I had been putting off working towards the travel hackers golden ring, The Southwest Companion Pass (CP), for a long time since we didn’t have Southwest at our home airport. When they finally did come to Syracuse airport in 2021, I started working towards getting CPs for both myself and my husband for 2022. The CP allows you to add a companion to fly with you for free, at any time as long as there is room on the flight, even if you use points to book your ticket. Once you get the CP, you have it for the rest of that year and the following full year. This is an incredible deal and many people get it and then fly like crazy wherever SW flies (mostly the US) for two years in order to take advantage.
I did have plans to use the CP as much as we could, which given work and school schedules was not going to be nearly as much as my travel hacking buddies. We did use it to take a quick trip to WDW in September 2022. We did have a trip planned to visit some national parks in Texas and New Mexico in the week between Christmas and New Years, however that trip was decimated by Southwest Airline’s massive meltdown during that week. The only other time we would really be able to take advantage of the CP was summer 2023. I did want to try to at least use SW to fly to Hawaii since that is one of the farthest places the airline will fly from the continental US.
Flying to Hawaii straight from the east coast sounded hellish, so I decided to start the journey with a leg to California. I perused different options of CA cities to fly into, and L.A. had the best and cheapest (via SW points) options. We are still trying to work on visiting all of the US National Parks, and Channel Islands is in LA so we decided to include that in the trip. I have also always wanted to visit Disneyland. From L.A. we will fly to Hawaii and go to the Big Island and Maui, where the two national parks are. We did take out a Hawaiian Airlines credit card to get enough points for an inter-island flight and a flight back to the U.S. For the last leg of the trip we are flying direct from Maui to Seattle. We have wanted to take a road trip through Washington State to visit the 3 national parks there: North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Olympic. After spending a couple days in Seattle we will rent a large campervan and make our way through the parks, before eventually flying home. The itinerary is as follows:
Day 1: Fly from Rochester, NY to Los Angeles (direct, evening flight) on SW
Day 2: Rent car in L.A., drive up the coast to Ventura.
Day 3: Channel Islands NP
Day 4: Disneyland!
Day 5: Fly direct L.A. to Kona on SW
Day 12: Fly direct Kona to Maui on HA
Day 16: Fly direct Maui to Seattle on HA
Days 17-18: Explore Seattle
Day 19: Pick-up Campervan, drive to North Cascades NP
Day 21: Drive to Mt. Rainier NP
Day 23: Drive to Olympic NP
Day 27: Drive back to Seattle, drop of campervan
Day 28: Fly back to Rochester (direct, SW).
This trip definitely has a lot of moving parts and was challenging to plan. All of the hotels were booked using points or free night certificates except 2 nights near Hawaii Volcanoes NP. For the Washington leg, I had to play the National Park campground reservation game 6 months in advance, which was nerve-wracking but I was able to get sites at all the campgrounds I wanted in the Washington National Parks.
We had a Disney Trip planned for May 2020, mostly using points, as we wanted to check out the new Star Wars and Pandora rides. Of course, because of Covid-19 that trip was cancelled and we haven’t had time to take another full week trip. This spring we both earned the Southwest Companion Pass, which means that for the rest of this year and all of next year, the kids will fly with us for free on Southwest, even when we book on points. We decided to take a quick weekend trip to Disney to take advantage of this awesome perk. We also booked the Swan Reserve, which is a Marriott hotel on Disney Resort property (near the other Epcot hotels, the Dolphin and Swan) using Marriott points.
Our SW flight left Syracuse after school, and before we boarded we made sure to get our free food at Johnny Rockets at the airport using Priority Pass. We did have to connect through BWI and we finally landed in Orlando around 11pm. We took an Uber to the hotel and settled in for the night. I woke up at 6:45am the next morning to try to navigate the new Genie+ system to get the rides we wanted, and was able to book Rise of Resistance for an extra $15 per person. Yes it is a new way for Disney to scam even more money out of you, but given our very limited time at the parks we felt it was worth it. We were also given two free continental breakfasts at the hotel for having platinum elite status, and I could order it the night before for them to deliver. It was actually a decent amount of food for all of us as I was able to get Greek yogurt for myself, oatmeal for my husband, a bagel for one kind and a muffin for the other kid. My husband said his side really hurt and he thought he pulled a muscle. At one point I wondered if it was appendicitis and he said it probably wasn’t because he didn’t have a fever. He didn’t want to go to an urgent care and was convinced he had pulled a muscle bike riding. So we took the 5 minute walk over to the boat shuttle by the Dolphin and Swan and got on the boat to Hollywood Studios.
We were able to enter the park early since we were staying on Disney property. We made a beeline for Star Wars Galaxy’s edge and got immediately on Star Tours, one of our favorite Disney rides. Luckily it had a new film sequence we hadn’t seen before. Next we were able to do Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run and then make our 9:15am reservation for Oga’s Cantina. It was cute and we got some fun drinks enjoying the Tatooine atmosphere. Afterward we hit some other Hollywood Studios faves such as Toy Story Mania and Tower of Terror, as well as a new fun ride, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
We headed back to Galaxy’s Edge for lunch at Docking Bay 7, which was a really good quick service restaurant. We had genie+ reservations for Rise of Resistance but the ride was broken. We did another couple runs of Star Tours and Smuggler’s Run, and fortunately after that ROR was back up and running. So glad, because it was amazing!!! Seriously one of the best rides I’ve ever been on.
After this we could finally head over to Epcot, since the new Disney park hopper passes won’t let you go to the next park until 2pm (which is another new annoying WDW rule). We were excited to try the new Skyliner transportation option though, and we really enjoyed the ride over several resorts, finally landing at World Showcase. We got some coffee and made our way towards The Land pavilion, right as a major downpour started. We went on two of our favorite rides, Soarin and The Land, and the rain petered out by the time we were done. Next we went to another classic favorite, Spaceship Earth. By this time my husband and younger son were not feeling well at all and they decided to head back. Luckily they could just grab a boat from World Showcase back to our hotel.
My older son and I tried to do Test Track but it was still closed for the storm, so we went over to World Showcase to enjoy the Epcot Food and Wine festival. I had never been to this before, and it was great! There were food kiosks all around the lagoon, representing the countries of World Showcase and more. We could try small dishes of various foods from those countries for less than $5. We really enjoyed trying the various tasty options and riding one of my favorite rides in the Mexico Pavilion, Gran Fiesta Tour. Finally Test Track opened back up and we did a run on that, followed by desert back at the Food and Wine fest. We were pretty exhausted at this point so we took the boat back to our hotel to join the rest of the fam who had enjoyed room service in the hotel.
The next morning I got up early again to get genie+ tickets for Flights of Passage at Animal Kingdom. We took the earliest bus and got to the park at 8am, again because we were staying on property we were able to enter early. It was pretty awesome to walk around the park with no people, and we basically walked right on several rides such as Everest, Dinosaur, and It’s Tough to be a Bug. Finally we made our way to the new Pandora world, which was pretty incredible. We got on Navi’i River Journey and then we’re able to get in the lightning lane for Flights of Passage. This was probably the best ride I’ve ever been on. It was so awesome!!
