Posted in Budget Tips, International Travel, Photos

Malta: A Destination for Backpackers, History Lovers, Cruisers, and Sun Worshippers.

Overlooking the bay off Comino Island

I’ve been to Malta twice now– once on a budget trip with friends, and the second time on a luxury cruise with my grandfather. Both experiences were incredible, although sipping champagne in a fancy bathrobe on my balcony while overlooking Valletta was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment I’ll never forget. (Thanks, Pop!)

Just a regular day for me.

Malta is an up-and-coming travel destination, but for now, it’s not overrun by tourists. Unlike many hot Europe destinations, there are a lot of the things to see and do that don’t require a ticket! For the ones that do, they’re unlikely to sell out before you show up (looking at you, Sistine Chapel).

On my first visit, we stayed in Sliema, which is on the modern side of things in relation to the rest of the island. Sliema sits across the bay from the picturesque Valletta. Rentals and restaurants are cheaper here, and you get the added bonus of looking at the city throughout your stay. Our Airbnb was just a quick walk away from where the ferry leaves for Valletta, and around the block from a line of shops and restaurants. The ferry to Valletta goes all day and is very affordable, however you will want to arrive early to make sure you get a good seat (or any seat, if you are visiting during the late spring-summer).

Very important pro-tip: This is going to sound weird to some, but the one thing I wish I knew about visiting Malta was how aggressive the mosquitos are. Seriously, bring bug spray and pray. I won’t even tell you the total amount I had by the time I left the first time I visited. (My travel companions can tell you the number because I updated them every time I got a new one. I’m a delight, really.) The good news is that the local pharmacies in town all sell bug spray at a reasonable (for Europe) price.

Getting artsy on the cliffs on the south side of the island. This was taken near the Dingli Cliffs.

The Republic of Malta has been inhabited since at least 5900 BC. Due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the country has been occupied or conquered several times over the course of its existence. From the Phoenicians in 1000BC, to the Arabs during the Middle Ages, all the way through to becoming a British colony in the 1800s and key air base in World War II (just to name a few), this tiny island has played a key role throughout history.

You can see all of the different layers of history as you travel around the island (and its sister island, Gozo). It’s there in the street signs, the building style, the food, and the people. I know it’s cliché to say there’s something for everyone, but hear me out. There is LITERALLY something for everyone. The island is small but mighty, with enough sites and experiences to keep any tourist happy. Just don’t be scared to try the rabbit!

Below, I’ve outlined a (very) brief list of top things to do while visiting Malta. It was hard to narrow it down, so there is much more than what you see here. But this is a great jumping off point! I’d easily be able to fill an entire book with info on Malta’s historically significant sites, hiking trails, museums, and diving spots.

Ġgantija Temples

Malta is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including temples such as Ggantija, a Neolithic compound located on Gozo Island (just north of the mainland of Malta). Built in 3600 B.C., the Ggantija Temples were named so because the locals believed the enormous temples were built by giants. Over thousands of years, the temples have stayed fairly well-preserved (although adventuring Brits in the late 1800s were less than gentle with their excavation). The museum onsite houses many of the artifacts discovered during countless excavations. The museum also offers great info on the temple’s (re)discovery. Make sure to take time to check it out if you find yourself here!

Bonus: There are 5 other temple sites in Malta that are included under the UNESCO umbrella (Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’ Ħaġrat, and Skorba), some dating back further than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. Each of these temples offer a truly incredible site. The ingenuity and craftsmanship of these prehistoric people are fully on display, and careful study of each of these sites have given us amazing insight into how the ancient people lived, worked, and ate.

Mollie leads, and sometimes I follow.


Bonus-bonus: Not interested in visiting a temple but still want a taste of history? Keep an eye out while hiking- there are Bronze-Age dolmans hidden amongst the cliff sides.

Bonus-bonus-bonus: (Can you tell I’m struggling to leave stuff out? It’s all spectacular.) Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (located on the main island of Malta) is an underground, three-story complex filled with chambers and passageways and almost impeccably preserved. The structure was built around 3000 B.C., and is only open to a minimal amount of visitors per day (this is one of the few excursions that will require you to book in advance). Visiting this structure is my #1 reason to go back to Malta for a 3rd time. It’s Malta’s 2nd UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mdina (or Medina for the non-locals)

Sansa Stark, eat your heart out.


Although there are obvious signs of ancient inhabitants scattered around the Maltese countryside, the cities themselves are also a testament to the island’s long history. Mdina, or the Silent City, was Malta’s capital for thousands of years (before being replaced by Valletta). It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, before being turned over to the Romans. Quick to change hands, Mdina fell under the Byzantine rule until the Middle Ages. After enjoying a brief jaunt in the Dark Ages, Malta came under the rule of the Hospitallers in the mid 1500s. It was during this transition that Valletta replaced Mdina as capital de Malta. All of the changes and new owners resulted in a city filled with different architecture and traditions.

