Costa Rica!

The planning

I have wanted to travel to Costa Rica for many years, but we decided to wait until both of the kids were at least 8 year old so they could do some of the adventure activities that CR is famous for.

I started planning our trip for winter break 2018-2019 about 2 years in advance. I needed to know which airline we were likely to take so I could start accruing miles for it. I eventually settled on American Airlines. My family really wanted to leave the day after Christmas so that we got the maximum amount of time in Costa Rica over winter break. The problem with leaving the day after Christmas to a warm and popular location is that flights are notoriously expensive, even with miles. No problem, I was up for the challenge!

I opened two Barclays Aviator cards (business and personal), which were offering 60k points once you make one purchase of any amount, and pay the annual fee of $95. That brought me to 120k AA miles. I think transferred some of my SPG points to AA when they were having a bonus deal. You can transfer SPG points to many airlines and get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred, and AA was running a deal where they added another 25% on top of that, so for 20k SPG miles you got 30k AA miles. I did this twice I think and with some of our pre-existing AA miles we had enough to book our flights!

For the lodging, I was very specific about places I wanted to stay, and none of them were bookable using points. I did book some places using hotels.com to add to my reward night count, however. I booked most of the places in February (10 months in advance), because the week between Christmas and New Years is one of the most popular times to travel and I wanted to make sure we got our choice of accommodations. You normally don’t need to book your lodging this early, however some of the places I wanted to stay had only 3-5 options, so they were sure to book up. For example, the tree house hotel only had 3 or 4 tree houses that would make sense for us, and one of them was already booked! Likewise, for Airbnb, if you see a property you are dying to stay in, book it ASAP. Chances are it is very popular and since there is only one of it, you could lose it later.

For the itinerary, we decided to do the rainforest activities for the first week, and the beach for the 2nd week. Since all of our locations were in the Northern part of the country, we decided to fly in and out of Liberia airport.

The Traveling

We left my mom’s house in NJ at 2:30am the morning after Christmas to drive down to Philadelphia airport. Even though technically they live closer to EWR (Newark Airport), we tend to prefer PHL (Philadelphia). It’s just nicer and less congested with traffic. From my mom’s house it’s a straight shot down 95, we have a park-and-fly place we use that we really like, and PHL has a Centurion Lounge (an Amex lounge for Platinum card holders) that we love. We arrived at the airport around 4:20 and had to wait for the lounge to open at 5am. After a bite to eat there we headed to the gate and boarded the plane to Miami.

At Miami we hit Centurion lounge #2 for a delicious breakfast of ricotta pancakes, Spanish style tortilla, potato and sausage hash, fresh fruit, mimosas, and espresso (Membership does have its privileges!), and then we boarded the flight to Liberia. We had seats in the bulkhead in main cabin extra. This is because last year I received AA Platinum Pro status for four months as a promotion. With that status you can choose the main cabin extra seats for free, so since I booked these tickets when I had that status we had those seats that have extra leg room and free adult beverages. It’s nice to be in the front of the plane when traveling internationally because you get to the immigration line first 😉.

Our flight was great. We sat near a group of 4 families who are all neighbors in Chicago and vacation together. We also vacation with our neighbors although we only do a yearly camping trip so far…I think we need to step it up a notch!!!

Customs and immigration in Costa Rica was smooth as was our car rental. We got our little SUV and took off for our first lodging which was near Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste; a little over an hour from Liberia airport.

The drive was beautiful. We passed farmland with volcanos in the distance and then in the last half hour climbed a bit up into the mountains through denser vegetation until we got to the little village of Bijuagua. The colors of the landscape were so vividly green it was hard for my eyes to take everything in.

We turned onto a dirt road and about 2 miles up we made it to our lodging. They weren’t kidding when they said the roads in CR are bad! The main roads were paved and fine but as soon as you turn off onto a side road, it’s rock city! I can’t imagine how difficult it is to navigate during the rainy season with all the mud. Our hotel was actually a group of small little cabins (casitas) in the forest. Our casita had a long porch overlooking the forest, and within about 15 minutes we spotted about 6 monkeys! 🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒 The binoculars my son got for Christmas came in very handy as we watched them scramble through the tree tops. I couldn’t believe how quickly and easily we spotted the wildlife!

We made it an early night after we went to a restaurant for some comida tipica (typical Costa Rican food) and headed in to bed.

