
I adored this portion of the drive, and believe it deserves much more than the hour it takes to just drive it without stopping. So plan to pack a lunch, wear some sturdy shoes, and enjoy your final stretch of Oregon’s 101– with one hell of a finale.
As you can see, there is so much to take in along Oregon’s 101. These are just a few of the hundreds of stops you can make along the route, and the scenery never gets old. Since this is a road-trip, it is also very affordable (especially if you opt for camping at the numerous state parks along the way!). Food can get pricey (as most of it is seafood, yum!), so stop in a few grocery stores along the way so you can plan for affordable picnics.
The best part? Most of the attractions along Oregon’s 101 are completely free! Parking and beach access is free along the route (unless you’re accessing a State Park), and hiking is always free.
Have you visited the Oregon Coast before? Drop a comment below of your favorite part of this amazing drive!
Since Covid, there has been a dramatic increase in outdoor recreation. From people rushing to buy their first RV to retailers selling out of tents, America (and the world) is on a quest to rediscover the Great Outdoors.
And I love it! I really do. Camping is a great way to save money on hotels and Airbnbs when traveling and seeing the world. What do I not like about 2021 camping?
This past year, I’ve encountered the issue that everyone has decided to take up camping as their new favorite weekend adventure. State park campgrounds are booked months in advance, national park campgrounds are booked within seconds of availability, and even the remote Chickees Huts in the middle of the Florida swamp have become the hottest item for weekend warriors.
My favorite adventure has become everyone’s favorite adventure, and it makes sense. Most countries continue to have their borders closed, people are still timid about Covid, and outdoor recreation just screams “social distancing-friendly”.
And it’s not just me. Campers, Rv’ers, and outdoor enthusiasts all throughout the United States are reporting fully-booked campgrounds and no availability. My family recently did an RV trip across the west, and struggled to find campgrounds that were available or affordable— spending over $100 a night for certain sites.
However, the world of camping has not quite caught-up. Getting permits for a new campground is a long and slow process, so demand is outpacing the supply (and that drives up prices). For us outdoor-lovers, this is a sad fate for our favorite pastime. Campgrounds are at capacity, and there is no sign of this slowing down as we head into the peak of 2021 travel.
For those of us new to Hipcamp, this is booking service similar to Airbnb. However, instead of booking rooms or houses, you can book RV spots, tent spots, cabins, glamping options, or even the random treehouse. It is designed as a perfect solution to the lack of campgrounds problem.
So how does it work? When I say Hipcamp is like Airbnb, I mean it is just like Airbnb. By visiting the homepage (or the app), you can select the area where you want to camp. Put in your dates and number of guests, and you are given an interactive map with a list of options.
Instead of booking a traditional campground, you are booking sites owned by individuals. Sometimes, it can be a full-service RV pad in the woods behind someone’s house or other times, it can be a 1-acre lot of land near a national park perfect for boondocking or primitive camping.
Just like Airbnb, prices range depending on the location, dates, and services. To give you a picture of how awesome this site can be, I put in dates for July 12-14 near Yosemite National Park.
Reservable campsites in Yosemite have been booked for months, however Hipcamp offers great alternative to last-minute planners. 30 minutes outside of Yosemite was an RV site with water and electric going for $40 a night. Seeing that the average campsite in an established campground now ranges around $50 a night, this is a great deal for families scrambling to secure a spot for that brand-new Class A motorhome. This is just an example of several sites available within an hour of the park’s entrance.
If you’re lacking inspiration, you can also cruise available camping options located within certain criteria–such as, pet friendly, lake stays, beach stays, top locations, and instagrammable glamping tents (okay, so I made up that last one).
Why am I pushing this site so hard? Because it saved my butt a few weeks ago when I really wanted to visit Rainbow River State Park, but the campgrounds were fully book and I wasn’t willing to shell out $300 a night for an Airbnb.
Instead of nixing our weekend, we were able to secure a great, primitive campsite just down the road from the park’s entrance. Our site was the bare minimum of Hipcamp stays– just an empty, wooded lot off a county road surrounded by pines and oak trees. For $10 a night, we had a quiet place in the woods to pitch our tent, have a fire, and enjoy the peaceful sounds of Florida’s summer around us.
Hipcamp follows a similar system to Airbnb where you “request” to book a location, and the host approves you. We got instant booking for our site, had great communication with the land owner on the messaging platform, and were able to find our site (relatively) easily, save a lot of money on a hotel stay, and do what we enjoy most– being out in nature.
While I would love to see this site expand even further in the future (host-led trips or experiences?), Hipcamp provides a great solution to our 2021 camping woes. Even if you’re not a hardcore tenter or own an RV, this site has great options for glamping and cabin stays. If you happen to own land and want to make an easy dollar, Hipcamp also is a great option for landowners to easily rent out spaces for us lonely travelers.
And I promise, Hipcamp didn’t have to pay me for raving about how great it is. I’m just a Type-A person who loves knowing I have a place to pitch my tent at the end of a long day of adventuring.
Happy trails, everyone!
Bonus Round: Other great resources for campers/rv’ers/outdoor adventurers
TheDyrt– great site for finding campsites, cabins, rv sites, and boondock locations
FreeRoam– boondock-focused, this is a great app for scoring that free camp spot!
AllTrails– Hiking site (and app) with detailed trails and reviews. Perfect for finding things to do after you find a place to park your camper.
Forest Maps– A comprehensive app with detailed national forest areas. For those new to camping, it is free to camp on national forest lands (maximum 14 night stay).
Everyone loves Moab, Utah. Jeepers flock there as if it was their Mecca. Hippies gather to bathe nude under rock arches and sneak a puff from that joint they purchased in Colorado. Through all the bustle, families try to squeeze their toddlers through the mesh of people for a quick picture at the same rock everyone else is staring at. Smile, kids– before that fat guy gets in the frame! (We’ve all heard it.)
Moab is cool. It has Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park right on its outskirts. The town is a great mesh of the 60’s meets Mormon (looking at you, limited liquor stores), and there is no doubt that outdoor adventure is limitless here.
But with the popularity comes the crowds, and with the crowds come the prices. There are ways to do Moab cheaply (future article idea?), but I’m not a believer in people-packing our national parks. RV sites are hard to find, Airbnbs book up quickly, and a night in a shady hotel is still going to cost you over $100. So while Moab is cool, there are always great alternatives to help disperse crowds and still get everyone out and enjoying the desert.
Cue Kanab, Utah. Utah’s redheaded stepchild of recreation towns.
Located just north of the Arizona border and about 3 hours east of Las Vegas, Kanab is not the easiest town to get to (neither is Moab, but people still find a way). However, it offers many of the same outdoor activities enjoyed in Moab, but with much fewer people. While the town isn’t as charming as Moab (you won’t find endless rock shops and palm readings here), for those of us looking for a great base camp for exploring red rocks and canyons, Kanab cannot be beat.
Below, I’ve listed out my Top 5 Things to Do in Kanab, Utah.
You’ve probably seen countless pictures of Arizona and Utah’s famed slot canyons. Antelope Canyon and Zion’s Narrows are top dogs in this arena. However, the last place you want to be negotiating crowds is in a slender, 3-foot wide rock slot where booties and faces will definitely touch.
Buckskin Gulch is a great day hike for adventurers looking to experience a slot canyon, but at their own pace and in solitude. This 5.6 mile out-and-back trail offers a great sampling of red rock vistas, slot hiking, and open canyon. This is part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, one of the rarest geological sites in the world.