I never thought I’d be that person, but look at this door! I have a million pictures of doors.


One of Mdina’s many charms is just how small it is. It is only a quick walk through the winding and narrow streets to reach either end of this ancient metropolis. For any loyal Game of Throners out there, the outer walls may look familiar. Mdina’s walls were used in Season 1 of Game of Thrones as a setting for King’s Landing. But don’t worry- you won’t find any heads on a pike lining the fortifications. Although production eventually moved entirely to Dubrovnik for the remaining seasons, it’s easy to see why Mdina worked so well.

The city is full of hidden doorknobs, inner courtyards, and capers dangling from walls. There is a maze of catacombs just outside the city, which you can also visit during a day trip to Mdina. Nods to the Order of St. John, who were responsible for the more Baroque architectural elements, can also be spotted while wandering the city.

A gentleman and a scholar, and a suit of armor (Looking good, Pop!)


Mdina itself, although built on a hill, is relatively flat. For the older traveller (or if you’re traveling with someone who might not take to hills very well), it’s the perfect place to experience the sweeping history of Malta in a tiny little microcosm. Plus, depending on when you go there, you might stumble upon a festival complete with medieval jousting and falconers.

You can easily access Mdina by a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta. Tickets run about €1-2, and the buses leave every 10 minutes. You can also rent a car and drive around the island, but remember, these streets are from medieval days, so the driving is tight. Also, parking might be tricky, as there are a limited number of cars allowed within the city walls, and yours won’t be one of them, so spots nearby fill up quick. Uber and Lyft are not available on the island. Taxis can be called, or you can download the app Bolt to request a ride.

Valletta

Very proud to say I didn’t trip down steps once this trip.

Obviously if you’re visiting Malta, you’re inevitably going to end up in its capital city. UNESCO describes Valletta as one of the most concentrated historical sites in the world. The entire city is considered a World Heritage Site (ding ding! #3!). Since the Hospitallers were also responsible for the building of it, the architecture echoes much of Mdina.

In 1566, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Jean de Valette, commissioned the building of a fortified city to deepen the Order’s ties to Malta and protect its people from further invaders. He personally laid down the first stone to celebrate his victory after a four month siege by the Ottomans. Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out-planned (now you have that song stuck in your head, sorry!), the Order of Saint John miraculously held the island, and in battle after battle they pushed the Ottomans back into the sea, now red with their blood. (I’m rushing the history here because I know this article is bursting at the seams with it, but seriously, how cool is that story?) Although Jean de Valette didn’t live to see his city fully completed, he remains there to this day, buried in St. John’s Co-Cathedral along with several other Grand Masters (but we will act like that is not creepy).

Pro tip: The ferry from Sliema arrives at the lower dock of Valletta. If you travel with someone who isn’t a complete sadist, there is a lift you can take to the upper levels of Valletta, so you don’t have to walk up the enormous hills to get up there. I was not so lucky.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Much of Maltese culture centers on religion, and churches are plentiful in Valletta, as well as across all of Malta.

St. John’s is a good a place as any to start when visiting, and inside is a bonus for any art lover- a massive, spectacular Caravaggio that takes up basically an entire wall. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the artist’s largest work, and the only one he actually signed. The room it is displayed in is lined with other gorgeous pieces, but for obvious reasons, Caravaggio’s masterpiece is the standout. That’s not to say the rest of the Co-Cathedral isn’t just as incredible. Even the marble tombstones where prominent knights are buried are intricately carved.

Entrance to the Co-Cathedral costs €10, but a lot of the other churches around the city are free to visit.

An entire wall worth of beheading.

(Bonus- the Cathedral is the centerpiece of a lively square with restaurants, music, and plenty of gelato shops. One of my favorite moments during my first trip here was simply sitting on the steps enjoying an enormous chocolate gelato cone and people watching.)

Upper Barraka Gardens

The Baroque garden of your dreams

The Upper Barraka Gardens are high up in the hills towering over the lower end of Valletta, but the view is worth the sore calves. You can see the entire harbor from the walls of the garden, plus if you get there in time to get a good view, you’ll be able to watch the cannons go off at noon and 4pm. This tradition harkens back to the time when these cannons would welcome returning naval vessels, but now it’s purely ceremonial, and a lot of fun. Another bonus point? It is also free!

World War II history buffs should head down into the Lascaris War Rooms after watching the ceremony. These rooms were the site of the fighter control rooms where wartime operations against the Germans were planned.

Tick tick boom

Museums
Malta’s contributions to World War II were integral to British operations, and visiting the National War Museum is another great way to learn about how this island helped win the war. The museum is housed in Fort St. Elmo, built in the 1500s by the Order of St. John, but the museum itself specializes in WWII memorabilia.