 

Day 2: Rio Celeste and Night Hike

As I lay in bed early in the morning, I kept wondering whose phone was going off making Chewbacca noises. Only later did I realize it was the howler monkeys waking us up! After some coffee in the casita we headed over to the main dining area. The BnB served a farm fresh breakfast in an outside area overlooking the forest, and we were able to see Toucans and other exotic birds as we ate. We took a tour of the farm that is part of the BnB, although my youngest and I got some ant bites and had to cut it short to go back to our casita and put on socks!

After breakfast we drove over to Tenorio National Park and did the hike out to Rio Celeste waterfall. The color of the water is this amazing bright sky blue. We ended up splitting up because my youngest had an issue halfway through the hike that needed to be taken care of in a bathroom. So my husband took him back. My oldest son and I hiked out to the lookout tower and then turned around because we were unsure how much further the other points in the hike were and we had no water with us. Come to find out they were pretty close to where we were. Oh well, it turned out my husband and other son made had hiked out to the waterfall too and we met up with them at the little restaurant near the entrance. After some refreshing batidos (Costa Rican smoothies) and tasty empanadas for a snack, we headed over to a little mom and pop restaurant on the side of the road and had a larger lunch of casados (typical Costa Rican plate of a meat, rice, beans, salad, plantains, and macaroni salad).

We headed back to our casita to rest and explore the property a little more. Around 5:30pm we headed out for a night hike with a local guide named Miguel. He took us on a 2.5 hour hike with flashlights through his property and we were able to see many local fauna, including a sloth, the red-eyed tree frog, the strawberry poison dart frog (or blue jean frog), a huge bull frog, a basilisk lizard, a kinkaju, several birds, many insects, and more. It was pretty special and the boys were amazed. Everyone agrees this was our favorite activity of the whole trip.

It was about 8pm by the time we were done and there weren’t many restaurants to choose from in the sleepy little village we were staying in. We ended up at a Costa Rican Chinese food restaurant kind of by accident. The food was actually decent and we ate well and went straight to bed.

I loved this part of the trip. We were in a quiet small town that had few tourists, so it was great to see a lot of every day Tico life. The BnB we stayed in was really nice and the staff was great. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a little off the beaten path.

Day 3: Drive to Arenal

The next morning we had another delicious breakfast and saw toucans, monkeys, and sloths right outside the dining area! We then checked out and drove about 2 hours to the town of La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano and national park. La Fortuna was very busy and touristy compared to the little town of Bijauga that we had just left.

After some lunch at a soda (small Costa Rican restaurant, like a diner) in town, we drove up towards the Arenal volcano to stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This is a large property close to the volcano with views of the Arenal lake. We swam in the pool and hot tub and then explored their large property which had some trails, a frog pond, a small “museum” about the volcano, it’s eruptions, and local wildlife, and a restaurant. We had dinner at the lodge restaurant mainly because we didn’t want to drive all the way back down the mountain to La Fortuna in the dark.

The lodge was pretty cool because it was so close to the volcano. I probably could have stayed one more day because we didn’t get to do a lot of the hikes. But I wouldn’t have wanted to eat at their restaurant every night and driving back and forth to La Fortuna in the dark to eat would have been a pain, so overall I think one night was fine.

Day 4: Arenal and drive to Treehouses!

The next morning we woke up early and had a buffet breakfast at the lodge. They had a huge spread with lots of different Costa Rican food, such as a corn pudding (my husband thought it tasted like kugel). Afterwards we headed over to Sky Adventures, a tour company within the park that has zip-lines, hanging bridges, and a gondola up the side of the mountain. Since we are all scared of heights, we skipped the zip lines and did the sky trek and sky tram, which is a 2.5 hour guided hike through the rainforest followed by the 10 minute tram ride. The trek was pretty amazing, as we walked over four hanging bridges and saw two waterfalls. We also saw some howler monkeys and two vipers!

Afterwards we went back to the lodge to check out and then we headed back into La Fortuna for lunch at Don Rufino, one of the best restaurants in town. It did not disappoint…the food was incredible!!!

Following lunch we drove about 40 minutes through the beautiful countryside and a couple small towns until we landed at our next lodging, Treehouses Hotel Costa Rica. We checked into our treehouse, The Sloth (or Perezoso). It was about 40 feet off the ground and had a queen size bed on the first “floor” and two twin beds up in the loft. It also had a/c, a fridge, and a bathroom with shower!