We spent the next few hours having lunch and hitting some other AK rides such as Kilimanjaro Safaris. We really wanted to make our way to Magic Kingdom since we had to leave for the airport around 4. But the stupid new park hopper rules said we couldn’t enter MK until 2. We still left AK at 1 by taking a bus that went to the Polynesian resort. We waked around this posh resort a little while I told the kids some stories about staying there in the 80s, like the time I almost got hit by a ferry while riding a mini-speedboat they used to rent (now a relic of the past).
Next we took the monorail one stop over to equally posh Grand Floridian hotel and walked around their lobby so we could pretend we were fancy. Finally it was close to 2 so we got back on the monorail to get to MK. We only had 2 hours before we needed to head home, so we prioritized which rides we absolutely had to go on: Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean . We also split up and did Space Mountain and It’s a Small World, and then met up at Buzz Lightyear for a final ride before we had to go.
We left the park, trying to get an Uber which was a challenge, but we eventually did, and went back to the hotel to fetch our bags, calling another Uber to take us to the airport. We got there in enough time to grab some dinner. I wanted to go to the priority pass lounge to eat but I got vetoed because they were worried about leaving our terminal. We finally made it home to Syracuse late Sunday night.
So, in less than one weekend we hit all 4 Disney Parks, 25 rides, and most forms of Disney transportation (boats, busses, skyliner), plus got to try the Food and Wine festival. This was really only possible by staying on property (on points) and making good use of Genie+ and lightning lane. We were annoyed to have to pay extra to get good spots for Rise of Resistance and Flights of Passage, but given how limited our time was, it was worth it. It was also a very “off” time to go (mid-September), so crowds were very low. We left excited to go back after they do some planned upgrades to Epcot. Unfortunately, we found out a few weeks after we got home that my husband was in fact having an acute appendicitis while we were there! He ended up being hospitalized for a few days and getting his appendix out right before Thanksgiving. So much for a “pulled muscle”!
The next morning was very rainy. We had a whale watch tour scheduled out of St. Andrews by the Sea but it was canceled for weather. But our Airbnb host in Acadia said the Airbnb was ready for us, so we decided to drive to Maine and get there as soon as possible. Luckily the weather started to clear up once we crossed the border. As much as we loved Canada it felt good to be back in the USA. We made it to our Airbnb around lunch time and then drove the 4 miles from the house to Bar Harbor to go to the grocery store. It was so crowded in town! Later that afternoon my husband and I took a walk from our Airbnb and found this great little gourmet food shop where we got iced coffees and cookies and had them in their garden. It was delicious! Then we found a trail that took us to beautiful Otter Cove. It was so great that all of this was within a half mile of our place.
Unfortunately my older son had been having some issues with his braces so the next morning we were able to get him a dentist appt in town. She referred him to an orthodontist about an hour away, so while my husband took him, my older son and I walked from our Airbnb out to Otter Cove and then over to the Gorham mountain trail. It was an awesome trail with great views. Afterwards we crossed over to Ocean Path and saw some the cool coves and Thunder Hole, which was really crowded and we didn’t get to hear the waves crash loudly against the rocks, which is why this spot is so popular. On our way back from our hike we stopped at the Otter Creek market near our house and picked up fresh lobster dinners and lobster Mac and cheese. So good!! My husband was back by then and so after dinner he and I took the drive up to Cadillac Mountain for sunset (the boys were tired and didn’t want to go). You have to reserve entry for Cadillac mountain in advance, but I did so months ago to make sure we could see the sunset. As we drove up the sun was already setting and beautiful. The clouds were thick at the top so you couldn’t see much except when the blew past. It was pretty cool to be “in the clouds.” I also had tickets to watch the sunrise from there the next morning, which is a pretty popular thing to do, but it was going to be rainy and we were tired so we skipped it.
We had a lazy morning the next day and after lunch we walked about 2 minutes from our Airbnb to the Cadillac Mountain trail. We told the kids we were just going to go about a third of the way up to the Eagles Crag loop, but the trail was so nice and easy we all decided to keep going to the summit of the mountain. It was definitely worth the trek! There are amazing views all the way up and it’s not too challenging of a hike, at least compared to the ones we are used to in the Adirondacks. Plus there is a store at the top for snacks and a place to refill your water bottles. At the top we got some ice cream and locally made blueberry popsicles. It was an awesome day, except that near the top I dropped my cell phone and the screen shattered – bad. The phone was older and kind of on its last legs already so I wasn’t too upset.
The next morning my younger son and I made the 40 minute drive to Ellsworth to the phone store to get a replacement phone. My husband and older son did the hike to Gorham Mtn since we told them how cool it was. When we got back they were still out so we got lunch at the Otter Creek market (an amazing lobster roll for me) and then checked out a cool swimming hole by our house that the owner told us about. The water was freezing so we left and went to Seal Harbor to hang out on the beach for a bit.
That afternoon my husband and other son were back after an epic hike. We decided to check out the bookstore, “The Naturalist’s Notebook.” It was a children’s bookstore focused on science and nature that was all decked out with games and activities. It was almost like a home-grown science center! We had a lot of fun checking out all of the exhibits. Then we headed over to the National Park Visitor’s Center since it was later in the day and we thought we could finally find parking. Acadia was VERY crowded and we learned that unless you get to the trailhead and visitor center parking lots very early or very late in the day, you would not get a space. We were so glad our Airbnb was walking distance to a lot of good trails. We did find a space but the Visitor Center was disappointing. There was no film or cool exhibits and they made you get a park map directly from a ranger (they didn’t have any out in displays), which meant I had to stand in line for 30 minutes while rangers talked to other tourists about their itineraries, just to ask them for a map.
Later we had to drive back to Ellsworth to pick up my phone so we had a nice dinner in that town, which was cute and not as crowded as Bar Harbor. We stopped at a local ice cream stand for fresh Maine blueberry ice cream for dessert!
The next morning my husband and I walked from our Airbnb to do a hike along to coast to Otter Cliffs. It was so beautiful and afterwards we stopped for a great lunch at the little gourmet shop near our house. Later that afternoon we took the kids over to Jordan Pond and we got popover sundaes at the famous Jordan Pond House, followed by a nice hike around the pond.
For our final morning in Acadia we got breakfast at Mt. Dessert Bakery (highly recommend) and then took a Puffins and Lighthouses boat tour. We got to see some cool wildlife and lighthouses by boat for a different view of the park.
On our drive into central Maine we stopped for one last lobster roll for lunch, and then drove through the town my grandfather was from, Sangerville. We stayed at a cool Airbnb near Moosewood Lake. The property was near a smaller pond and they let us use their kayaks. The next morning we took a beautiful drive through Maine, stopping at Moosehead Lake and some other sights, trying to spot moose along the way. We finally spotted one about 10 minutes into the New Hampshire border! We were super psyched as we drove up to Mt. Washington.
We decided to take the auto tour rather than driving our car, to put less stress on the car and so we could relax and actually enjoy the drive. It was the right choice as the tour guide told us a lot about the history of tourism up the mountain. It was hard to believe people would go up in horse drawn carriages. The weather was truly bizarre up there with huge winds and temperatures 30 degrees lower than at the base, and you could cross to the other side of the mountain to get calmer weather and a beautiful view. We had dinner that night at a disappointing restaurant and checked into our hotel.