You can access this trail by heading east on highway 89, and turning south on a tiny dirt road called House Rock Valley Road. This turn is easy to miss, but if you make it to the Toadstool Hoodoo Trailhead, you’ve gone a few miles too far. Cell signal is limited in this area, so it is best to download Google maps before leaving Kanab, and bring a back-up GPS. This is always good to have on any hike anyways. Check out some options here.
The road is a rough few miles down to the parking lot, but our Subaru Outback handled it well. Check the weather to see if any rain is in the forecast, because this is not a trail or a road you want to be on in the rain (slot canyons can fill up quickly in a flash flood, even if it is not raining directly above you. Stop at the BLM Ranger Station before heading out to get a full weather forecast).
Buckskin Gulch goes on for over 15 miles, but I like the shorter option from Wire Pass Trailhead to keep the rest of my day open for more trails. Bring cash to the parking lot as there is a $6 per person permit required for day-hiking in this area. You will fill out a pay envelop at the self-service stand (bring a pen too, just in case). This parking lot is also used for hikers visiting the elusive Wave, a famous area with very limited permits. If you’re interested in trying to snag one of these permits to fit in this hike as well, directions for the permit lottery can be found here.
Because this is a technical trail, it is important to review the trail details fully before going. I subscribe to AllTrails, so I have use of the maps and trail directions offline. Click here to access trail details for Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass. (Pro tip: There is a drop into this canyon at the beginning. This may not be suitable for small children, elderly hikers, or people who cling to rock faces when they see heights).
America’s favorite ditch– The Grand Canyon. Chances are this beauty is on your bucket list. Most visitors experience the Grand Canyon from the more popular South Rim. However, this area can easily get overrun with tourists and tour buses, creating hours-long waits at the entrance, packed trails, and no camping availability.
The North Rim offers the same spectacular views– minus the crowds. The only catch? The North Rim is 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, so the winters make it inaccessible. The road to the North Rim is not maintained past Jacob’s Lake in the winter, so the visitor center and services (such as restaurants and lodging) are only available May 15-October 15. If you’re visiting Kanab in the summer or early-Fall, you can take an entire day exploring this area or staying overnight at one of the campgrounds or cabins. Rim trail hikes and hikes into the woods leave from the main parking lot as well as numerous lots scattered along the rim (Check out this blog for a great list of North Rim day hikes). Just note, a day hike down to the Colorado River is not possible from the North Rim. The hike down to the bottom is 28 miles long, with a 6,800 feet elevation drop (and gain for the way back). This is recommended for experienced hikers only.
Being higher, the views (in my humble opinion) are even better. The higher elevation also means this rim stays much cooler than its hot sister in the south (averages stay in about the low 70s for highs as oppose to the upper 80s). So if you’re a friend of cooler days and crips nights, you’ll be right at home here. The road to the North Rim is also prettier than the drive to the South Rim. Highway 89A winds through Kaibab National Forest all the way to the rim, and you are rewarded with spanning vistas of the Grand Staircase Escalante on your way back. Without the crowds, you can take a moment of solitude to truly appreciate the canyon, and get views that few visitors ever get to see.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Kanab in the winter, you can still access the North Rim after the official close date on October 15. While there are no services (or entrance fee), the road stays open until the snow makes it impassible. Check here for road conditions. We visited in late-November, and the road was dry and accessible. Just invest in a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Also be sure to pack a warm parka, gloves, and suitable layers as the wind can drop the temperature dramatically.
If you’ve ever felt like tapping into your inner Lawrence of Arabia (cue epic music), you don’t need to voyage to the Middle East to do so. Just northwest of Kanab lies Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, an oasis of shifting red sand dunes cast in the shadows of Moquith Mountains. Here, you can sit upon a giant sand mound and stare moodily up into the sky, Luke Skywalker-style. Or roll down the hill to recreate the “As You Wish” scene in The Princess Bride (okay, I’ll stop with the movie references now…but I actually did do this).
Whatever floats your sand dune boat, you can find it at this state park. There is an $8 per vehicle entrance fee as you enter through the main park entrance. If you want to avoid the fee, you can also park at one of the many pull-offs on Coral Pink Sand Dunes Road and walk on one of the numerous trails leading to the sand dunes outside of the park.
Inside the park, you can rent stand-up sand boards (real thing), sand sleds (also, surprisingly real), and ATVs to fully explore the park. Nothing says family time like sending your 8-year old flying down a 100-foot sand mountain on a rental board. Rentals are through the park and more information on bookings can be found here. You can even book a rappelling adventure to satisfy those “fun ways to kill me” urges.
If you’re going towards the end of the day, be sure to bring a compass or a GPS. Sand Dunes can be incredibly disorienting, and once it gets dark, it becomes difficult to find your way back to the parking lot. Trails are built into the sand, so they’re easy to follow in the day, but easy to miss at night. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t let the cold scare you off. The site of white snow against red sand is beyond beautiful, and you’ll have the entire place to yourself. Just be sure to layer up and pack a towel to knock off any wet sand when you get back to the car.
Bonus round: On your way back to Kanab from the Sand Dunes, you’ll also pass the Sand Caves. Traveling southbound, you will see them on the left side of highway 89 just past the Moqui Cave attraction. You will park on the west side of the road (Google pin here), then cross the road towards the slab of red rock just north of the caves (don’t go towards the caves, there is no way up). You’ll see other trails from adventurers before you, and you can follow them up as you walk along the edge to the caves’ entrance. This is not a trail for those scared of heights. For those staying behind, there is a beautiful waterfall right by the parking area. Sit there and reflect on how you don’t have the urge to plummet your body down a cliff.
Forget Arches or Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon goes down in my books as one of the most beautiful parks in the NPS. At the top of the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce Canyon is composed of narrow, pinnacles of red rocks known as “hoodoos”. If you’re a lover of western movies, this is a place to live out your John Wayne dreams. It costs $35 per a vehicle to enter the park (unless you have an annual national park pass), and the park is open 24/7 throughout the year. This makes is a great place to go stargazing at night as well. Milky Way over the canyon? Yes, please!
You can easily make the hike down into the bottom of canyon on a day trip to Bryce. One of my favorites is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail. This is a quick 2.9 mile hike down into the bottom of the canyon where you can get up close and personal with the hoodoos. Another one of my other favorites is Peekaboo Loop Trail (5.2 miles). If you’re not looking to stress those calf muscles to hike down, Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is a great rim trail that has moderate elevation gain and amazing vistas. Pro tip: If you’re going October-April, pack a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Once you start sliding, you don’t stop until you hit bottom.
If you just aren’t a hiker at all, the park also runs mule/horseback rides down into the canyon. I did this as a kid and it remains as one of my favorite national park memories to this day! (It’s always fun when your sister’s mule walks right on the edge.) Information of horseback riding can be found here.
I know what you’re thinking. Zion National Park is not an unknown as far as national parks go. In fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Again, I’m not for people-packing our parks, but I recognize that Zion is something special and we all want to see it. Entrance to the park is $35 per vehicle, and the eastern side along highway 9 is always open.
One of the largest dilemmas people face when trying to visit Zion is the fact that Springdale, the town just outside the park, has extremely limited housing and restaurants. Even in the off-seasons, you’re still going to need reservations and there will most likely be a few traffic jams.
By opting to stay in Kanab, you can still easily access the park in a day trip, but you’re not battling the hoard of tourist for a hotel or dinner table. You also get to drive into the park from the east, which provides sweeping views of the surrounding canyons as well as less-visited hiking trails. Most tourists flock to the central canyon of the park (where you have to catch a shuttle to access the interior), but very few explore the eastern edge. Here, the views are just as impressive, you can access trailheads with your own vehicle, and you’re not waiting for the one instagram-girl to stop taking selfies so you can appreciate the view. Here is a great rundown of some trails found on the east side of the park.