The National Museum of Archaeology also focuses on Malta’s unique history, albeit much earlier than WWII. It’s filled with statues and artifacts from antiquity, and its prehistoric collection is unmatched. One of the most amazing things about this collection is the scope of what it holds. From Neolithic artifacts, to an Egyptian pendant, to beautifully preserved Roman statues, the museum spans most of human history.

Admission to this museum can be grouped with admission to other museums or historical sites around the country. Prices depend on when you go and what you see. Check out updated prices here.

The Blue Lagoon

WOWZA. Literally that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about visiting the Blue Lagoon.

Located on Comino Island, this lagoon offers impossibly blue water (hence the name, duh!), gorgeous views, and a chill party scene. Boats to the island leave every day from Sliema’s docks. You can book online through major tour sites or simply have dinner in Sliema and approach one of the many ticket counters lining the waterfront to book for the next day.

We took a boat that looked like a pirate ship there, because apparently my group watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. The large tour boats are about an hour ride, and not great for people who get sea sick (a.k.a. me). I will admit, though, that the destination is worth any sickness.

Once your boat docks in the Blue Lagoon, you step foot onto the banks and are greeted with stalls selling alcoholic drinks in pineapples and a scene straight out of a movie. Depending on your boat and how long you have here, you can spend the entire day hiking around the rocky outcroppings or swimming in the turquoise waters (just a warning- the ocean can be very chilly, especially in early summer). Stalls offer drinks, souvenirs, and food– though most tour boats will offer unlimited drinks and lunch as part of your ticket price. We paid €25 each for our boat ride, all-you-can-drink-and-puke drinks, lunch with snacks, and a beautiful cruise along the shores of Malta.

If you indulge in one thing while visiting Malta, let this be it. Just be sure to bring your Dramamine.

Pro Tip: If you walk up to the sellers instead of booking online, you can usually get a lower price. This also gives you the option to look at each boat, as the boats vary drastically without much difference in price. Our ticket was the same cost as the packed ferries we saw go by, and we had less people, a better boat, and more time on the island.


Food and Drink

The food in Malta has been heavily influenced by its long history of conquest, and popular dishes hint at Greek, Italian, and Arabic cuisine. Try the rabbit (I’m saying this again to convince you), indulge in the pasta, and don’t forget to grab a pastizzi from the local bakery on your morning walk! Maltese wines, although less recognized around the world, are certainly worth a sip or two (or a bottle or two, who are we kidding), and the island boasts 2 indigenous grape varieties.

The island is littered with olive trees, and the olive oil I bought from a small stand along the waterfront in Marsakloxx was the best I’ve ever tasted. I was so sad to use the last of it. If you want to bring home a souvenir, a bottle of olive oil is the perfect choice!

Honorable Mention:

Gozo

The Cliffs of Despair! (Just kidding, these are the sea cliffs surrounding Gozo).

It would be a mistake to visit Malta and not explore Gozo. When you’re checking out the Ġgantija Temples, be sure to stick around and tour the rest of the island. The streets are impeccably kept and the houses are beautiful. The island is home to a lot of natural wonders as well, including Fungus Rock and some really cool salt flats.

Popeyes Village
This is a weird one. In the late 1980s, Robin Williams filmed the live-action Popeye movie on Malta, complete with a very detailed set. When the movie was done, the set remained, and was turned into an amusement part of sorts for families and Robin Williams enthusiasts to visit.

Blue Grotto
Malta is bursting at the seams with geological formations, and the Blue Grotto is a great one to visit. Make sure to check the weather- on the day we went, the waters were too choppy and they had halted boat tours.

Marsaxlokk offers colorful fishing boats and tiny town feels.

Marsaxlokk
If you’ve been researching Malta, you’ve probably seen pictures of a harbor filled with colorful fishing boats. That’s Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village a short trip away from Valletta where you can dine on the freshest seafood around, shop at the stalls set up on street, and people watch to your hearts content. This is where I bought my olive oil, plus a really pretty pair of earrings. Treat yo’self!

Diving
There are several unique places to dive on Malta for the underwater enthusiast including WWII shipwrecks, reefs, caves, and the Blue Hole in Gozo, an upright tube-like underwater structure formed by thousands of years of water and wind erosion.

Sliema

Fine, I didn’t fall on the steps of Valetta, but I left this waterfront with a sore butt.

Since we weren’t in Malta for an extended period of time, we never really got to explore all the cool stuff that Sliema had to offer (too busy trying not to lose my lunch on a pirate ship, unfortunately) but there are plenty of historically significant and exciting things to see in this modern city. The promenade is full of great restaurants, ice cream shops, ancient towers, and Roman baths.