The property has trails to a local river for swimming, so before it got dark we trekked down to the river for a quick dip. It was a little cold but so refreshing!!! We were pretty tuckered out by the time we got back to the treehouse so we ordered pizza (yes they delivered it to the treehouse!) and had a quiet night in.

Day 5: Quiet day at the Treehouses

Today we took it easy after so many adventures. In the morning we got to have our coffee on the treehouse balcony and watch the birds. The hotel made us a delicious Costa Rican breakfast at their outdoor dining area. After we rested a bit we walked on their private trail to a small waterfall and then went for some more floats in the river. I had considered driving back to La Fortuna to go to the La Fortuna waterfall, but my sense is it would be very crowded and having an entire riverside area to ourselves to play around in seemed so much nicer. We also saw a three-toed sloth in a tree and a group of howler monkeys later when we returned to our treehouse.

We went to a small little restaurant for lunch and tried some Costa Rican tacos. They’re kind of like large taquitos in that the tortillas are wrapped around the meant and/or cheese and deep fried.

Afterwards we came back to the Treehouses and had a private chocolate making workshop. The chocolatier was a local guy who has a small craft chocolate business. He taught us the history of chocolate and then we made fresh chocolate from the nibs! My husband and I were able to try the ancient chocolate drink the Aztecs and Mayans drank from fermented cacao (no sugar or milk), and the kids had one that was sweeter. Then, after some rendering of the chocolate we got to pour it into to the molds. It was delicious and so much fun!!! The kids had a blast grinding and pouring and picking out what flavors to make. We had a great time talking to the guy and learning about chocolate and Costa Rica in general.

Day 6: Whitewater rafting!

On this day we had another delicious home cooked breakfast at the Treehouses and then just rested around our treehouse until 11am when the whitewater rafting company came and picked us up in a van with a bunch of other people. We drove about 15 minutes to the put in, and everything started moving really fast. This was not like WWR in the states where they take 45 minutes to give you a lesson and sign paperwork. After a quick lesson we were in the water and hit many class III rapids in a row. It was super exciting and luckily no one fell out! About halfway through the trip the river became muy tranquilo and we only had a few class II rapids. We were able to take it slow and see some wildlife including monkeys, sloths, and iguanas. The guides gave us a fruit snack and the trip was over after about 2 hours.

We were starving since we hadn’t eaten lunch so we went to a restaurant called “Happyland” for an early dinner. I have to say, I was so hungry I actually enjoyed my tilapia stuffed with ham, American cheese, and shrimp – a combo that I questioned later. That night back at the Treehouses we did another night hike with the caretaker and saw some more insects and frogs. It was New Years Eve but we were so exhausted we fell asleep at 10pm!

Overall, I loved the treehouse resort. It was really relaxing, and again, I liked that we were in a smaller town away from the crowds. I loved that they had the private river to swim in, and they had a lot of wildlife right there on the property. The staff was wonderful as well. I would highly recommend staying in this place if you are in the area. It’s close enough to La Fortuna to do the activities there, but away from the hustle and bustle.

Day 7: Wildlife Refuge and Hot springs

On this day after breakfast we checked out of the treehouse and drove about 5 minutes to the Proyecto Asis Wildlife Refuge. We took a private tour of the facility that rehabilitates animals that were either hurt from cars or had other accidents, or were taken as pets and domesticated when they shouldn’t have been. They help the domesticated animals learn to be wild again so they can release them back into the jungle, however some of the animals have been so injured they will have to stay there forever. After our tour we were able to prepare lunch for the animals and feed many of them, including spider monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, parrots, and peccarry pigs. The kids loved handing the monkeys pieces of banana and having them grab them out of their hands, and the alpha capuchin monkey even got a little aggressive with my husband, grabbing his hand and pulling it close to bite it before my husband got away. The guide said he probably thought my husband was another alpha monkey because of his beard 🤷🏻‍♀️.

We finished up around lunch time and headed into La Fortuna for lunch. On the way we stopped at a little souvenir shop the Treehouses staff recommended, run by a husband and wife. He carves little wood sculptures and she paints them. The owners were super nice and had us walk around their property a bit. The wife showed us all of her birds and the husband cut open some fresh coconuts for us. We did buy a couple souvenirs and they also gave us one as a gift.