The next morning we headed over to Franconia Notch State Park. We first did the Flume Gorge Trail which had some cool waterfalls through a gorge. We also checked out some other parts of the park, and spent the afternoon swimming at the (freezing) lake there.
The next morning we got some tips from our hotel manager about places to stop on our way to Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont. We stopped at the quaint town of Littleton, NH, which was where my one of my favorite childhood movies, Pollyanna, was set. They had some great little shops including, Chutters, which had a mile long candy bar! After filling our bags with all the candy of our dreams, we headed back in the car for the drive to Vermont.
As we drove through Vermont we passed Goddard College where Phish got their start, and we made sure to check out the music building where they used to practice. Shortly after we saw a huge black bear lope across the road! At Ben & Jerry’s we took the short factory tour and had an ice cream lunch and then checked out the flavor graveyard. For lunch we stopped at a great little Vermont country store. It was a very Vermont-y day.
We landed in Manchester, which was a town we stayed in when our youngest was only 4 months old. We went to the awesome Northshire bookstore which is one of my favorites. The next day we did a couple hikes near town, and on one of them we met some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. After chilling at the hotel pool we got the kids some pizza and my husband and I went out to a fancy dinner. There was a street fair in town we stopped at afterwards and listened to a fun band.
The next morning everyone was thrilled to finally be heading home. Luckily we were only 3 hours from home and we made it by 11 am! All in all it was a fin trip, however I would not recommend 3 weeks in a car with no A/C and everyone having colds. Our favorite part was Acadia NP and we were so thrilled to have seen a moose!
We left PEI early early to make our 11am tour at Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia. We got there around 10:30 and were able to look around the visitor’s center, which had some cool displays of fossils and the history of the area. At 11am we went on the tour, where a tour guide took us down to the beach at low tide, and explained what kind of fossils to look for. The time period that the fossils are from is pre-dinosaurs, so they are mostly of plants, but they are everywhere once you know what to look for. The coolest one we found was of a tree trunk, now turned into a stone. It was a bit cold and overcast so after the fossil hunting we got back in the car and started our drive out to Halifax.
In a pure coincidence, It happened to be July 1st which is Canada day, and so the city was very festive with lots of people in red and white to celebrate Canada’s independence. We checked into our hotel which was right on the waterfront, and met my friend Ange who lives right outside of town. We took a walk with her through downtown and the waterfront. I was starting to feel better from my cold, but unfortunately my husband and kids had started getting symptoms, and they were pretty worn out. So afterwards they went and laid down in the room while I hung out at the harbor for a little longer. We then had a great dinner at a restaurant practically next door to the hotel called “Black Sheep.” Everyone was pretty sacked by then so they went back to the room. My other friend Allan had found out I was in town from Ange, and he texted me to see what I was up to. He was about a half mile away at a waterfront bar with live music for the holiday, so I walked down to see him and listen to the band. It was fun to see all the Canadians partying.
The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel. I asked for free breakfast given that I have platinum elite status with Marriott, and the manager gave us $20 off at their bistro. It never hurts to ask! Then we started the 4 hour drive up to Cape Breton National Park.
It was overcast and rainy by the time we got to Cape Breton. We were happy to see that our accommodation, called an “Otentik” was very roomy with beds for everyone. It’s like a cross between a tent and a cabin and it kept us nice and dry as we ate our dinner. The next morning we were excited to drive the famous Cabot Trail. It was definitely pretty impressive as you go over winding hills along the dramatic coastline. Since everyone was a little sick we looked up all the short hikes along the way and stopped to do those, including a cool bog trail at the top of a mountain and an old growth forest trail with a Scottish hut to commemorate that Scotsman who gave the land to be a park. The drive was pretty long and we took a little detour to get to the northernmost point of our trip. Once we hit Ingolish on the other side of the National Park we realized that even though the Cabot Trail is a loop, we had only done one third of it, so to get back it would be quicker to go back the way we came through the National Park. It was already five so we drove back and then made ourselves some turkey burgers back at camp.
The next morning my husband and I did the salmon pools hike near the campground. After that we all hiked the skyline trail which is a 5 mile loop trail on the top of a mountain and takes you along the ridge so that you can see Ocean views for a good third of the trail. At the pinnacle of the trail are a series of wooden steps and viewing platforms along the ridge line and overlooking the sea – terrifyingly beautiful!
After this hike we checked out some cool beach spots and then went back to the Otentik to chill for a few hours. In the early evening we went to a great restaurant called L’Abri and then we packed up so we would be ready to head out in the morning.
The next morning on our way out of the park we stopped in the town of Cheticamp and picked up some awesome French pastries from a local bakery (while much of the Island was settled by Scots, this part was French). Then we made the long drive to St. John’s in New Brunswick, about 7 hours. By the time we got to the hotel in St. John’s everyone was pretty beat and all the “men” were still sick, so I walked around downtown a little bit. It was very quiet but there was some cool architecture and street art and I learned about the big fire they had there in the 1800’s. We went to a pub for dinner and called it a night.
We live about 4 hours from Montreal, so we crossed the border at the Thousands Islands Bridge and made our way there. Since Canada has supposedly done away with requiring Covid-testing for entry, I was surprised to be given a take-home Covid-test as we crossed. The border agent told me I had 24 hours to complete the test of I would be fined. I was a little freaked out because I was developing a cold. I had also had Covid about 3 months prior, and although I did have a doctors note stating that PCR testing is contraindicated (because I could still test positive), I forgot to mention that to the border agent. By the time we got to our hotel in Montreal, around 4pm, I had to follow the instructions to make a telemedicine appt with the lab company they used. I then called the Canadian Covid hotline to tell them I did have the Doctor’s note about testing, and they said if I had a note stating that I had had Covid in the past 6 months I would be excused, however I needed to present that to the border agent. Since I didn’t, I still had to take the test. He also said if I tested positive I would have to isolate for 10 days! By now I was freaking out. The rest of the family went out for a walk, and I eventually had my telemed appt so this guy could watch me swab my nose. When that was done around 6, the guy looked up where I could drop the test off, and because I was in Quebec and not Ontario (where we crossed), the drug store they have people drop them off is not in the province. He told me to call Fed Ex to schedule a pickup. I called FedEx and they said since it was Friday evening they couldn’t even schedule a pickup with me until Monday. I would be in Fundy National Park on Monday! They looked up some local FedEx places to drop off the kit and found 2 near our hotel that were supposedly open until 7. It was 6:30 now. My husband and I walked to the first one, and even though it said on the door it was open until 7, it was closed! We walked to the next one, also supposed to be open, and also supposed to be closed. Now I had this stupid test kit with nowhere to send it. I called the company hotline and the woman told me she would have their logistics company call me and come pick it up the next morning at the hotel.
By the time this was all over it was after 8pm and we hadn’t eaten dinner. Fortunately there was a restaurant next to our hotel that had great reviews for their poutine, which was all the kids wanted. We had some great smoked meat poutine and I took a short walk around the neighborhood, near McGill University. The next morning a person from the testing company’s logistics division called me and we worked out that I would leave the test at the front desk and his team would come pick it up that day. I was grateful to be done with it!