Getting around:

Public Transportation: We always love taking public transportation when visiting a new place, but ran into an interesting problem. The bus just…stopped. They kicked us all off, and told us to wait an hour for the next one. This ended up being a blessing- we just walked along the island instead, but something to be aware of when visiting! It certainly threw us off for a minute.

You can buy different levels of access cards, including a 1, 7, and 12-day Journey card for access to public transportation. They’re available all over the island at different info points. We had no trouble finding a booth to purchase ours. Remember- Malta is part of the EU, so bring your euros!

Traveling by car: You could rent a car here, but the roads are reallllllllly tiny. So tiny that I feared for my life while on a tour bus. You’re better off taking public transportation or hiring cars and leaving the driving to the pros. As we mentioned earlier, Uber and Lyft aren’t available in the country (as of 2022), but taxis can be called. You can also download the app, Bolt, to request rides.

Have you visited Malta? Leave a comment below with more tips, and any location we might have missed!

Posted in North American Travel

How to Access Free Hiking in Arenal, Costa Rica

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.

The trails are worth the entry fee, but it does quickly add up.

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. 

The Arenal Volcano on a rare clear day. Photo credit: wikipedia.com (because we never got such a clear day)

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. 

Enter: Arenal Observatory Lodge and Preserve 

It’s fancy and adventure-friendly. Something this budget traveler loves! Photo credit: arenalobservatorylodge.com

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. 

Just look at all that hiking! Hint: the map is definitely not to scale.

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!

Standard selfie moment at the Dante Waterfall at Arenal Observatory Lodge.

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). 

This mom and baby were hanging out just past the reception area on the hanging bridge. Photo credit: @nlarghi

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.  

View from the restaurant. While is is pricey, it does have great views.

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.

A sloth we spotted on the Bogarin Trail, down in La Fortuna. While there are sloths on the property, they may be harder to spot. Photo credit: @nlarghi

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.

There is a beautiful waterfall that you can enjoy at the trailhead. Photo credit @nlarghi

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. 

As added incentive, this is the view. We were staying in room 19 to get this view. The wifi was also great throughout the property for remote working.

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. 

All that land. Free to access. It’s beautiful. View from the observatory tower.

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!

Posted in North American Travel

Sea Cliffs and Sunsets: A Drive along Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast

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.

Hello, great adventure.

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, Oregon (Google pin here)

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.

Try not to drive off as you gawk around you. Photo credit: road-trip-usa.com

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.

If you don’t think this is cute, there is no hope for you. Photo credit: nworegontransit.org

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.

Instagram lied to me. It wasn’t this cute. Photo credit: seasideconvention.com

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.

No crowds+Iconic rocks=happy traveler!

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.

Just be sure to pack a real jacket so you don’t have to walk the cold beach wrapped in a blanket…#travelhacks

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).

It is sickening to think people actually get to live here. Photo credit: starfishluxuryrentals.com

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.

Aw, one of the three days a year this coast is sunny. Photo credit; thrillist.com

Cape Lookout State Park (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Rockaway Beach, Oregon

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.

“Camping”-Oregon Style. Photo credit: stateparks.oregon.gov

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.

Not pictured: the very strong wind. Bring a jacket.

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 one complaint? Not one boat named “Jenny”.

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).

I promise, that’s a whale. I was just terrible at photography on this day, so this is the best I got.

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.

The boat ride is worth the $25, even if you’re not there during whale season.

If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to sit this part out, or stock up on dramamine. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t like to play the smooth and calm game.

Seal Rock State Recreational Site (Google pin here) 35 minutes south of Depoe Bay, Oregon

View from the parking area. In case you don’t want to walk. (Looking at you, Dad.)

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.

If you get there at super low tide, you can walk right up to the basalt rock formations!

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).

The town of Yachats. Also a great place to stay for a few days!

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).

Not a place you want to go barefoot.

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.

This was before I got access to a fancy, underwater camera…

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!

How it’s suppose to look when you’re not drowning in rain. Photo credit reluctantly goes to my sister, Sarah Reed…who got to see it in the sunshine.

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.

My sister stopped here and got to see the caves…without sea lions. They leave the caves in early Spring to have their babies, but you can see them sunbathing outside. (See below)
#nextlifegoals.

Port Orford to Brookings Drive (1 hour route) 2 hours from Heceta Head Lighthouse

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).

Yes. It really does look like this. I was just too busy gawking to remember to take a photo, so photo credit goes to: tripsavvy.com

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.

Even Mr. Crab says this route is amazing.

Wrap-Up

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!

Posted in North American Travel

Kanab-The Cheaper (and Less Crowded) Alternative to Moab

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.)

Yeah, I’ll pass. Photo credit: wsj.com

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.

Aw, look how cute it is. Photo credit: laestanciakanab.com

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.

See? No crowds. Much better.

1. A Hike Through Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab

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.

A good place to get friendly with some strangers.

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.