When we got to La Fortuna many stores and restaurants were closed because it was New Year’s Day, but we ended up eating some empanadas and finding a great little gelato place. We then drove over to the hot springs resort, Los Lagos.

Our room was not ready yet to check in and change, so we walked around the property for a bit. They actually had a little “zoo” of sorts, with a huge crocodile, a butterfly house, a frog pond, a turtle pond, and an ant house with lots of leaf cutter ants. After we got changed we explored all the pools and hot springs. The hot springs varied in size and temperature and the largest one had a swim up bar! There were slides in several of them. Some of the hot springs pools were small, fitting only a few people at a time in a man made cave. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening swimming around until we wrinkled up like prunes and then went to bed.

I’m glad we stayed one night at the hot springs resort rather than doing a day trip because we could have some drinks and stay until it got dark and not have to worry about driving back to our hotel. I probably wouldn’t have stayed more than one night there because it was kind of resort-y. It was big and touristy and the rooms were just ok. But it was really fun to spend the afternoon and evening soaking and swimming in the hot springs.

Day 8: Waterfall swim and drive out to Nicoya Peninsula

After a buffet breakfast at the resort we checked out and drove all along Lake Arenal (a man-made lake along the side of the volcano) for about 2 and a half hours until we got near Canas. The road was very twisty and turny but the views were incredible. We drove out to a waterfall I had heard of called Llanos de Cortes. You can swim at the base of it and they had lifeguards and lots of people picnicking.

It reminded me a lot of the waterfalls near us in Ithaca, NY, where you can also swim, however those are always freezing cold, even in August! The nice thing about this one was the water was pretty warm and made for comfortable swimming. We also got to see a bunch more howler monkeys and a monitor lizard! We had a really nice lunch in the nearby town and then got on the road again to drive out to the beach.

Waze had us go up through Liberia and then out to the Nicoya Peninsula where many of the beach towns are along the Pacific. The last part of the drive was gorgeous through lush rolling hills. We made it to our Airbnb around dinner time and after a swim in our private pool we went over to a beach restaurant for a late dinner.

Day 9: Playa Sámara – Beach day!

The nice thing about being at an Airbnb finally (besides a washing machine for laundry!) is that we could make our own food. We picked some things up at the grocery store and had a home cooked breakfast. We then headed out to the beach which was gorgeous. The water was so warm, I couldn’t believe this was the Pacific Ocean. The kids and my husband were having so much fun playing in the waves that they stayed in a little too long, and despite having put on a lot of sunscreen they all got sunburned on their faces. So we spent a quiet evening at home making our own dinner and relaxing.

Days 10-17: Time to chillax…

It took us a little while to get used the laid back vibe in Samara after the go-go-go of all the rainforest adventures. It was a kind of like driving at 60 miles an hour and going into a 25 mph zone. On our second day we spent a lot of time in the house and our pool since my littlest had such bad sunburn. We also had a chance to eat some more meals at home, saving some money.

I also started going to yoga at the beach! The instructor is actually a massage therapist who’s office is connected to our Airbnb. She offered a very similar practice to what I do at home in the hot yoga studio – only you don’t need to turn up the heat here! There’s nothing like taking a yoga class while looking out onto the beautiful ocean to get your namaste on!

 

There’s no coastal road connecting all of the beaches and beach towns along the Nicoya Peninsula, so you can’t beach hop without lots of driving. Fortunately, there is a paved road connecting Samara to one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, Playa Carillo, only 10 minutes away! Carillo has no development on the beach, it’s like a park, and so amazingly beautiful! There are palm trees along the road where you can tie your hammock, and then the beach itself of huge and uncrowded with white sand. Along the sides there is a bit of a coral reef for snorkeling (I saw some incredible sea life!) and it faces west for amazing sunsets. We hung out here about three times and the rest of the time we went to Samara since it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

We also did two tours in Samara, one was a boat tour to see dolphins and go snorkeling. We set out early and the guides found a bunch of dolphins pretty quickly. We sat on the front of the boat and the water was so clear you saw them swimming literally right below your toes! We even saw one flip in the air! After that we went over to a reef for about 40 minutes of snorkeling. The reef wasn’t as colorful as some in the Caribbean, but there were many varied fish.