We wanted to still experience a bit of Montreal, so after free breakfast at the hotel we made our way over to St. Viateur for some fresh Montreal-style bagels (thinner than NY style and wood-fired). After this we headed to the Biodome, an indoor zoo in the Olympic Parc complex. We had been there about 8 years ago when the kids were small, and wanted to go back. We also wanted to re-visit the Insectarium, which is in the same area, because we had loved it when we last went. Unfortunately they were sold out of tickets until the afternoon so we decided to start driving up to Quebec City.
It was hot, in the 80s, and we had no A/c in the car. It had broken a few weeks prior and would cost many thousands of dollars to fix, plus it wouldn’t be ready before our trip, so we decided to take out chances and go on the road trip without it. We were going to be so far north, how bad could it get? Well we found out that day it is not pleasant when the temperature is in the 80s. We were hot and exhausted by the time we got to Quebec City. We made it to our hotel around 2:30. It was a really cool Marriott-owned boutique property called, Hotel Pur. Although our room wasn’t ready we were able to use the pool, which was large with huge windows overlooking the city. It was so nice to jump into the pool after our hot three-hour ride from Montreal. We were also upgraded to a suite which was two adjoining rooms, one had a king size bend and the other had a pull out sofa. Both rooms had huge windows with great views of the city. Another great use of Marriott free night certificates and upgrades!
After resting for a bit we took the 20 minute walk to the old city, stopping for some delicious gelato along the way. It was a beautiful sunny day and we walked over to the old fort, getting great views of the St. Lawrence river and the city. We had also been to QC about 8 years ago when the kids were small and loved it, but it had been a grey and rainy day so it was nice to see what it looked like when the sun was shining. I learned on that first trip to make a dinner reservation way in advance, especially on the weekend. I remembered to do so about a week before and already many restaurants were booked. We were able to get one for a southeast Asian restaurant with great reviews, Bati Bassac. It was in the neighborhood right by our hotel that has lots of shops and restaurants, and on this evening they had blocked off the road and had a couple colorful buses with DJs on them, making for a festive party atmosphere. Dinner was awesome and we got back to our hotel, happy to sleep in really nice beds with a lot of space. By this point my cold was ramping up and I really looked forward to resting.
The hotel also offered us all free breakfast in their restaurant because of my Marriott platinum elite status. They had a large hot buffet with lots of nice options. I was really happy with this hotel. It was in a great location, had really nice rooms and amenities, even a wine vending machine in the lobby, and the breakfast was excellent.
After we ate we started our long drive to Fundy National Park, about 7 hours. Unfortunately it was still pretty hot so the car ride wasn’t very comfortable. It was cool to cross over into New Brunswick, a new province for all of us and one that my great grandmother was from! The drive hugged the border of Maine and went around the “hump.” We finally made it to Fundy National Park around 6:30 pm after stopping in Fredericton for some groceries since we would be camping. When we checked in we bought the year-long family pass for all of the Canadian National Parks since it would cost about the same than paying admission every day for all of the parks. Plus we can use it at any other national park sites in Canada on this trip or the rest of the year.
We checked into our yurt around 7pm and were pleasantly surprised by the amazing view overlooking Alma beach at the Bay of Fundy. We all agreed we had the best spot in the campground. The yurt was pretty cool too. It was large and clean. The Canadian National Parks have really cool options for accommodations if you don’t have your own tent or camper. On this trip we were going to try 3 different types, a yurt, a “bunkie,” and an “Otentik.
We made dinner but got a few mosquito bites and were all exhausted, and then my youngest son threw up his soup. It’s not unusual for him to puke when traveling and he had eaten a monstrous bacon cheeseburger at Burger King for lunch. We called it a night and went to sleep.
The next morning was sunny and the kids and my husband were all excited to go swimming. I warned them that the water was likely too cold for swimming but they wanted to try anyway, so we visited one of the beaches in the park and they froze for about 5 minutes before they gave it up. Afterwards we decided to do the Matthew’s Head trail, which is about a 4 mile loop. It was a great hike with amazing views and we had lunch on the trail. Following this we did a very short waterfall hike, and by then we were all pretty hot and exhausted. The park had a saltwater pool that cost an extra $20 for a family, so we decided to go for a swim, which was a great way to cool off. After that it started to get very windy and a bit rainy, so we decided to check out Alma beach at low tide and eat dinner in town. We found a great restaurant called The Octopus’ Garden which had fresh homemade pasta that was delicious, especially with local scallops. It was still light out when we finished so we decided to go for a drive and saw Cape Enrage, which was really cool and kind of eerie in the cloudy night.
The next day we spent the morning cleaning up around the yurt and then drove out to Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park. This is one of the most famous sights in the area, where you can see how dramatic the tide is at high and low as the water surrounds and then recedes from these huge rocks on the shore. We got there at 12, high tide, and saw the water at 30 feet, with folks kayaking around the rocks. We ate lunch at their cafe and then decided to go into the nearby city of Moncton to wait for the tide to go down and buy my younger son some new sneakers. We got back to the park around 5, after stopping at a weird private park with old metal industrial items on display. By the time we got back to the park the sun was out and the tide was low so we were able to walk out to the “ocean floor” and among the big rocks. It was pretty incredible as the rocks look like some of the formations out west, like at Arches National Park, but covered in seaweed.
The next day we packed up the yurt and started our drive out to Prince Edward Island National Park. We had to go back through Moncton and then finally over the long bridge to the island. We got there around lunchtime so we stopped in Charlottetown for lunch at a nice cafe outside. I got my first lobster roll of the trip – it was delicious! After this we stopped at a grocery store, Sobeys, for some provisions. Finally we made our way to Prince Edward Island National Park and checked into our next accommodation. This time we were staying in a “bunkie.” It was a brand new little shelter with two beds, one of them bunked on top, loft style. Next to the beds was some open space with a fold out table and cabinets, that looked to be from IKEA. There were windows facing the ocean and sliding glass doors. It smelled and looked brand new. There were a few other bunkies in the campgrounds, scattered between campsites, but I thought we had the best location, with an ocean view. The kids wanted to go swimming immediately so they headed to the beach. We had dinner, watched the sunset, made a fire, and went to sleep. It was a beautiful evening.
The next morning we spent on the beach, playing in the ocean and walking around. The beach at PEI was so beautiful, with powdery sand, lots of seashells, and dunes with the famous PEI red dirt bordering the shoreline. The weather was perfect for swimming and the water wasn’t too cold. In the late afternoon we dried off and headed out to make an early dinner at the Blue Mussel Cafe, stopping at Anne of Green Gables house first. I have not read the books but my 6 year-old neighbor has and loves them. She was very excited we were going to PEI and asked me to take pictures of Anne of Green Gables house if I saw it, “with no kids” in the pictures. Luckily since it is a national historic site, we were able to get in free with our national parks pass. It was also very close to our campground. We toured the grounds and house where the author lived, I snapped some pictures, and then we headed to North Rustico Harbor, also very close, where the restaurant was. We wanted to get there early since they don’t take reservations and it is a popular place. Luckily we were seated right away, and we commenced to eat all the seafood! We got mussels, oysters, seafood chowder, and seafood entrees, and everything was amazing! The service was great, and we even got a slice of chocolate potato cake for dessert (PEI is known for its potatoes). I was glad we went early because by the time we left the wait was over two hours! We walked around the harbor and took pictures before heading back to our bunkie, this time driving through the park to see some gorgeous views of the ocean. The kids went for one last swim and we got to witness another amazing sunset. All in all PEI was a pretty incredible part of the trip, I can see why people love it there!