Vermillion: a brilliant, red pigment made from mercury sulfide. Makes sense now? Photo credit: thrillist.com

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).

Subaru approved. Photo credit: tripadvisor.com

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.

Overlooking Buckskin Gulch. From here, you slide/drop in.

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).

2. A Drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 40 minutes from Kanab

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.

No crowds. Clear air. Win-win.

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.

Just ignore the inner voice saying “jump”.

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.

That’s a nice ditch.

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.

3. Get Sandy at Coral Pink Sand Dunes (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Kanab

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).

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting…”

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.

“Honey, where’s the car?”- A Tragedy

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.

See? I told you it was a real thing. Photo credit: backcountrycow.com

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.

At this point, you either embrace the cold, wet sand or die.

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.

4. Check out the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour and 30 minutes from Kanab

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!

Good place to hide a body.

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.

You will also get covered in mud during this season. Just embrace it as a new fashion statement.

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.

The drive there is also beautiful. So if it’s too cold or hot, enjoy climate control and go for a ride.

5. Take a ride through Zion National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab

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.

So, maybe it is worth the hype.

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.

Yeah…no. Photo credit: nps.gov

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.

Put on your Spotify and enjoy this drive. Photo credit: Utah.com

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).

They may be ugly, but they’re ugly-cool. Photo credit: Nicholas Patrick Photography

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.

Wrap-Up

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!

Posted in International Travel

2-Day Road Trip Through Iceland (Winter Edition)

Like most people, seeing the northern lights has long been at the top of my bucket list. I would have gone anywhere in the world that could offer me that view. Luckily, I ended up in Iceland, and got so much more than just those dancing ribbons.

If you want to see the northern lights, you’ll have to embrace the cold and pack your parka. The lights are only visible late-Fall through early-Spring. By going in March, we were able to avoid the summer crowds as well as the summer prices. The days were shorter, but it was worth it to stand beneath the endless stars and swirling auroras.

We opted to rent a car rather than book bus tours across the island, and rented an Airbnb in the suburbs of Reykjavik. We were able to base ourselves there to sleep and shower, but didn’t spend that much time there. Instead, we woke up before dawn and drove out to chase the sunrise. (Note: You could plan to stay a night on the southern coast to save time circling back to Reykjavik, but hotel and Airbnb options are limited in the off-season.).

Sometimes waking up before the sun really pays off.

*Pro Tip: If you are traveling by car, you must have a credit card with a pin, since the gas stations are unmanned and only accept pin cards. You will definitely need to refuel during your trip, as a lot of these sights take a while to get to. American credit cards with pins are sometimes not accepted, so take a debit card as a back-up.*

If you’re traveling to Iceland during the winter months, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and traffic reports. The roads tend to close due to inclement weather, and some of the stops that might be on your to-do list will be unreachable. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the glacier crumbles in Iceland, but don’t get discouraged if this happens! There is so much to see here that even if you miss out on some, you’ll still have a full trip. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to go back!

Driving through the southern coast of Iceland is incredible. There’s a definite moment when you feel like you’ve traveled Beyond The Wall, and a lot of the big stops will be familiar from movies and TV shows. You could easily extend this trip to see more of the famous “ring road” (the road that circles around the island), but the northern coast is hit hard by winter storms. Plan to pack plenty of snacks and food for your drive. Restaurants are few and far-between, plus you’ll have more time to see the sights!

Arrival Night

The Northern Lights (Google pin here)

If you don’t have a fancy camera and tripod, you probably aren’t going to get that Insta-worthy northern lights picture, but that doesn’t make the viewing experience any less incredible. Let’s live in the moment, shall we? We were lucky enough to get a beautiful showing on our first night (we even saw some on the drive from the airport!), but the key to seeing the lights in all their glory is to know exactly where to go. About 2 hours east of the airport (an hour from downtown Reykjavik) is Thingvellir National Park, a perfect dark sky spot to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. We drove out along Highway 36, just past the Hakið Visitor Center, and simply pulled off the side of the road when we saw a good spot. The pin above is where we stopped to have a view of the lights over Lake Thingvallavatn. Pro tip: you will pass numerous pull-offs where tour buses will be stopped. If you want a private showing of the lights, keep driving further into the park to find you own area.

To guarantee the best showing, access the aurora forecast here. Remember, you’ll need a clear night with no clouds to see the lights. Forecasts are given 3 days in advance, so keep an eye on it while you are visiting the island. Activity ranges from 0-9, with 9 being the most activity (think dancing lights and beautiful colors like below). Anything under 4 will be a muted green glow.

Photo courtesy of GuidetoIceland.is. We weren’t prepared in our camera game to capture this photo.