The drive along highway 9 towards Springdale ranks as one of the most spectacular drives I have experienced in the United States. The road is a corkscrew of twists and turns around giant, granite boulders and jutting slabs of rock. If you keep your eyes to the sky, you may even catch a glimpse of a rare California Condor (they have been seen nesting in the cliffs of Zion for the past few years).
If you do decide to go into the inner canyon of the park, you will need to drive to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, park your car, and catch the free shuttle that goes into the park. If you’re planning this trek in the summer, plan to get here extra early to beat the crowds and the long line to get on the shuttle. Shuttle information can be found here.
Any adventure out west is always guaranteed to be full of great hiking, spectacular night skies, and cherished memories. From seeing the Grand Canyon to hiding amongst the hoodoos, Kanab offers every adventurer the opportunity to get out there an explore!
While I focused mainly on attractions outside of the town, Kanab also offers a lot for those spending the night. The Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon is a great place to enjoy a hearty meal after a long day of hiking — complete with endless western-decor. Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen offers a great selection of pizzas and beer, with the added bonus of free hiking guides inside by the bathroom. You can drink a beer by the fire while planning your next day’s adventures.
The BLM Visitor Center in town is also a great starting point if you’re looking to get more information on the area, check out the weather reports, or need a permit for hiking or camping.
Beyond that, Kanab offers everything else a traveler requires: ample Airbnbs, affordable grocery stores, gas stations, clothing stores, tourist shops, and liquor stores. (Just remember, Utah liquor stores have limited hours and they’re the only ones that can sell anything over 3.5%. Grab what you need before 7pm or Sunday, and you’re good to go.)
Have a hike or a spot you love? Comment below to share you expertise! Happy trails!
Rainbow River is a great destination in central Florida for lovers of nature and clear water. A lazy day tubing or boating down the river is a perfect way to spend a Saturday, especially if you catch a glimpse of an otter playing on the banks. If you’re here looking for more information about spending a day on the river, click here for my Rainbow River article.
If you’re here thinking about your stomach, look no further! One of the biggest hurdles of floating Rainbow River can be the very strict rules about plastic waste and alcohol. No alcohol or one-use plastics are allowed on the water, meaning your beer cooler and those zip-locked PB&Js have to stay in the car. This rule in in place to conserve the river, but it makes sipping on a margarita while enjoying some Florida sunshine very difficult.
Enter Swampy’s. Located at the end of the tubing route (hour 4 if you are tubing from KP hole), Swampy’s is on the left of the river just before the tube ramp where the shuttle takes tubers back to their launch point. You can tie up your boats/kayaks/giant swans/tubes at the seawall (bring your own rope), and walk right up to the restaurant.
What makes Swampy’s great? It is easy to access from the river, has lots of seating (indoor, bar, and outdoor picnic tables), and it is very reasonably priced (average $10-$15 per plate). The food was delicious, Cajun-style, and had all the staples of Florida: gator bites, fish tacos, and delicious wraps for us unadventurous food people.
I had the Who Dat wrap- filled with blackened chicken, andouille sausage, beans, rice, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It was perfect after a day on the river, hearty and delicious. My boyfriend had the Gator wrap, which also featured blackened meat (this time gator, of course). Both are served with your choice of sides (although you have to shell out an extra $1.40 for sweet potato fries).
What makes Swampy’s really great? The Bloody Mary. Making Bloody Marys is a fine art, and good ones are hard to find. This is by far the best Bloody Mary I have blissfully chugged in all of Florida. There is nothing better than spending a couple hours on the river and then pulling up here to indulge in some good ol’ tomato juice and vodka.
There is a full-service bar available at this restaurant, and every cocktail looked delectable as it passed my seat. We did also try the margaritas but thought they were a bit too sweet to enjoy.
Pro tip: We went on a Saturday around noon, so the place was packed (45+ minute wait). But we were able to grab a seat at the bar instead, order drinks and food, and had a great time watching tubers float by. If you are kid-free, check out the bar as an option to avoid the wait and have great service.
This restaurant has a great river-vibe, good food, and excellent drinks. There are other places to eat in Dunnellon, but I will definitely be stopping in at Swampy’s on my next float down the Rainbow.
Southwest Florida is not typically considered the go-to location for outdoor enthusiasts. Designated as a beach and retiree destination, many visitors make their way down to Florida’s bottom and never leave the sandy beaches.
If you’re like me, after the third day of laying on the sand like a beached whale, you’re ready to explore something new. Fort Myers sits on the edge of many nature preserves with other great destinations easily reached by car. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite outdoor adventures within 6 hours of Fort Myers. Some could be a day trip from your beachfront condo while others are a fun overnight to break up a long week of surf and sand vacation time.
So pack your sturdy footwear, some bug spray, and your sense of adventure, and follow me on a tour through Florida’s wild places!
Located just over an hour from Fort Myers, Big Cypress is a great day trip for travelers looking to get a taste of the Everglades. I recommend taking Highway 41 (Known as the Tamiami Trail) at least on the way down from Fort Myers. This two-lane highway is a great place to see alligators and some beautiful vistas. Just mind the speed limit as Florida panthers, gators, birds, bears, and many more cross this road (especially at night). Below are some of my top picks for a day near Big Cypress!
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park– (While not technically Big Cypress, this is close and I will count it). Located off highway 29 just north of Everglades City, Fakahatchee offers a great destination for those wanting to explore the swamps and get their feet wet (literally). While you can hike alone, guided hikes are available to book through the park. Click on the link above to contact the park office about times and dates. Bears, panthers, mink, and many more call this park home. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a rare ghost orchid in bloom. (Check out this hike to a private cabin. One of the few hikes where you keep you shoes dry in this park).
Gator Hook Trail– This 5-mile, out-and-back trail offers a trip to one of the most beautiful cypress domes in Florida. Be warned, this trail will get your feet wet during most of the year and can be hard to navigate. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, long pants, and bring plenty of water and a compass (or a GPS). Click here for a more detailed run-down of this great trail!
Kirby Storter Roadside Park– This park offers a hike for the whole family. The one-mile boardwalk is stroller-friendly, and provides some of the prettiest swamp views you can get without going fully into the swamp. (And if there are too many mosquitos? You are just a short run away from the car.)
Turner River Paddling Trail– This kayak/canoe trail is a perfect option for water-lovers. About 10 miles long, you can do a portion of it before turning around. You can also continue all the way to the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and arrange a pick-up to take you back to your car. The trail takes you through narrow mangrove tunnels and out into a sawgrass prairie. Plan to spend a full-day exploring this water trail and plan to bring water and snacks. Check here for a detailed account of this river trail. Don’t have a kayak? No problem, outfitters are in abundance here and offer guided tours. Check out this outfitter for rental and tour rates.
Everglades National Park is a massive nature area encompassing the bottom part of Florida. It is a great place to go camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or grab a boat tour. The nearest visitor center to Fort Myers is Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Here you can rent kayaks or hop on a boat tour to explore Ten Thousand Islands.
Two hours from Fort Myers is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. You can bring bikes (or rent them there) to explore the 16-mile loop from the visitor center to a 45-foot observation tower offering 360 views of the everglade landscape. The trail is open 24/7, but the parking lot and center close in the evening (center closes at 5PM and the entrance closes at 6PM). I recommend picking a cooler day for this trip, as there is little shade along the way. (Or do it at night for a bike ride under the stars!)
Another option is do the full 4-hour drive to Flamingo, the heart of ENP. Check out my article on spending a weekend in Flamingo for great tips and tricks for exploring this area!