Why Anguilla? I have heard for a long time that this small island north of St. Maarten is less crowded and has amazing beaches. There is a new-ish luxury Hilton property, Zemi Beach House, on Anguilla that looked amazing, and we had about one million total Hilton Honors points plus some free night certificates to burn. So I booked a 5 night trip at the end of my semester in May over a time when the kids at least had one Tuesday off from school so if we travelled Sat – Thurs they would only miss three days of school.
I decided to book 2 rooms, one for us and one for the kids, just to truly live in the lap of luxury. When I went to book the points prices for the rooms were pretty low for this property, about 75,000 a night (usually they start at 95,000). Plus I used two free night certificates for one of the rooms.
I looked into fights on points and Delta seemed the best option. At first I had a fantasy that my husband I could go without out kids so I booked us tickets round trip tickets from Syracuse to St. Maarten on basic economy (we don’t care about sitting together) for 65,000 miles total. When I realized I had no one to watch our kids, I added them to the trip and bought them regular economy tickets on Delta (so they could sit together at least) for 95,000 total miles.
For entry to St. Maarten we only needed to be vaccinated against Covid-19, so a couple days before we had to upload pictures of our vax cards to the St. Maarten’s entry website and within a few hours they sent us back ”pass” emails that could be uploaded to Delta’s website. We also needed antigen or PCR tests to get into Anguilla, so we took Antigen tests two days before and brought those results with us.
On the day we traveled our flight left Syracuse at 6am. Since we still had to check the kids in we left our house at 3:30am to get to the airport at 4am. When the agent saw that my husband and I still needed seat assignments (basic economy) she told us to tell the gate agent and she would seat us together. When I told the agent she put the 4 of us together in Comfort Plus, which was nice but didn’t really get us much other than sitting in front of the plane since it was a quick shuttle to JFK. Our flight from JFK was scheduled to leave at 8:30am, which was a very tight connection, but in a way it was fortunate that it was delayed an hour to leave at 9:30. That gave us some time to go over to the Centurion Lounge at JFK and get some delicious breakfast. We left so early we hadn’t eaten anything. This Centurion Lounge is new-ish and I haven’t been able to visit yet. I was pleased it wasn’t very crowded and the food was awesome.
Centurion Lounge JFK
Our flight to St. Maarten took off right at 9:30. I was able to purchase seat assignments earlier for my husband and I to be near the kids. I had chosen Delta as my airline of choice for my Amex business platinum card, and so $200 worth of these types of incidentals are refunded. We landed in St. Maarten at 1:45 and got to the immigration & customs line around 2pm. And what a line it was. We waited in a long snaky line for over two hours! It was pretty miserable. When we finally cleared customs we were met by a greeter from our hotel who got us into a shuttle for a 2 minute ride to the dock. From there we got on a chartered sea shuttle boat to Anguilla. I was so happy to have a rum punch at that point, although the boat ride was pretty rough and we were relieved to reach the dock. From there we went through a 5 minute immigration and customs at Anguilla and then took a 20 minute taxi to the resort.
We got to the resort around 5pm and they met us with some rum punch and gave us a tour of the resort. We had two connecting rooms and both had balconies overlooking the adults-only pool. There was chilled champagne and treats waiting for us. We enjoyed the pool for a little bit and then ate a lovely dinner at their restaurant on the beach before turning in for the night.
The next day we spent at the resort swimming in the beach and pool. The breakfast buffet (free to us because of our diamond status) was delicious with a ton of great options. At lunch time we walked down the beach to Gwen’s Reggae Hut for some barbecue and they had a live “scratch band” (kind of like a Caribbean jug band, complete with a washtub bass). I thoroughly enjoyed the music but everyone else thought it was too loud.
The following day we rented a car and after breakfast and some beach time we explored the island a little. In search for food that was a little less expensive, we ate at the Roti Hut, where a nice Indian lady cooked us fresh made rotis that were delicious. Afterwards we tried to find a couple off-the-beaten path beaches but the roads out to them were so rugged, I was very worried about getting into trouble with our rented Toyota Corolla. So we decided to bag the excursion and head back to the resort for some more fun on the beach and pool there.
The next day after breakfast we drove out to Mead’s Bay, which is a gorgeous cove of a beach with crystal clear water. We set up our base at Blanchard’s beach shack outdoor restaurant, which we learned has some good cheaper eats. At lunchtime we all ordered some excellent burgers, fries, cornbread, and they even had some vegan options for my husband. After some more swimming we dried off and drove back to the resort. That night my husband and I drove out to a little outdoor restaurant run by an Italian gentleman with a wood-fired pizza oven. The food was delicious, especially the fresh gelato for dessert!
For our final full day we enjoyed relaxing at the beach and pool and ate our meals at the resort. They had a Caribbean BBQ night that is held every Wednesday. They set up tents on the beach and had a full buffet. There was so much delicious food including grilled lobster! We ate our fill and tucked in for the night.
The next morning we were able to go for a quick swim before we had to leave. Around 10:15 we took a taxi to the ferry dock, and then a private boat to St. Maarten airport. Our flight was about an hour delayed and we landed in Atlanta around 7:30pm. Even though we had Global Entry and could breeze through Immigration and customs there were no lines. We learned our next flight to Syracuse was delayed by about an hour and a half. Luckily we could get into the Delta Sky Club with our American Express platinum cards. There we ate some dinner and relaxed, and finally boarded our flight around 11pm, making it home by 1:30am! Long travel days, but totally worth it to experience a slice of Caribbean paradise!
Our long road trips to US National Parks with the kids were each in 4th grade (Wild, Wild Southwest and Wild Wild (mid)West 2.0) accomplished my mission having the kids fall in love with the National Parks. After our most recent trips they began excitedly looking at maps of the US National Parks System and planning various road trips we could take to see more of them. I told them that they could each have a turn planning our next road trips. My oldest son always likes to be a little bit different, so he said he wanted to see some of Canada’s National Parks. He has also been asking to see New England for a while. He said he wanted to go to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. So this winter we sat down and mapped out a route that would take us to 3 Canadian National Parks and then back to the USA to hit Acadia National Park and the White and Green Mountain National Forests in New Hampshire and Vermont. He told me we should call is ”The Acadian Adventure,” because that entire region has actually been referred to as Acadia (not just the National Park).
This trip is a bit closer to home so we will be taking our trust Toyota Highlander again. When I looked into the Canadian National Parks I was thrilled to see they offer some really cool camping accommodations. Last year’s road trip kind of ruined tent camping for us for a while. Having 20 mph winds whipping across the prairie blowing your tent down on top of you will do that. Fortunately, when I looked into the 3 Canadian National Parks we will be visiting, they offered some non-tent camping options such as yurts, mini-cabins, and something called an Otentik, which seems like a sturdy canvas tent on a platform, already outfitted with bunk beds,
The current itinerary that he and I came up with is as follows:
Day 1: Drive to Montreal (about 4-5 hours from home) and stay overnight.
Day 2: Drive to Quebec City and stay overnight in a hotel (on points)
Day 3: Drive to Fundy National Park, stay for 3 nights in a Yurt at the NP.