Day 1: The Golden Circle (With Hot Springs)

Stop 1: Thingvellir National Park (Google Pin here) 40 minutes from Reykjavik

Bursting with history and geographic wonders, Thingvellir is a great first introduction to the magic of Iceland. The area’s name translates to Assembly Plains, and it was the site of assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth period. The assembly was started around 930 AD, and Icelandic leaders met there until 1798 (it is actually the oldest democratically elected parliament that still functions to this day).

Make your first stop at Hakið Visitor Center, where you can walk along the North American tectonic plate and see its Eurasian counterpart. You can also swim in the Silfra fissure, created by the breaking apart of these two plates, which widens every year as they gradually move away from each other. It’s not every day you get the chance to swim between continents! Because the water in the fissure travels there underground, it rarely freezes, meaning that you can snorkel and dive here year-round. Read more about the fissure, and the snorkeling/diving rules, here.

Plan to spend a couple hours here walking along the fissure, seeing the frozen waterfalls, and reading about ancient Icelandic culture.

Bring your swimsuit.

Stop 2: Kerið Crater (Google pin here) 35 minutes from Thingvellir.

Along Highway 36 about a half hour from the visitor center is Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake that is over 3,000 years old. There is a small entrance fee to enter this area, but the drive here along the lake is worth it. We spent about an hour walking around the crater, and peering down the 180 feet to the bottom.

A nice, red hole for you.

Stop 3: Haukadular Geothermal Field (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Kerio Crater.

I love visiting geysers. It’s so funny to watch the crowd as the excitement grows and everyone is anticipating the next burst of water, only to have them all jump, or miss that perfect geyser boomerang for their Instagram story and have to wait all over again.  In this geothermal field there are 2 geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. (We actually get the word geyser from the old Norse geysir, which mean ‘rush’.) Geysir holds the record for the largest geyser blast ever recorded, but he’s not exactly Old Faithful, and he’s dormant right now. Strokkur, the kid brother, is more reliable, setting off every 5-10 minutes. Don’t forget to check out the cute store they have at the visitors center! I forgot my hat at the Airbnb that day and it was super cold, so I treated myself to a fancy new one from here. They had beautiful warm socks and sweaters, too.

Thar she blows!!

From here, you can drive an extra 5 minutes further to Gullfloss (Google pin here). This two-tier waterfall is stunning, and makes for a great stop to break up the driving.

Just don’t opt for the rafting trip.

Stop 4: Secret Lagoon Hot Springs (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Gullfoss, 1 hour and 30 minutes from Reykjavik

No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting some hot springs, and they’re even better after a long day of cold sightseeing. Of course, the most well known of these in the country is the Blue Lagoon, and if you wanted to splurge then by all means, visit there. But if you wanted the same experience at a fraction of the cost, find somewhere else! We soaked in the beautiful Secret Lagoon (the country’s oldest geothermal pool), just down the road from the geysers. It was a lot cheaper (ISK 3000, or $24 USD vs. the Blue Lagoon’s $53), and a lot less crowded (you don’t need reservations!). The springs are open from noon-8pm, so plan to hit this before closing. *Just a note for our first-timers: before you get into the pool, you have to wash in the communal shower- naked. That’s the rule of the club. Some people follow the rule, some don’t, but be prepared to see a lot of skin.

Ah yes, communal bathing. Photo Courtesy of Arctic Adventures (adventures.is)

Day 2: The Southern Coast

The southern coast has some of Iceland’s most spectacular sites, but it will require a full day of driving. The furthest location for this day is 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik, and that’s without weather delays. (It took us 6 hours due to a storm.) Plan to wake up early (like 5am early), pack the car with plenty of food and water, and keep an eye on the weather. Winds and storms can be dramatic between each valley (sunny in one, angry Elsa-storm in the next one). Gas stations are sparse, so be sure to take advantage of opportunities to top off your tank. We made it a point not to drop below half a tank in case we got stuck in winter weather.

Stop 1: Skógafoss (Google pin here) 2 hours from Reykjavik

This waterfall is easy to reach (no hiking), and if you’re there in the summer you can actually climb up some steps on the side and catch the view from the top! The stairs are a bit too hazardous in the winter to do this, but the view from the front is just as nice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize the waterfall as (SPOILERS!) Jon and his Auntie Danaerys’ make out spot in the last season. (Here’s a list of all the locations the show filmed in Iceland during its 8 season run.). You will also pass Seljalandsfoss on the way here. You can get a great view of it from the road, so we skipped it to save time.

No dragons or long lost princes, but still pretty sweet.

Stop 2: The plane wreck at Sólheimasandur (Google pin here) 10 minutes from Skógafoss

This was a really cool experience. In 1973 a US Navy plane crashed on the beach at Sólheimasandur after running out of gas (don’t worry- everyone survived). Instead of moving the wreckage off the beach, the Icelandic government just….left it there. It’s about a 2 mile walk from the carpark to the plane, but it’s totally flat and easy. (There’s also a shuttle if you wanted to save some time.)  I felt like I was on the surface of Mars walking to this plane. You’ll be traveling along a black sand beach, this one a little less magnificent than Reynisfjara visually (we’ll get to that later), but definitely an atmospheric wonder. You can climb in and on top of the plane for some great pictures, as well.