Overnight Trip to the Florida Springs
About 4 hours north of Fort Myers is an area full of crystal rivers, cool springs, and sweeping cypress trees. Springs are prevalent throughout most of northern Florida, but some of the closest rivers to Fort Myers are Rainbow River, Weeki-Wachee, and Crystal River. Each offers it’s own unique experience, so I’ve given you a brief outline below. You could easily spend a day exploring each one, so definitely plan on spending the night in the area (camping and airbnbs are available throughout the whole area). Remember to also bring a snorkel mask and fins, as the clarity of these beautiful springs will have you drooling to jump in and explore the world below!
Rainbow River: Spring-fed rivers are always a cool, 72-degrees. This means they are a great option for those sweltering, summer days. Rainbow River is a beautiful, clear river that flows from the spring-head towards Dunnellon. The river is full of otters, turtles, birds, and fish. You can rent tubes from the state park and spend the day floating in the current before boarding the shuttle back up to your launch spot. From the KP Hole launch, it takes 4 hours to float. (Hint: No plastic or alcohol is allowed on this river and is subject to a fine. Drinks and food must be in reusable containers. On the weekends, the park will close if it reaches capacity. If going on a Saturday or Sunday, plan to arrive a little bit before 8am to secure a spot.)
Weeki-Wachee: This state park also has a clear, spring-fed river. While tubing is not an easy option, you can rent paddle-boards or kayaks from the state park to enjoy this river. The state park also arranges a shuttle (book rentals and shuttle here). Families with kids can also enjoy daily mermaid shows (yes, that is a real thing), wildlife shows, and boat tours (see here for more info). The best part? In the winter, manatees make their way up this river in search of warmer water and food. Kayaking with one of the world’s gentlest mammals? Priceless.
Crystal River: Crystal River is famous as the place to go to see manatees in the winter time. This is the place where all the influencers go to post those much-sought after selfies with the cow of the sea. While you can kayak or boat the river, you will have to swim into the spring areas where the manatees hang out the most. Three Sisters Springs is the most popular and well-known spot to swim with manatees, but it is closed to boats for most of the winter season (manatees head into the bay once warmer weather hits). Be sure to check the Three Sisters Facebook page for daily closures of the springs (if the weather is too cold, the park will close the springs to swimmers because there are too many manatees in the area). There is also a boardwalk there if you don’t feel like getting wet. While this is a great winter activity, the river is also a beautiful kayak trip in the summer, and manatees can still be seen in the bay.
Local Parks and Nature Preserves
For those looking to get their nature fix but wanting to stay close to home, Fort Myers has a great selection of outdoor areas for all skill-levels. All of these trails are within an hour of Fort Myers, so they make for a very easy day trip or evening excursion. Here are some of my favorites:
CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: A great location for walkers or bikers (this trail is packed-dirt with a small section of boardwalk), the Bird Rookery Swamp is a go-to for bird-watching, gator-sighting, and possible otter encounters. Every now and then a panther will be sighted in the area, so keep your eyes out for one of Florida’s rarest residents. The trail is an oddly-shaped 12-mile loop, but I only recommend doing the full loop if you’re on a bike (Remember, Florida is hot and humid for most of the year). The first 3 miles are some of the prettiest if you want a shorter option. Gators love to hang out on the side of the trail, so be sure to pick up any small dogs or small kids (joking). Dogs aren’t advised on this trail, but if you do bring Mr. Fancy Paws, just stay aware of your surroundings.
J.N. Ding Darling Kayak Trail: Located on Sanibel, this federal preserve is a great place to launch a kayak and explore mangrove tunnels and shallow bays. Stingrays, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, tropical birds, and fish love this area (It is one of the top birding locations in the United States!). It costs $10 per a vehicle to enter (free with a National Park pass), and the park is closed on Fridays. If you don’t have a kayak, you can take a guided kayak tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Located in the heart of Fort Myers, this is one of the easiest to access “hikes” on the list. This elevated boardwalk is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and twists through one of the last sloughs remaining in the area (thanks, overdevelopment). The boardwalk is about 1.2 miles long, and parking is $1 an hour (but entrance to the boardwalk is free). This is a great early morning or late evening option, as the park is open dawn to dusk. Gators are almost always a guarantee at the large lake about 1/3 mile from the parking lot!
This is just a few of my favorite outdoor activities within an easy drive of Fort Myers. Florida is on a constant quest to develop every open area, so it is always important to appreciate these natural places before they are gone. If you love nature, consider also donating to a local conservation group to help beat back the developers (we really don’t need another Wal-Mart). Through our combined efforts, we can continue to enjoy these places long into the future. (Here’s a link to the local Sierra Club).
Have a nature spot that you enjoy in southern Florida? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!
Hawaii. I could write 10,000 words on how much I love this state. From Maui’s Road to Hana to the spectacular cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii is a magical destination. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit in the United States (that’s what you get for being in the middle of the ocean).
Because of the high price tag, many travelers never make it to the islands. They see the price of the fancy resorts and luaus, hug their bank accounts, and decide this is another great year to visit the in-laws (family first…unless it’s Hawaii.)
However, Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank for you to bask in some beautiful waterfalls and dip your toes in crystal waters. Hawaii has seven main islands- most travelers visit Oahu (the island with Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) or Maui (picture golf courses and fancy resorts). Those are the big dogs of tourism, which also means they are the most crowded and most expensive. If you’re looking for adventure that won’t make you have major credit card hangover once you return, the Big Island is the destination for you. This island also offers more as far as eco-diversity and outdoor adventure!
We chose to fly into Kona and rent a car to explore the island for a week. While a car rental may seem expensive (especially in the age of Covid), it is the best way to see the island without having to follow a bus schedule or depend on taxis (Uber is not always available). We rented through Budget, but all the car rentals are just a short shuttle ride from the airport, so pick the agency with the best price.
This itinerary covers 5 days on the island, but you could squeeze it into 3 if you have less time. However, keep in mind that the driving estimates are estimates, so you may have to skip a few items to fit a shorter schedule. (The Big Island is big. It is 95 miles from the northern tip to the southern tip and 80 miles across with the average speed being around 45 mph).
We started and ended at Kona International Airport. If you are flying into Hilo, you could still follow this plan, just in reverse. (Hint: If you are going in reverse, be sure to check the times on some of the attractions because you will be arriving later in the day).
The driving times are actual times on the road and do not include time spent on stops or possible traffic. Use them as a rough estimate as you plan your adventure. If you’re into history or local legends, download the Shaka app to listen to stories about the sights along the way!
Day 1: Kona (1 hour of driving total)
We flew into Kona International Airport around midday and picked up our rental car from Budget. You can catch the car rental shuttle just outside the arrival gate for all rental agencies.
Kona is on the west side of the Big Island, which is also the dry side. You are surrounded by lava flows cast in the shadow of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. This is the side of sunshine, beaches, and lava rock.
From the airport, we headed north about 10 minutes to Kekaha Kai State Park. This is a great place to say hello Hawaii! The park features lava flows, a beautiful beach, bathrooms, coastal hiking trails, and a hike to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone which offers great views along the coast (bring water!) The turn can be hard to spot on the highway, so be sure to have it in your Google Maps before you leave the rental lot (Here’s a pin to put into your navigation).
The Kekaha Kai State Park road is part road, part lava flow. It makes for a fun driving experience, but take it slow to avoid bottoming out in one of the many ditches. Once you arrive, prepare for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island complete with lava rock that dips into the ocean, great snorkeling, and beautiful walks along the coast. If you have a keen eye, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle amongst the surf in Mahaiula Bay. If you have time, take the coast walk to Makalawena Beach. It’s 2 miles from the parking lot (4 miles roundtrip), but the reward is a beach that can’t be reached by the road, and it is wonderfully seclusive and serene. Be careful if swimming, as rip currents are always a risk.