Day 6: Drive to Prince Edward Island, stay for 2 nights in a cabin in the NP
Day 8: Drive to Halifax, stay in a hotel on points and hopefully visit some friends.
Day 9: Drive to Cape Breton NP, stay in an OTentik for 3 nights.
Day 12: Drive to St. John, New Brunswick, stay in a hotel on points.
Day 13: Drive to Acadia NP area, stay in an Airbnb for 5 nights.
Day 18: Drive to Sangerville, ME (where my grandpa grew up!) stay in an airbnb.
Day 19: Drive to the White Mountains, NH, stay in a hotel on points.
Days 21-22: May see friends in Concord, NH, may stay one night in Manchester, VT before driving home.
We are looking forward to lots of lobster, maybe some whale sightings, hiking, and Atlantic seacoast adventures!
The next morning we decided to try to get breakfast in the town of Gardener, right outside the northern entrance. Unfortunately as it was Sunday, all of the breakfast places were packed. We decided to continue on to Livingston Montana and get breakfast there. When we arrived, excited to a try a cool brunch place that we found online, we learned they weren’t taking any new customers and had a two hour wait! It turns out every restaurant had the same issue. We encountered a lot of this type of thing on the trip, due to the labor shortage and the high volume of people in the parks. We had to settle for McDonald’s which even took about 30 minutes!
Finally we made our way to Bozeman, MT, where we were going to visit with friends that evening. It was about 100 degrees in Bozeman so we were not going to do anything outside. We decided to check out the Museum of the Rockies on the Montana State campus. Fortunately, we got in for free with the membership I had purchased for the Field Museum in Chicago! I had a hard time booking the time slotted appointments for the museum without a membership so I purchased a family membership knowing that I would get reciprocal membership at various science museums around the world for the next year. The museum had a great exhibit on the history of Yellowstone and a huge dinosaur fossil collection, including the largest complete T-Rex skeleton in the world and the largest collection of Triceratops specimens. Apparently Montana is ground zero for finding Triceratops fossils, and they showed a lot of pictures and videos of the scientists uncovering them in the field. We also watched a show in their planetarium and then it was finally time to check into our hotel, a Residence Inn that I had secured on points. Unfortunately, because of the labor shortage they were so short staffed that rooms weren’t ready yet and there were several groups of people waiting in the lobby to check in. We finally were able to and we headed into the hotel pool to cool down.
At dinner time we headed over to my good friend’s house where her parents and boyfriend had also gathered and they made us a home cooked meal, which was so delicious and wonderful after several weeks of not having one! We had a fun night visiting with them.
The next morning we started a long drive through Montana to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is just over the border in Medora, North Dakota. I figured we would get in that evening so I booked us a room (on points) at the AmericInn. I realized that in all this time in cattle country I still had not had a steak, so for dinner we went to the next little town over to a steakhouse for dinner. I did get a deliciously cooked T-bone for dinner. We were also eyeing the forecast for the next day because we were going to camp at TRNP, which is first-come, first-serve camping. But the next day it was going to be over a 100 degrees F with 20 mph winds! We were worried about having a repeat of our camping experience at Badlands so I quickly booked a 2nd night at the hotel (on points, of course).
The next morning we got to the park early to try to get a hike in before it got to hot. We wanted to check out the Petrified Forest trail, which can be done as a 10 mile loop or 3 miles out and back into the Petrified Forest. The views of the buttes in the prairie were beautiful as we made our way into the ancient petrified forest. When we arrived there were petrified tree segments everywhere. We spent time walking around exploring them in awe and then headed up the trail a little, only to find a lone bison chillin on the prairie. We made our way back stopping at the forest section again, and everyone was in agreement it was awesome.
Next we headed into the park to drive through and do some short overlook hikes along the way. Almost immediately we came across bison herds right in the road. We also passed through prairie dog towns and beautiful vistas where we saw wild horses that also live in the park. It was definitely hot and incredibly windy, which made us glad we didn’t camp. We did stop at the campground section for a picnic lunch before heading to the visitor center where we got to see some cool exhibits on the park and Theodore Roosevelt, whose Maltese Cross cabin was moved to behind the visitor center. This whole stretch of land was where he had his ranch.
After a cool off swim at the hotel we went to town for dinner at Medora Uncork’d, a wine bar that featured homemade pizzas and flatbreads. Afterward we headed back over to the park to see a sunset at Wind Canyon. At around 9 that evening we went to the campground to listen to a ranger talk on the animals of the park. We all agreed that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a hidden gem and we wished we could spend more time there!
The next morning we continued east and stopped at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This is where several Native American Villages once were, and this is where Pocahontas was from. They have a nice Visitor’s Center and a recreated Earth Lodge. We hiked to the river to see the site of the original villages. We got back on the road to drive through the geographic center of North America (did not stop at the marker) and made it to Bismarck, ND where we got a quick oil change at Jiffy Lube. From a Yelp search I found that a Puerto Rican bakery was nearby so we stopped there for some pastries and then discovered a food truck next door in the Home Depot parking lot. We were starving so we decided to give it a try and we found out that the owner was a chef in San Luis Obisbo, CA but his wife was from Bismarck and they moved here over the pandemic to have her family help with their 3 young kids. The food was amazing as were the Puerto Rican pastries. In fact, all of the food we had gotten so far in ND was excellent – who would have thought! We finally made it to Fargo around 6 but we ate lunch so late we decided to cook our own light dinner in the kitchen of our suite at Staybridge Suites; which I had gotten on points. We enjoyed relaxing in the room and the next morning we made our way over to downtown Fargo to get a take away lunch order from BernBaum’s, a Scandinavian/Jewish deli with vegan options. It was so good, we ordered half of the store including bagels with lox, gourmet knish, rugelach, and matzoh granola. Our awesome food in North Dakota streak continued! We also checked out some of the shops in downtown Fargo before heading back in the car for the long drive ahead of us through Minnesota.
We decided to break up the drive by stopping at Itasca State Park, which has the headwaters of the Mississippi! It was a short walk from the visitor center over to the headwaters, and it was really cool to cross the Mississippi on foot! We had our BernBaum’s lunch in the park and then continued our very long drive all the way up to International Falls, which is almost to Canada.
We made it to our next hotel in Rainier, MN, which was called The Cantilever Inn. It is a new boutique hotel and a distillery with a bar and restaurant. They were super busy and had a live band, but fortunately the restaurant across the street had a table open and we had a great dinner there – I got to try my first Walleye! After dinner we got the kids situated in the room and my husband and I went to our hotel’s bar to try some of their cocktails made with their homemade liquor and listen to the band. The crowd thinned out and the bar closed up around 10 and we got to bed.
The next morning we drove over to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center for our first boat tour of the park. As the park is 40% water there are few hiking trails and I figured the best way to see it was from the water, so I booked both boat tours that the park service offered that day. The first one was a tour of Rainy Lake that lasted about 2 hours. During the tour the park ranger spoke about the history of the area, including the French Voyageurs who came from Canada and paddled all through the lakes to trap beaver. There were also several mines and a small mining boom after gold was discovered in the native quartz. Unfortunately it was such a labor intensive process to extract the gold that it never yielded much profit, so the miners headed west and abandoned the mines. We also spotted many bald eagles and the ranger taught us about them and their habitat.