Plan to do this one early in case the weather turns in the afternoon. This never closes, so it is also a great place for a night hike to watch the northern lights over the plane.

Stop 3: Vatnajökull National Park (Google pin here) 2 hours from Sólheimasandur

Vatnajökull National Park is a massive national park encompassing the southeastern edge of Iceland (Think, Yellowstone big…but with a giant glacier). Guides say that to truly enjoy all that this area has to offer, you need to spend a few days here, but if you wanted to make a quick stop, the 5-mile round trip hike to Svartifoss would definitely be the way to go. Svartifoss is a towering, basalt-backed waterfall just a short hike from the car park, whose name means “Black Falls”. Its water comes from the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, and the basalt columns were created by lava cooling rapidly. There are a lot of basalt formations throughout Iceland, and they even served as inspiration for Iceland’s biggest church, Hallgrímskirkja. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can keep going to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier (but please don’t hike on it without a guide- glaciers can be dangerous and the proper equipment and knowledge is an absolute necessity!). This location also serves as a great base for hiking Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Here is a list of all the hiking trails within the park. While adventuring into the park is difficult during the short winter days, the drive to this location rewards you with sweeping views of the glacier dipping down into the valley (you can even walk up to the glacier from the car park pinned above!).

Stop 4: Glacier Lagoon (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Vatnajökull National Park, 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik (This is the furthest location of the day)

What a sight! It’s hard to choose a favorite spot in Iceland, but this one is definitely near the top of my list. The water is a unique blue color, caused by a mixture of glacial and sea water. The ice in this lagoon can be up to 1000 years old, broken away from the main glacier and swept into the water, where the pieces slowly melt down. Occasionally, if you’re visiting the mouth of the lagoon, you can see seals swimming around trying to catch a good meal in the clear blue waters. For you insta-explorers, all of my coolest pictures are from here. It’s just visually stunning in every way. There is a small cafe located in the car park where you can pick up a coffee or a (very expensive) Icelandic snack. In the summer, you can take a boat tour around the lagoon, but in the winter, you’re rewarded with Beyond the Wall-vibes and no crowds.

Your two favorite travelers in our kingdom of ice!

Stop 5: Diamond Beach (Google pin here) 5 minute drive from the lagoon

A beach covered in huge chunks of ice, twinkling in the winter sun and moving through the surf as if weightless. (Remember the poor grandma that got swept out to sea because of a photo op gone wrong? That happened here!) This beach is close to the Glacier Lagoon, and the chunks of ice are actually pieces that have been swept out to sea from the lagoon, polished up by the seawater, and pulled back to shore by the current. This is another one of those places that makes for an excellent Instagram post, with the bright ice standing out against the black sand of the beach. This is a good place to eat lunch in the car or stretch your legs on the beach.

Stop 6: Reynisfjara (Google pin here) 2 hours and 20 minutes from Diamond Beach

Can I just admit that I thought every site was a standout, so that I don’t keep saying the same thing about each one? Because this place was phenomenal. The black sand beach at Reynisfjara is iconic. I’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, commercials. Visually, as someone who lives in black on black on black, it was heaven. The sand tinkles in the breeze like wind chimes, there are towering rocks sticking out of the surf, and the whole otherworldly place feels like you’re in the middle of some fantasy movie. And maybe you are! Legend says the basalt columns lining the beach are trolls caught out in the sunlight after a night of luring ships to their demise. There is a nice restaurant here to grab lunch/dinner if you forgot to bring food (the Icelandic soup was divine after our parka-bound beach walk).

From here, we headed back to Reykjavik for our final night. Remember, the days are shorter in the winter time, and it’s best to try to plan to have most driving done before it gets too dark (streetlights are not a thing on most of the roads).

Bonus Round: Icelandic Horses

Don’t forget to stop and say hi to the horses! You see them quite often from the road. They’re very friendly and eager to say hello (and serve some Blue Steel looks for your pictures), even if they do like to nibble your clothes a little bit. You can touch them but stay outside the fence and please don’t feed them!

Iceland is expensive, and there’s really no way around that. You’re going to be throwing out some serious cash. However, most of these stops are free of charge! So meals, car, and accommodations can be your only expenses. There are a few reasons why the island is so expensive: They have a short farming season so a lot of the food has to be imported, raising prices quite a bit, the exchange rate is painful if you’re working with the US dollar, and finally, they have some fairly high tax rates. If you’re trying to do this trip on a budget, I would do a big shop at the start of your trip and avoid eating out to save money. We literally ate sandwiches in our car for 90% of the weekend (and they were delicious!).