After leaving the park, we headed south towards the town of Kona (15 minute drive). Warning, Kona does have tight roads, so just drive slowly and be patient when it comes to parking. We went to the downtown area on Alii Drive for some sunset viewing, dinner, and shopping. Hulihe’e Palace is located within walking distance of the restaurant area. You can tour the palace Tuesday-Saturday for $10.
We spent the evening in Kona and had an amazing Hawaiian dinner at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill. Kona is a great place to catch the sunset, so be sure to be downtown for the golden hour to celebrate in the final rays of a beautiful day on Hawaii.
Starting from our hotel in Kona, we headed back north along highway 19 for Day 2 of our Big Island Adventure. Passing the state park we visited the day before, we continued north to Kiholo Bay. This is another beautiful coastal area featuring black sand and rocks. We didn’t have time, but if you’re here later in the day, plan to take a swim into The Queen’s Bay, a flooded lava tube located a short walk away from the small parking lot.
From there, we continued north to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Entrance to the park is free and open from 7:30am-5pm. (While entrance is free, I recommend buying a National Park Annual Pass before leaving the mainland. The $80 fee will pay for itself by the end of the trip and you’ll have free entrance to all NPS sites for the rest of the year!). We spent about an hour walking among structures left from Hawaii’s original inhabitants. There isn’t much as far as a visitor center, but for $2 you can sign up for a guided tour or try your best to go off the details on the map they give you (I had a history teacher with me, so I cheated). We also chose to pack a picnic and have lunch on one of the many picnic tables over-looking the Pacific Ocean (Pro Tip: Picnics save money and time when road-tripping!)
From the historic park, we continued north on Highway 270 along the coast towards Māhukona Beach Park. This portion of the drive is breathtaking as the road rises up along the highlands and gives spectacular views of the ocean. Have your passengers keep an eye on the water as this is one of the best places on the island to catch sight of humpback whales in the winter/spring season (we were there in March). Look for a spray of water above the waves or even watch the whale-watching helicopters buzz over. Just try not to crash when you start squealing with excitement at your sighting (not from experience at all….)
You can stop at the beach park, but we continued onwards to the town of Hawi. This is also a great option for lunch if you’re not a picnic person, as the town is small but adorable with cute little cafes and stores. This is also one of the few places to get gas along this route, so if you’re running low, better fill up. After stopping at a few tourist shops in Hawi, we finished up our northern route at the main attraction of the day, Pololū Valley Lookout. The route between the town and lookout features breathtaking views of waterfalls and cliffs, so take your time and enjoy!
This lookout provides one of the best views on the entire island. Parked at the north edge of the island, you can stand at the view point and see down the eastern coast. With the jungle-covered hills and dropping seaside cliffs, it is a sight that challenges even the most spectacular views on Kauai and Maui. (Read more about the geological significance of this area here.)
If you get here early (or even plan to spend the night in this area), do the hike into the Pololu Valley. It’s only a mile to the black sand beach at the bottom, but that’s a mile with a 350 ft elevation change (think stairs. Lots of stairs). Be careful if you plan on swimming here. The beach is known of dangerous jellies and large waves (this is the windward side of the island, after all).
After enjoying the sights, we headed back towards Kona, taking highway 250 (Known as the “Kohala Mountain Rd”) toward Waimea. This is a beautiful route to take in the afternoon. You’ll be passing Mauna Kea on the left (don’t worry, you’ll get a closer view later on in the trip).
The area of Waimea looks more like a picture out of a western than a Hawaiian island (it’s also a white guy’s cattle ranch…so it makes sense). If you happen to get there when the clouds are rolling through, prepare to feel like you’re on another planet. This is truly one of the best drives on the island.
You can stop in Waimea for dinner (steak, anyone?). We chose to continue on, staying along Route 190 for the entire way back to Kona. This meant we didn’t have to backtrack on 19, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the highland road. We finished up the day with another dinner in the town of Kona before heading to bed.
Day 3: Kona to Hilo (4-5 hours of driving total)
You could easily spend a few more days around Kona, but our time schedule didn’t allow for it. The next morning we woke up bright and early to drive the Coastal Highway 11 from Kona to Pahoa (where we had an AirBnB booked for the week). If you are driving the coastal route from Kona to Hilo, plan to spend the entire day along the route. There’s so much to see and do that you may even want to consider stopping halfway (as we did), and continuing on or going back to places the next day. I’ve listed today’s itineraries into separate stops so you can pick and choose which one catch your interest.
This stop is just south of Kona, so we hit it very early in the morning. Typically, this beach is a great place to snorkel and a great spot to see sea turtles. However, we were there too early to snorkel (and I’m vain enough not to want salty hair all day). We stopped for about 20 minutes to walk around the park, look at some tide pools, and play in the black sand.
20 minutes south of Kona is the town of Captain Cook. Situated in the heart of coffee country, the town has a fantastic view of the ocean. Things start getting greener on the drive here as we leave behind lava fields in exchange for giant ferns, dropping sea cliffs, and twisting roads. We only spent a few minutes in this town, because we had a deadline to meet our Airbnb host. However, if you have more time, stop by and visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (open 10am-2pm, so plan accordingly). If you have even more time, spend an hour walking the 4-mile Captain Cook Monument Trail for some great ocean views and coffee field vistas.
This was a random stop we made on our way to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and it was worth it! Tucked into the hillside overlooking the ocean, this painted church is the perfect stop to stop and reflect on the beauty around you (or you know, repent for sins. I’m not religious but pretty buildings are pretty buildings).
This tiny church has been around since 1899, and the paintings are still vibrant and colorful. Around the church is a gorgeous garden featuring flowers and plants local to the island (ok, there might be a few invasives in there). It’s free to enter the church, but you can donate at the unmanned booth in the front. Or you can purchase a souvenir, placing your money into the donation box (be sure to bring cash!)
This was the second historical stop we made on our trip, and it was by far my favorite. More established, with an actual visitor center, Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about the native Hawaiian culture and history. Estimated to be over 450 years old, this ceremonial site features remnants of a great wall, reconstructed buildings, and cultural demonstrations. Open from 8:15am to sunset, the entrance fee is $20 per a vehicle (or free if you have that Annual Park Pass I mentioned before.)
We spent a couple hours here, but you could spend all day. Just outside the park is Honaunau Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Based on the amount of colorful fish I saw in the water, I believe it! It is also worth it to walk out onto the lava rocks around the park. The waves crashing over the black rocks are stunning. You also get the extra perk of seeing some cool tidal pools (just leave the fancy shoes at home. You’re going to want sturdy sandals or tennis shoes for this outing).
This is the longest portion of the drive so far on this trip, so I like to break things up a bit. This small park offers a great place to have a picnic or stretch your legs. Nestled on the side of Mauna Loa, this roadside park has picnic tables, a two-mile walking trail, and beautiful flora to admire. We didn’t stop due to Covid restrictions, but check it out and tell me how it is! (I’m always looking for a reason to go back). If you’re interested in lava tubes, Kula Kai Caverns is right down the road. You have to pay to tour these ancient caves, so I prefer to do my lava-tube exploring in the national park.
I’m hungry just writing this, so chances are you will be starving by the time you get here (we definitely were!). Located in the town of Naalehu is one of the greatest gems on the island, Punalu’u Bake Shop. If you’re on a diet then consider this your cheat day, and it is worth it. Pop in and grab yourself a chunk of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread (or several loaves…). They also have sweet Malasadas that pair perfectly with that afternoon coffee. I had the apple-filled one, and I still dream about it.