After the boat tour we only had 30 minutes before the next one, so we had to eat quickly in the parking lot. This tour took us by boat over to Little American Island, which was the site of one of the mines. This was not as interesting and we agreed it could have been skipped. It was starting to get really hot so after the tour we hung out in the visitor center and then headed back to the small town of Rainier where we were staying to go for a swim in the town beach. Unfortunately it started thunderstorming right as we got in! We took shelter in our room and waited for the storm to pass and then the kids and my husband took a walk around town while I took a short nap. Finally at 7 we had dinner at the distillery and then watched the sunset from the docks.
The next morning we headed east and made a quick stop in Duluth. I always wanted to check out Duluth trading company and I found some bargains in the store. We took a quick walk on the lakefront of Lake Superior and then got back in the car to drive over to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Along the way we drove through Wisconsin and I wanted to stop at Culver’s, which I had never heard of before this trip but is a local fast food chain with a little higher end burgers and custard! We were lucky to stop at one that was right on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore! The food was awesome and we got to see a little secret beach on Lake Superior behind the Culver’s. We kept driving until we finally reached our destination of Houghton, Michigan. We have friends who live there on Portage Lake and own a boutique hotel downtown in a historic bank. The hotel was full that night so we stayed in a cabin on the lake that was only a few houses down from our friends. We got to go for a swim and then head over to their house to hang out for a bit, and they took us on a boat tour where we could see Houghton from the water. They wrote out a great itinerary for us for sightseeing for the next day.
The next morning my husband and I took a quick kayak trip on the lake before we packed up and headed out for the day. We drove across the bridge in Houghton to the Keneenaw peninsula which is like the upper most peninsula of the upper peninsula, and juts out into Lake Superior. At one point there were several copper mines in the area and you can tour them, but we wanted to explore some of the outdoor scenery. We stopped in the historic mining town of Calumet and got some great coffee and snacks at Keneenaw coffee company. Then we continued on our journey east, stopping at a few waterfalls along the way and seeing the amazing views of Lake Superior. We drove all the way up Brockaway Mountain where we had incredible 270 degree views of the lake and the forests below. We then headed back down through some of the historic harbors and had a great lunch at a little restaurant on the beach, Fitzgerald’s. After lunch the kids went for a swim in the lake and then we started heading back into town.
We checked into our friends’ hotel the Vault which was super cool and beautifully decorated. We relaxed for a while and then my husband and I took a little walk around downtown Houghton. A lot was closed because it was Sunday but we got the kids and decided to have dinner at a seafood restaurant.
The next morning we woke up early to go to a local Finnish restaurant called Suomi. The kids and I tried their Pannukakku which are baked, custardy pancakes with a berry sauce. They were delicious! We stopped at the Isle Royale Visitor Center. Even though we did not take the Ranger III for the 6 hour rough sail up to the park, we poked around a bit and did collect some stamps for our National Park passbooks. Next we drove west and stopped at a little rest stop which had a 10 minute hike out to a waterfall. It was really pretty and reminded us a lot of the landscape where we live which had similar waterfalls. We continued driving to Munising, MI, which is a little beach town that borders Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. For lunch we went to Muldoon’s pasty shop and got to try some Upper Peninsula pasties! They were really good and definitely filled us up for our next adventure.
After lunch we parked at Pictured Rocks Kayaking and checked in for the 2:30 tour. They take you on a large boat that stores about 30 tandem kayaks on top, and take you about 30 minutes out to the most beautiful sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and launch you in small groups of about 6 kayaks and a guide. The guide took us on a 5 mile paddling tour along the Lakeshore, which was truly breathtaking. The water was so clear you could see the rocks perfectly at the bottom. The color was as turquoise as the Caribbean. And jutting up from the water were 50 foot cliffs of orange, yellow and red sandstone. We were able to kayak into little caves and through natural tunnels. It was an amazing experience. Exhausted but feeling accomplished, after the tour we drove out to our campground which was near the national park. It was a small, privately owned campground that only had about 12 wooded sites and was mostly tent campers. Our site was large, wooded, and private. The only problem was there were people in a camper across from us who were running their generator, despite the fact that it was 8pm and you were not allowed to have them on past 6. We kept thinking eventually they would turn it off, but unfortunately they kept it running all night! Otherwise it was a perfectly lovely site. We overheard the owner talking to them the next morning about moving to a place that had hook-ups. There was also a mile thunderstorm that night, which was not bad but after our experience in Badlands it scared my youngest son enough that he came in to sleep with me, so between that and the generator I did not get a great nights sleep.
The next morning we packed up and headed out. We spent some more time at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and then drove down to catch the 3pm ferry to Mackinac Island. When we landed on the island the main drag was so packed with people it was very off-putting, plus we still hadn’t eaten lunch and were starving. We went to a restaurant and ate a basic burger and fries lunch, and then decided to walk into the State Park section to escape the crowds. It was definitely much less crowded in the park and we walked to Skull Cave and then the Arch, which was quite beautiful over Lake Superior. The kids kept asking to swim so we went over to a beach area on a lawn with a bu ch if Adirondack chairs and let them swim in the lake for about 45 minutes. We were nervous to catch the ferry back because we had a 4 hour drive to our hotel, so we had then dry off and headed back into town, stopping at a fudge shop to get some famous Mackinac Island fudge. We made the 7 pm ferry and then drove over the huge Mackinac bridge into the other side of Michigan. We drove straight to the Ann Arbor area where we had a reservation at a holiday inn (on points) and crashed about 11:30 am. The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and started our long 7 hour drive back home!
After getting some extra blankets and warm clothes from Wal-Mart in Riverton, we started driving to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. We drove through the eastern entrance of the park to get to town and right away spotted some Bison grazing! This was super exciting, as was seeing the Teton Mountain range in the distance. The sky was a but hazy from fires in the Pacific Northwest, but we could still see the huge, snow-capped mountains rising right out of the plains.
We drove into town and checked into the SpringHill suites, which I reserved on points. They had a nice outdoor pool and patio area which we were grateful to use to relax a little. I had wanted to eat at a nice restaurant for dinner in Jackson with my husband, but between the crowds and labor shortage, it was almost impossible to get a reservation anywhere. I was able to get 2 seats at the bar at 5:15 at a farm to table restaurant called Trio, so my husband and I left the kids in the hotel and headed over there for a fancy meal. It was pretty delicious (and expensive) and afterwards we walked around the town for a bit and browsed in some of the tourist shops.
We went back and got the kids something to eat and then walked around town a bit more. On our way back to the hotel we heard some music and walked across the street to check it out. We happened to be next to the Jackson Arts Center, and a band was playing, Midnight North. We settled in on the grass and listened to their show and people-watched. They were a great Western, jam-band style band and even did some Grateful Dead covers.