Overall, Iceland was everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s a popular destination, but one that is an absolute must-see. I had no other hope for this trip besides seeing the Northern Lights, but I quickly learned that this place is so much more than what’s dancing in the sky. Go a little bit off the beaten path and try and see some of the more terrestrial sights. Your eyes will thank you!

Other points of interest:

Fjaðrárgljúfur (Google pin here): A deep, river canyon with hiking trails that you will pass on the way to Vatnajökull National Park.

Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool (Google pin here): A 10 meter-wide, hot springs pool from 1928.

Grótta, Norðurströnd Walking Path (Google pin here): An easy place to see the northern lights without leaving Reykjavik. While you still will have city lights disrupting the view, you can catch the lights over the dark ocean.

Have a location or tip that I missed? 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!

Posted in North American Travel

4 Outdoor-Adventure Trips from Fort Myers, Florida

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!

Beaches may be fun, but a dive trip into a clear spring? Better. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Big Cypress National Preserve

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!

Get there early or in the evening to enjoy the golden hour. Photo credit: @nlarghi

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).

The Fakahatchee Hilton. (Real name)
The elusive ghost orchid in Big Cypress. Photo Credit: @nlarghi

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!

Time to get your feet wet!

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.)

I hear kids in strollers make good skeeter food.

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.

Some of the best mangroves tunnels in Florida. Photo credit: nps.gov

Everglades National Park

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.

Then Thousand Islands…not the dressing. Photo Credit: fws.gov

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!)

Nothing like a hot, sweaty ride into the 1960’s. (Bonus points: This photo was taken with a film camera) Photo Credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

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!

Eco-tents in Flamingo. Way better insta photos than those 10,000 beach photos you already have. Photo credit: @nlarghi

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!

Though the water is 72 degrees, some of us still need wetsuits…

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.)

Otter families can be spotted playing along the banks!
Look at that clear water! Photo credit: @nlarghi

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.

That water is just begging for you to go for a swim.

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.

Manatees are super gentle and calm. Please treat them the same way. Photo credit: @nlarghi
Be sure to bring your snorkel gear! Photo credit: @nlarghi

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!

Wrap-Up

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).

Save me. Photo credit: @nlarghi

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!

Happy Trails!

Posted in North American Travel

A Weekend in Everglades National Park

Entrance to Hell’s Bay off the Park Road (fitting name)

“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).

The great outpost of Flamingo, Florida

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.

Aforementioned Entrance Sign Picture (for those Instagrammers, the main park road from Homestead has the best sign)

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.

Two juvenile ospreys eating fish in a tree overlooking the Florida Bay. They got a great lunch spot!

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 an Eco-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.

Great views…if you have a tent. Florida Bay from the Walk-Up Camping Location in Flamingo

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.

Better than any hotel.

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).

One of the few camping spots in Florida with a view.

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 stars speak for themselves.
Want more Everglades Night photos? Check out Nicholas Patrick Photography for more pics of that beautiful sky

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.

You also get to wake up to a field of Morning Glories. What more do you need?

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.

I spy Mr. Gator.

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.

Cypress Dome in Southwest Florida. Hiking like you’ve never done hiking before.

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.

Where did my feet go? (And this is the dry season)

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 can be spotted by the keen eye throughout the park.

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.

Mule Ear Orchid

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.

Ok, so maybe there’s a bunch of cool plants to see here.

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.

Wildlife Sightings

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.

Florida’s most overrated reptile.

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.

Gator? Nope. Not a gator.

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.

You can always catch sight of a beautiful Osprey hanging by one of their nests.
Be sure to look for the little guys as well!

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.

Your friendly, neighborhood, invasive python

Conclusion

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.

Price Breakdown:

Entrance to the park: $30 (Check out the National Park Annual Pass, only $80)

Food (Pack ahead): $80-100

Eco-Tent: $50 (Summer Season), $90 and up (Winter Season)

Hiking, Exploring, and Seeing a Beautiful Place: Free!

Packing List:

Long Sleeves and Long Pants (don’t hike in shorts here! Your legs will thank you later).

Mosquito Netting (look for the kind that goes over a hat)

Hiking Shoes or Old Tennis Shoes

Camp Shoes (Crocs, sandals, or chacos)

Food and Water for the weekend

Sunscreen and Hat

Camping Gear (Unless opting for the eco-tent. If bringing your own tent, make sure your tent has no-see-um netting!)

Flashlight or headlamp (For those night adventures under the stars)

Camp chair (for those lazy afternoon watching the storms blow by)

Mosquito Repellent (I recommend a Deet-free option. Lemon Eucalyptus oil smells great, is natural, and won’t melt the plastic off your hiking shoes. Check here for my preferred brand.)