Forcing away a sugar coma, we continued 30 minutes down the road towards Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24/7 and it costs $30 per a car to enter (unless you bought that annual pass. See? It’s mostly paid for itself already). At the time of writing, the visitor center was under limited hours for Covid, so be sure to check the site linked above for hours when you visit.
Because it was later in the day, we only planned on a short stop here. I recommend giving this park at least 2 days in your itinerary, as there is so much to see here and the park is huge. If you only have a day, here are the highlights we hit in about 2 hours:
Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center of the park and a great place to get oriented. You’re going to want to pack a jacket for this part of the day, as Volcano, Hawaii is 3,700 feet in elevation and it gets chilly in the evenings (if you spend the night here or camp, definitely pack some warm clothes).
Walk from the visitor center to the Sulphur Banks and SteamVents. You can also drive there to save time. Plan for about 30 minutes to walk through this area, admiring an active volcano scene and sweeping vistas into the Kīlauea crater (an active volcano!).
Drive down Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook for another great viewpoint.
Turn around and head past the visitor center to Thurston Lava Tubes. There is limited parking at the tubes so park here and walk the 10 minute trail to the lava tubes (you’ll be rewarded with some great views along the way). Plan to spend about an hour exploring this amazing geological feature. Be warned there are stairs and some dark spots, so talk with a ranger at the visitor center if you have concerns.
From here, we left the park for the day, with plans on coming back the next day. You can chose to stay in the park, stay in Volcano (the town), or continue on to Hilo or Pahoa and circle back. Our AirBnB was in Pahoa, so we were only about an hour away. (Check out the link if you want an awesome place to stay!) We finished up our long day of sightseeing by picking up groceries in Pahoa’s center, making dinner at our AirBnB to save money, and wrapped up the day by drinking wine on our gorgeous porch overlooking the ocean.
Day 4: Volcanoes National Park (at least 2 hours of driving in the park)
We went back for more the next day, and I definitely recommend planning to spend a full day in the park. Beyond the stops mentioned above, some of my other favorite things to do in the park include:
Chain of Craters Road: 19-mile park road that goes past numerous craters before ending at the ocean. Plan on spending a couple hours for all the stops and photo ops available. Check at the visitor center for any road closures. (Full list of stops can be found here.)
Hōlei Sea Arch: The end of the road at the ocean (it used to go further, but then lava covered it). Take a minute to admire the arch, breathe in the ocean air, then head back the way you came.
Day 5: Hilo to Kona (4 hours of driving with side trips)
Hilo is on the wet side of the island, so it’s the polar opposite of where we started in this journey (pack a rain jacket and bug spray for this day). Instead of lava fields, you are rewarded with lush rainforests that make you feel like you’ve traveled back into the Jurassic period (original idea, I know). The drive back to Kona is an hour and a half, so you can have a full day exploring this side of the island.
We started our day with a stroll through Hilo’s Farmers Market (open 7 days a week from 6am-3pm. “Big Market Days” are Wednesday and Saturday). The market is a great place to pick up custom-made Hawaiian jewelry or blankets, sample some locally-grown fruit, or grab more of that delicious Hawaiian bread you keep thinking about. Check here for more information on the market. As you munch on the yummy things you bought, spend some time walking around downtown (located right by the market). There are plenty of quirky shops and cozy cafes to dip into should it start to rain.
Next, we grabbed our hiking shoes and headed to Akaka Falls State Park. This .4 mile loop leads to a 442-foot waterfall, and you can instantly cause instagram-jealously with the endless photo ops here. (Parking is limited, so get there early or be prepared to walk up the road).
From the falls, we continued up the windward side of the island toward Laupahoehoe Point. It’s only 30 Google Map minutes from Akaka Falls, but we spent over an hour on the drive there. The road is one of the prettiest in all of Hawaii, and hugs the coastline the entire way. Once you get to the sharp turn down to Laupahoehoe, you are rewarded with vistas spanning the entire Hilo coast. At the bottom of the road is a beautiful beach park with picnic tables, old trees, surging waves, and lava rocks (this is not a beach for swimming). We had a nice picnic here and enjoyed the sound of crashing waves on the rocks. There is also a memorial here for 1941 tsunami that struck this coast, destroying a school that was here. Looking up at the towering cliffs, it’s a chilling reminder of nature’s power.
After getting our daily dose of morbid, we headed back towards Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. At $25 a person, this is an expensive stop, but a must-do for any orchid-lovers out there. Even if you don’t want to stop at the garden, take the turn off of 19 onto Old Mamalahowa Highway. This narrow, winding road goes through beautiful lush forest and over crystal rivers. Stop at the small bridge for a great photo op along the route.
From here, we went back into the heart of Hilo to Wailuku River State Park. This 80-foot waterfall park is easily accessible for everyone, and the waterfalls are right by the parking lot. From here, you can continue onto the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. Due to Covid, these sights were closed when we visited (so, go check them out and send me some pictures!)
After finishing up in Hilo, we headed back towards Kona on highway 200. If you have extra time and an itch for adventure, check out Kaumana Caves on your way out of town. If you have sturdy shoes and a flashlight, you can descend into these massive lava tubes and explore away (no admission fee into this state park).
Along highway 200 towards Hilo, we drove between Hawaii’s main landmarks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you have extra time, plan to do this drive in the early evening so you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory and catch a truly spectacular view of the night sky (this is one of the darkest and clearest observation points in the world!). The Visitor Information Center offers astronomy talks, stargazing tours, and science-nerd galore. Be on the lookout for the endangered Nene bird on your way up Mauna Kea, as they can usually be spotted along the road or in the surrounding fields.
While this itinerary does hit some highlights of the Big Island, there is always more to see. I like to focus on outdoor activities and sightseeing on my adventures, but there is something for everyone on the Big Island.
If you’re a major beach goer, you could end this itinerary with a day of sun-soaking at Hapuna Beach State Park. If you enjoy shore diving, Beach 69 is a great location to grab a tank and dive under the waves. All of these adventures are fun, memorable, and affordable. If you have more time in Kona and a bit of extra cash, opt for a whale watching tour to get a closer sight of these beautiful mammals.
Hawaii has a reputation for being incredibly expensive, saved for those special honeymoons or retirement trips only. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By being flexible in your island-selection, willing to opt for outdoor adventures over shopping (perk, outdoor stuff is usually free), and skipping the restaurants for picnics and airbnb-cooked meals, you can enjoy a beautiful location without counting every dollar going out.
Have a location or a tip I missed? Drop a comment below about what you love about Hawaii’s Big Island! Like, share, and spread the love so we can all get out there and explore. Aloha!
Travel can be amazing, but it can also be stressful. There is so much planning, coordination, and “what-ifs” that go into every trip. International trips can add even more stress.
Fortunately, technology has grown to help relieve the stresses of travel and make a lot of things way easier. My favorite companion on every trip is my smartphone (and it’s not just for the endless photos I can take), but because a smartphone (or tablet) can be a great tool to use when jumping from sight to sight.
However, there are a surplus of apps out there to aid in travel, and it might be a tad overwhelming for a new adventurer to navigate each one. I’ve made a list of a few of my favorite applications to use on an adventure to help make things a bit easier. As a bonus, I chose to feature not only my favorites but also the free ones (because who doesn’t like free stuff?). Onwards!
Okay, so we all know about Google Maps (the superior alternative to Apple Maps and I’ll argue that to the grave). Whether it is the tested and true app of choice for getting you around those pesky traffic jams or alerting you when there might be a trooper so you might want to lay off that lead foot, Google Maps is a master of navigation. But it is also a great tool to use when traveling (and not just to get from one waterfall to the next).