The next morning I had to take my son to the Urgent Care in Jackson as his ear had been hurting him and we were concerned he had an infection. It turns out he did and was prescribed some antibiotics. Luckily the urgent care and pharmacy didn’t take very long so once we were done we headed into the park. Unfortunately by the time we got there all of the popular areas were over-crowded with people. The Jenny Lake parking lots were full and people were parked on the side of the road for miles. We decided to keep heading north to some of the less popular spots and ended up in the Colter Bay Area. We did the short lake view hike around some of the bays with views of the mountains in the distance. As we headed back down south it was later in the afternoon so we were able to easily get a parking spot in the Jenny Lake area. We took the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake over to the trailhead for Cascade Falls and Inspiration Point. The trails were packed even at this time so I can’t imagine how busy they were earlier in the day. Cascade falls was beautiful as was the hike up to Inspiration Point. My husband and I wanted to hike around the canyon a bit more but the kids were nervous about the hike back. Rather than wait for the shuttle we decided to hike back the 2.5 miles around the lake to the visitor center. It was a beautiful hike and away from the crowds. When we got back to Jackson we were excited to try Big Hole BBQ which had some awesome ribs.
The next morning my husband had a meeting and the kids were tired, so I rented a bike and rode out to the bike trail that goes next to the National Elk preserve and along the park. Unfortunately the skies were so hazy from the fires you could barely see the Tetons! But the ride was pretty great anyway. It was cool to watch the planes land right next to the mountains into Jackson Hole airport.
That afternoon we enjoyed the pool. walked around town a bit more and got some tacos and some amazing gourmet ice cream at Moo’s. That evening there was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Arts center next to our hotel. We spent the evening watching that (it was great!) and then went to bed early as we had an early morning planned.
That morning we left Jackson at 5:30am in order to get to Yellowstone early enough to beat some of the crowds. We drove up John D. Rockefeller highway up through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone National Park. As we got closer to Old Faithful we could see columns of steam rising through the trees. I couldn’t believe how other-worldly this looked. When we arrived at Old Faithful we learned it had just erupted so we had about 90 minutes to walk around and explore the geysers and hot springs in the area. Of course I knew that these are the most famous features of Yellowstone, but nothing can prepare you for seeing them in person. It’s like walking on top of a beautiful, primeval, volcanic hellscape, with sulphuric springs bubbling up almost everywhere you turn. As it got to be the time for OF to erupt, a huge crowd had gathered and sat on the benches around it to watch the show. It was pretty incredible when it finally went off, but odd with the stadium style seating and everyone clapping.
Afterwards we checked out the Old Faithful Inn, one of the most famous national park lodges and the one that the Wilderness Lodge in Walt Disney World is modeled after. It was pretty cool. Next we drove up to the fairy falls trail to hike up to the lookout for Grand Prismatic Spring. It was amazing to see the whole thing from a distance. We wanted to go to see the spring up close next, but cars were lined up on the side of the road for miles around the parking lot and we decided it was worth the crowds. We spent the rest of the day stopping at various sights along the main road, seeing too many waterfalls, hot springs, and other crazy natural wonders. Towards the end of the day we went over to the Norris Geyser basin. There was a little bit of a line to wait to get a parking spot, but it was so worth it to see this incredible part of the caldera. The pools and geysers in this part of the park are supposed to be the hottest and most sulphuric of anywhere else. It really did seem like you had entered the gates of Hell as you walked around it. We spent a while hiking through both sections of the Norris Geyser basin and then started making our way to our campsite at Mammoth.
When I had first planned this trip I missed the opening date for booking campsites at Yellowstone. Because of the pandemic the NPS had changed some of the reservation windows. I also knew that there were about 6 first-come first-serve campgrounds in the park, although I was nervous about getting to them early enough to secure a site, since the park is so massive and they were expecting record-breaking crowds this summer. At one point I booked us a room in a hotel in West Yellowstone, but at $350 a night it was going to cost us over $1000 for 3 days! I then signed up for an online service called “campnab.” For $30 a month you can enter what campgrounds you want it to search for what dates, and as soon as there is a cancellation you will get a text. I signed up for Yellowstone for our dates and I did receive many tests in the preceding two months before our trip, however you need to respond to the text and book the sites immediately, or they will be booked in under 10 seconds. Fortunately when we were in Chicago I received a text that a site was open in Mammoth campground for our dates, and I was able to book it!
When we arrived in the Mammoth hot springs area, it seemed magical. You could see the hot springs rise up as you drove into the village, and when we arrived into the area with the hotel there was a herd of Elk all over the grounds. We made it to our campsite which did not have much free space but did offer a view of the mountains to the north. There was a tent platform but it was only big enough for one of our tents so we had to set up the other one in a little green space between the parking spot and the road.
After a decent night of sleeping in the tents we decided to head into the Lamar Valley section to see some wildlife and go for a hike. It did not take long before we had to stop to allow a herd of Bison to cross the road. We spent some time taking pictures of them and then hiked for about a mile up the specimen ridge trail where we got some great views of the Yellowstone River. We were all nervous to go further as we did not have bear spray, so we headed back and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Lamar Valley and the wildlife. Back at Mammoth we spent the early evening exploring the upper and lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs, complete with elk spread out around the springs.
The next day we decided to head back into the Caldera section and make our way down to hike out to Lone Star geyser. It took a while to get down there as we stopped at various spots we hadn’t seen yet. Finally we got to Kepler Cascades where we parked and ate lunch, and then started the two mile hike along a river to the geyser. It was really nice to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds for a bit. When we got to the geyser within about 5 minutes it started erupting. There were about 8 other people there watching the eruption which lasted about 20 minutes. It was awesome to see a geyser in more of it’s natural state, away from the boardwalks and stadium seating of Old Faithful. Rejuvenated, we hiked back and made our way over to the Eastern side of the park, where we visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. It was awesome to see some of the geysers actually in the lake itself. After that we headed over to the Tower/Fall section and went to the lower falls view point to see the massive waterfall up close. Next we stopped in at the campground area in this part to get dinner. They had a huge cafeteria style restaurant. One one side you could order home cooking type food such as pot roast and chicken, and on the other side was an Asian stir-fry theme where you could choose what meat, vegetables, and sauce you wanted stir-fried with rice or noodles. Luckily we still had a few hours of sunlight so after dinner we went over to the upper falls viewpoints and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was the golden hour which made the view even more spectacular! Finally we started the long drive back to Mammoth, made even longer because the road from Tower to Mammoth was closed. It was starting to get dark when we got to camp, but the kids wanted us to do the hike up from the campground into the village and then up another hill to see the view, as they had done by themselves the night before. We made our way up and were able to see the sunset over Mammoth. We learned that we took the old Stage coach road down where the visitors used to come in from the North entrance via stage coach. Finally we slept in Yellowstone for one last night.
After leaving Madison we headed northwest to the Mississippi River. I had heard that the northern section of the river was quite beautiful and I wanted to drive along it to make our way to Minneapolis. We stopped for lunch at Perrot State Park in Wisconsin which has trails going up along the bluffs, offering a fantastic view of the river and Minnesota on the other side. Later we stopped in Wabasha, MN at the National Eagle Center, an eagle sanctuary that has some rehabilitated bald eagles and exhibits about the bird, along with great views of the Mississippi. We wanted to stop for dinner in Red Wing but it happened to be a holiday, the 4th of July, and almost everything was closed. We kept driving to Minneapolis instead and checked into our room, a one bedroom suite downtown in Embassy Suites, Minneapolis, free with Hilton certificates. The room was nice and big with a dining table, sectional sleeper sofa, and bedroom with a king size bed. This part of the city also seemed pretty dead, so we ordered take out and went to bed.