One of the best features this app offers is the option to download maps to use offline. This allows you to continue to access maps for navigation even if you do not have a phone signal (or you’re trying to limit data usage in a foreign country). This also allows you to access your saved locations for those fun-filled days of sightseeing.
Before every trip, I spend a couple hours researching what I want to see and planning my routes. To make everything nice and seamless for my trip, I save each location onto Google Maps with the title of the location and a small note about what to see there/price. That way when we jump in the car at 4am to tour the southern coast of Iceland, everything is already planned out and we waste no time looking up each location. This saves time for those fun side-adventures that may pop up along the way!
Budgeting and money is always something to consider for every trip, especially if you’re traveling with a group. In the US, we all got comfortable using Venmo to split bills at restaurant or hotels. However, Venmo doesn’t work in every country (something I found out the hard way), and many foreign restaurants do not split checks. So, how do you travel with friends and keep track of what everyone owes? Splitwise.
Splitwise is money-sharing app that keeps track of what each person owes. You can create separate lists for different trips, with different people in each list. As you go about your adventures, each person logs what they pay and then inputs how much each party owes. At the end, you have a nice tally of the overall balance. It is user-friendly, and a great way to keep track of everything! No more exchanging euros over each transaction or getting mad because that one friend never paid for anything (no one likes sending “pay requests” on Venmo over and over again).
Splitwise does have one fatal flaw. It currently does not allow for you to actually pay your friends (such as Google Pay, Venmo, or PayPal). So at the end of your trip, you will need to settle-up in cash or simply wait until you’re back in the US to Venmo them.
If your travel buddies are the same adventurers for every jaunt across the globe, you can also simply carry over balances for the next trip. That way you just keep a running tab on who owes who.
Tip: Google Pay and PayPal do work overseas. However, you would still have to do a transaction after every bill, which is very inconvenient when you’re splitting multiple bills a day.
This is another well-known app, especially for those of us who teach English Language Learners when we’re not adventuring. Google Translateis a great app to quickly type in a question when you need to communicate with your Uber driver or AirBnB host. It also allows for individuals to speak into the microphone so it can translate what they are saying.
I use Google Translate the most when it comes to reading menus and signs. The app has a handy feature that lets you go into camera mode. Simply click the camera sign, point it at the menu, and it will translate the words on the screen (be sure to hold your phone steady for this to work). It has saved me many times from ordering the wrong thing! (I don’t care what people say. I am not eating cow tongue.)
See? I only translate the important things.
While it is not always perfect, the translation gives you a close enough guess. I wouldn’t use it to flirt with that handsome German at the bar, but in a pinch, it is a great app to have!
MyCurrencyConverter is a must-have if you’re going international. There are hundreds of currency apps available online, but I’ve found this one to be the simplest and most user-friendly.
The app has a very simple platform. All you do is select the country you’re visiting and input the amount you want converted. This is an amazing service when visiting countries where the currency doesn’t match up easily to the US dollar (The Hungarian Forint is currently worth 0.00351824 dollars. No one wants to do that math.)
The app also works on airplane mode, but the conversion won’t be exact (it will go off the rates when it was last connected to wifi or data). However, it still gives a great ballpark estimate and is a great accessory to use with Splitwise.
Most people are familiar with the TripAdvisor website. It is a great place to go when starting to plan a trip or posing a question on one of the forums. The site allows for you to book tours, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants. It also allows for you to look at reviews for all of these services, as well as find lists of things to do at each destination.
The TripAdvisor App offers the same services, only on a convenient mobile interface. You can easily access the “Things To Do” for quick planning on the go, or book that river cruise while drinking wine on a balcony over looking the Danube.
Alternatives: While I love TripAdvisor, I also use other sites with similar services. VisitACity is a great app for offline city guides. You can download city maps and attractions over wifi/data before you leave, and use the app to navigate your way through cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Prague.
Local city apps. Many cities will have their own apps to use to book tours, find information, or buy transportation tickets. It’s worth taking a few minutes before you board your flight to investigate. Many of these apps also offer discounts on dining and bus/boat tours.
Spotted By Locals is also a great city app, offering guides to over 80 cities. The information here is for people looking to get out of the tourist loop and into more “local” attractions and restaurants. Each guide does cost about $4, so it is not my favorite, but maybe something to consider.
Uber is an obvious favorite. For the countries and cities that allow Uber, it is a great choice to catch a ride easily around town. However, Uber is not offered everywhere, so it is worth researching other travel options. Many cities have their own taxi apps, which make hailing/paying for a cab easy and safe. (Check out this app for Budapest’s taxi app, Bolt).
You will also want to download the app for whatever train service will be in your area. For example, while living in Scotland, I depended on Scotrail to get me around. This app allowed for easy booking for trains, access to timetables, and updates on delays.
Many Americans are familiar with the rail app, Eurail. While you can book train tickets for all of Europe on this site, you will be paying a premium for that convenience. For those looking to save money, you will need to go to the specific countries website/app to book the cheapest tickets. German’s rail site (Bahn.de) also offers a great app to use (just be sure to click the “EN” at the top of these sites for the English option).
Trainline is also a great option for trips that go across country lines.
Mobile Passport is one of my favorite apps for international trips. You will need to set-up your free account before you board your flight back to the US, but you will only need to do this once (if you keep the app loaded on your phone).
This app lets you bypass those long lines at US customs. Instead of filling out one of the customs forms on the plane, you complete the questionnaire on the app once you touchdown in the US. Once you get off the plane, you will then head towards the “Mobile Passport” lane, which is much faster and shorter than the typical route. This is an easier and cheaper alternative to Global Entry.
While not every Port of Entry utilizes Mobile Passport, most international flights will have this option. Be sure to download this app before your departure, and enjoy the blissful feeling of painlessly navigating through Border Control on your return.
These are just a few of my favorite apps to use while traveling. I’ve found that they really help me enjoy a location without stressing about the smaller details.
Have a favorite app you’d like to share? Drop a comment below or send us an email. I’m always looking to expand my app-ertise (see what I did there?).
“If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it.”
James Carlos Blake
The Devil’s Garden. That’s a pretty accurate description for how most travelers would view Everglades National Park as they drive the 39 miles spanning from the southern entrance all the way down to Flamingo. Although it is one of America’s largest parks, it is often forgotten or passed over in favor of more instagrammable locales (looking at you, Old Faithful).
Picture this: Visitors drive past pine lands and cypress, counting the mosquitos that stick to their windshield, and hop out in a Deet-induced haze to quickly snap a picture of an alligator. At the end of their drive, they hit Flamingo, the little dot that sits at the bottom of Florida, caught in the long shadow cast by Miami on the opposite shore. Flamingo is an outpost that probably hit its heyday in the mid 50’s, and has since been forgotten in the annual budget of the Department of the Interior (as seen by the lovely abandoned building that greets you as you enter the outpost area).
There are few choices once visitors arrive here. For those unlucky travelers who forgot to bring a lunch, they’re left to the overpriced offerings of the general store (the only food option in the park. Picture canned chicken salad and $4 Gatorade). If you didn’t fill up in Homestead, you get the pleasure of paying for the Glade’s premium at the one gas station (only open during the day, so plan accordingly). And if you like to sleep in a room which isn’t composed of canvas and netting, then you’re better off grabbing that entrance sign pic, turning around, and heading to Key West for the weekend instead.
I was like many visitors– hitting a few boardwalks, swatting a few flies, then getting out of there to find some air conditioning and hydrocortisone cream. I just didn’t get the appeal. Then, I started taking more trips here, taking more time to really experience what the park had to offer (and braving the night full of mosquitos) and something amazing happened. I started to get it. This place is truly one-of-a-kind.
Everglades is not like other parks. The trails aren’t easily marked and most can only be accessed by a kayak or boat. However, this park can offer an amazing adventure for those willing to go outside of their comfort zone.
Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite (and budget-friendly) things to do on a weekend in the Everglades.
Sleeping in anEco-Tents
Unless you’re in an RV, the only option for spending the night in the park is camping. Currently, there is a hotel being built in Flamingo, but it’s been a long process and as of May 2021, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be popping up on Booking.com anytime soon. Airbnb? Also not an option.
However, Flamingo Adventures has created an amazing solution for those wanting a little more glamour than a basic tent. Marketed as an “above-ground, glamping tent”, the eco-tents are built on wood platforms facing the Florida Bay. It’s as far south as you can go without driving to the keys, and the views are specular. I’ve stayed in these canvas rooms twice now (over Labor Day weekend and in May), and both times I’ve been blown away by how comfortable of a camping experience these tents provide. You have the option of booking a tent with a queen bed, two doubles, or BYOSP (bring your own sleeping pad), and each tent is decked out with electricity, three sides of netting, a lamp, and a massive fan (for those muggy, Florida nights). The best part? You have an outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the storms blow by or even catch a glimpse of an osprey snatching a fish from the shallow waters.
The tents are large enough that you can spread out all your gear (like those muddy hiking shoes), and still have plenty of space to move around. Unlike a traditional tent, they’re also tall enough that you don’t have to crouch, and you feel comfortable enjoying nature without becoming a snack for the mosquitos. To add to the extra-level of glamping, there is even a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets (this Missouri girl is unused to such level of comfort).
While they are an amazing option in the day (especially as a place to hideout during those daily summer storms– nap time while smelling the rain? Yes, please!), the eco-tents truly shine at night. If you’re here during the milky way season (Spring-early Fall), you will be treated to some of the most beautiful dark skies this side of the Mississippi. This is what makes staying the night in Flamingo a must-do for any weekend adventurers.
The cheapest time to book these tents are in the summer season (late April-November), where you can snag one of these beauties for just $50 a night. A tent site in Flamingo runs $25, so it is definitely worth it to level-up and get a little bit more comfort. If you go in the winter, tents start at $90 and only go up. They’re also more in-demand at that time so you need to book in advance.
The Cons? Summer time is also the buggy time, where no-see-ums and mosquitos reign supreme. Winter is much more friendly if you’re looking to avoid our buzzing friends, but you will miss out on the storm-watching and Milky Way. You’ll also have to deal with a bit more people around.
Important note: While the eco-tents are a great option to hide from the mosquitos, the netting is not no-see-um proof. It’s best to plan your visit when the wind will be strong enough to keep these annoying pests away.
Hiking a Cypress Dome
Everglades National Park is the first place I ever got my feet wet in swamp hiking (literally. Your boots get soaked.) I was lucky enough to get to go with some friends, and the moment my boot disappeared into the water and I was under the canopy of enchanting cypress, I was addicted to this place.
A cypress dome, for those of us not well-versed in glade vocabulary, is characterized by a circle of cypress trees growing in a deeper pool of water. It is the stereotypical image that most of us have of the swamp, and has probably been featured in over five different Nicholas Sparks’ movies. Cypress trees tower above you as you tread in knee-deep water (even deeper depending on the season). They are populated by gators, tropical birds, and beautiful orchids. I never imagined that I would enjoy treading through water, but the serenity and peacefulness found in a dome is unmatched. Unlike most hikes that are done out west, a dome hike is slower, more reflective. It isn’t about reaching a destination, but more about enjoying where you are at.
I often get asked what to wear when hiking into the swamp. From experience, I can tell you to leave the chacos at home and opt for an old pair of hiking boots or sneakers. Your feet will get wet, but your toes will be protected from whatever may be under the water’s surface. Always wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking in the glades. Opt for clothing that is lightweight and breathable, so it dries quickly and won’t weigh you down.
Cypress Domes perforate the glades landscape, but unless you are with a native swamper, they can be difficult to find (it took me over a year living in Florida before I ever went into one). Fortunately, Everglades National Park organizes ranger-led hikes (called “wet hikes”) into this beautiful ecosystem. Hikes meet at the Royal Palm Ranger Station (the first station you see upon entering the park from Homestead), and can be booked online here.
Looking for Orchids
This was an activity I never envisioned I would enjoy until I found myself dating an orchid-enthusiast. I knew about the beautiful flowers that I would sometimes see at the Home Depot, but I never thought to go view these plants in the wild. Everglades National Park has the most diverse population of orchids in the NPS system (it’s the place to go if you love unique plants and flowers). Unfortunately, a history of poaching and development have led to much of the Everglades’ orchid population being depleted. But you can still view some of these beauties in the wild (just don’t touch or take. Follow the Leave No Trace policy that keeps the wilderness wild).
Orchids are found in a variety of places in a glades, but most require some hiking to access. A venture into the salt marsh prairie can lead to the rewarding experience of seeing a Mule Ear orchid in the wild. Check out the photo below for just how gorgeous these plants are.
Orchids bloom depending on the season you visit. For those sharp-eyed hikers, you can usually spot them on most trails, but a guided hike is also a great option. Check here for more information on ranger-led hikes in the park.
Just remember, alway carry plenty of water when exploring the park. Florida is a hot and humid destination, and poor planning could lead to a bad situation.
Everyone heads to south Florida determined to see an alligator, and while gators are cool and all, they are literally everywhere. A drive down 41 will allow a visitor to see enough gators to satisfy any gator-itch they may have.
What most visitors don’t realize is that Florida has another toothy-resident, and they’re not nearly as common. The American Crocodile is a spectacular predator to behold, and Flamingo is a great place to spot one of these guys chilling in the water (or out of it if they’re sunning themselves). Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocs and gators are natural neighbors. For those itching to catch a glimpse, you are almost always guaranteed a croc sighting by cruising by the Flamingo boat ramp at night. Crocs have a thinner nose and exposed teeth, but if that is too hard to see, shine a light in their direction. A croc’s eyes will shine back red while a gator’s eyes will be yellow. Bingo! You got yourself a croc sighting.
Other critters found in the park include black bears, panthers, mink, manatees, flamingos, birds, snakes, and too many more to list. In the late spring/early fall, manatees can be seen swimming by the docks just past the Flamingo General Store. Ospreys can be seen nesting throughout the area and diving for fresh fish in the bay. Rattlesnakes can be spotted throughout the tall grasses and pine lands, so be careful where you step and keep those airpods at home.
If you’re a night owl, you can spot your animal namesake perched in trees and on posts at night throughout the park and along the park road (please drive slowly! Owls are frequent roadkill along the road and this is easily avoidable). Pythons come out to play in the evening as well, and, if you’re awake, you can see the invasive snakes hunting across the pavement or in the grass. Just leave the wrangling to one of Florida’s approved python contactors. These men and women are trained to capture these giants.
These are just a few of the many activities you can do on a weekend in Everglades National Park. If you’re eager to get on the water, you can also rent kayaks from the Flamingo Activities Booth (located right next to the gas station) and explored one of the countless water trails that snake deeper into the swamps or out into the bay.
If you plan on visiting some of the Park’s other entrances (Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers), there are even more things to do. Shark Valley offers a tram ride to an overlook tower (this can also be done on a bicycle), and Gulf Coast offers boat tours, kayak adventures, and more into the Ten Thousand Island region.
A weekend in the park is definitely one for the hardy adventurer, but it comes with endless rewards and experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. It is also a nice variation from the binge-drinking party scene popular in Miami. If big lights and clubs aren’t your scene, switch up a trip to south Florida by spending some time in the “true” Florida, where cypress and grasslands have been spared by the relentless development and concrete jungles.