Our second tour was through a all woman-run company called “Horse jungle” for a horseback riding tour through the jungle and then out to a remote beach called Playa Buena Vista. The ride was about two and a half hours long and so beautiful. Our horses were very tame but our guide’s horse was skittish and actually threw her off at the beginning of the ride! She assured us it was just her horse but it made the kids nervous for a while after that. My favorite part was riding along the beach, which I have never done before. I also just loved getting to see the countryside in this part of Costa Rica.

Other than going to the beach, doing yoga (me), these two tours, and swimming in our pool, we tried some local restaurants and hung out with friends of a friend who are live in NYC but just bought some property in Samara and were putting a container house on their land!

After 9 days we definitely got into the (slow) rhythm of things in Samara but we were also ready to go home. If I had to do the trip over we probably would have gone to another destination for some of that time, like Monteverde cloud forest or a different beach town, and had less time at the one place. However it was nice to have so many days there because you really could only be at the beach for 1-2 hours a day or risk getting sunburned, so this definitely gave us ample beach time.

If you are considering a beach destination in CR, I would definitely recommend Samara and Carrillo. The beaches are gorgeous and the ocean has waves that are big enough for playing in but not too rough. It is not over-touristed or over-crowded and you can really feel that laid back, low key beach vibe. There are also enough activities to do if it gets too laid back, and it is close to the airport.

Going home…

The drive to the Liberia airport was pretty and uneventful. When we dropped the rental car off they started giving us a hard time about some pre-existing damage that the person who checked us out had shown me and told me he recorded. I always take pictures and video of the car when I rent it to have it time-stamped, and of course this was the one time out of 20 that I’d didn’t, so I started to panic that they were going to charge us. Luckily after the clerk searched the system she found that the damage had been recorded and she apologized for insinuating that we had caused it.

We brought our own lunch to the airport because we had heard that the restaurants there were crazy expensive (and the rumors were true – a plain bagel without cream cheese was $7.95 USD!!!)

After cleaning security we headed to our gate and right next to it there was a sign that said “VIP lounge.” I had checked my lounge apps and both said there was no lounge at LIR, but my husband went and asked if they took priority pass and they did! It turns out the lounge is brand new and so the apps didn’t even have it listed yet! Everything was sparkling new and clean. They had tamales, meatballs, soup, mini-quiches, some salads, and complimentary wine, beer, soft drinks, and tea and coffee. Even though we had just had lunch it was nice to pack in a little more food because our connection was so tight in Miami we knew we wouldn’t have a chance to eat again until after 11pm.

We again had the main cabin extra seats, and although our flight landed in Miami 45 minutes early, they had no open gates so we sat on the tarmac until one opened up. That gave us only 90 minutes to clear customs and immigration. Thank goodness we had global entry and did not have to get any checked bags, otherwise we would not have made it. Also my husband just received the same AA promotion for platinum status a few days before, and that helped us skip ahead in the TSA line, because they had no separate pre-check line. We made it to our gate with only 10 minutes to spare. We finally landed in PHL around 11pm and drove an hour to my mom’s house in NJ to crash. Back to reality!

So, overall the trip was pretty epic. I think my itinerary worked very well although like I said if I had to do it over we would have added one more destination and take away a few days from the beach. Costa Rica is such a beautiful country with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The people are super nice and welcoming and the food, while often simple, is delicious. I will definitely put it on my list to return, especially since I feel we only scratched the surface.

On packing…

Like many frequent travelers, I love to talk about packing. I want to share some of the essential items and products that we bring with us when we travel, and the things that I have learned to keep home. But before I get to that, I feel the need to step on my soap box for a minute to explain why we only bring carry-on luggage. Many people have opinions about this, but I feel very strongly that nine times out of ten it is best not to check a bag. Here are my reasons why:

  1. No lost luggage. It’s happened to me about 10% of the time I have traveled, and the airline has always gotten my stuff back to me, but when it happens it’s a huge inconvenience.
  2. You have less and smaller luggage to cart with you as you travel in other modes on your trip (not on the plane). It’s so much easier in Ubers, taxis, trains, subways, boats, etc to just have your personal item and maybe a large backpack (which is what my husband and use for our luggage).
  3. When you are coming back from a foreign country you have to claim your bags at the point of entry, then re-check them, which adds more time to the already drawn out customs and immigration process. Since we don’t live near a major airport we are almost always entering back into the US on a layover. This means we have to clear customs and immigration within the time frame of our layover, and sometimes this can take over 2 hours! Having global entry to speed us through helps, however if you are trying to get through everything as quickly as possible to make it to your next flight, it is so much easier not having to claim and re-check your luggage.
  4. Unless you have a credit card for a particular airline that will allow you to check luggage for free, most airlines will charge for a checked bag, at least for domestic travel.
  5. Just having less stuff when you travel is usually a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions when I will check bags. If I am traveling somewhere where I know I will want to bring a lot of stuff home (such as fabric from Europe), I will stuff an empty bag in my carry-on and check a bag on the way home. Also you can read about how we fit 3 weeks worth of car-camping gear in four checked bags on our trip to visit many National Parks. Finally, if I am traveling somewhere we we are bringing a lot of items to donate to local charities, it makes sense to check a bag.

I highly recommend that no matter how long you are traveling for you try to fit everything in a carry-on. If you roll your clothes up tightly you will be amazed by how much you can fit and the rolling actually keeps the clothes from getting wrinkled. I also wear the bulkier items on the plane, such as my biggest shoes and my outerwear (sweater or jacket or coat, depending on the season).

My favorite items to bring

Here are some essentials that I always have with me.

Health

  • Medicine in non-liquid form. The most important being chewable pepto bismal and imodium caplets. Lots of tummy troubles can happen when traveling, so bring plenty. It’s small and easy to pack. But you can also get chewable Tylenol!
  • Travel size bottles of sunscreen (if traveling somewhere sunny). Sunscreen tends to be very expensive in other countries, so I like to stock up at target on the small bottles (so they can go through TSA).
  • OFF bug wipes with DEET. These are a great way to bring your own bug spray in a way that passes TSA and takes up very little room! My youngest son is like a bug magnet so I always like to have this for him.
  • Baby powder. My kids always get chafed in their crotch area on beach vacations and when hiking. It also helps get wet sand off.
  • Little pocket tissues and antibacterial wipes. Have these in your bag as you are sight-seeing. You never know when you will need toilet paper (hence the tissues) or need to wipe something down (the antibac wipes)!

Tech

  • Headphone splitter. Very useful if two people want to watch the same thing on the same device.
  • Portable chargers. It is extremely likely that your phone will die while you are out and about exploring during the day. Then you will be sad because you won’t be able to take pictures or have access to GPS!
  • Multiple charging cube. One of those plugs that has several usb ports (I bring one with 6). Between everyone’s devices, cameras, and portable chargers, you will likely be charging at least 6 devices a night!
  • Go pro camera (if snorkeling) or doing some other outdoor activity.
  • Outlet converter if traveling to a country with different electrical outlets.
  • Make sure your phone has these apps: a currency exchange, google translate, and something for reviews such as tripadvisor or yelp.

Clothes/ fabric items

  • Some sort of waterproof hiking sandals. I bring my keen Rose sandals on pretty much every trip! You can hike in them, go walking through the city in them, and go in the water with them. They are the best!!!
  • Travel towels. Also called camping towels. These things are the best when traveling because you never know when you’re going to stop by some little swimming hole and need a towel! They’re quick drying and pack up small.
  • A packable rain jacket can be helpful, as well as a very small umbrella (if you have room).
  • A portable tote bag. I like the ones that you can squish up small so that it takes up little space but can be useful for taking things to the beach, pool, etc.

Kids

  • Some small games. Don’t go crazy with the games and activities because chances are you will be so busy the kids won’t have time to use them. We like to bring Uno and one or two other small games.
  • A notebook they can use as a travel journal and some pens and pencils.
  • One comfort item, like a stuffed animal. It can be stressful to be away from home and this helps the kids feel more secure.

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 3: Mesa Verde – Monument Valley – Antelope Canyon – Grand Canyon – Sedona

Mesa Verde

The drive from Telluride to Mesa Verde is short (under 2 hours) and beautiful, through the San Juan mountains. We stopped in the nearby town of Cortez to re-stock our food, then headed into the park to set up camp. After lunch we went to the visitor’s center and then made the hour long drive through the park to Mesa Top Loop, a loop road at the top of Chapin Mesa that has stops along the way of some of the ancient ruins. It shows how the people who lived there went from nomadic to farmers with pit houses, to using more elaborate masonry, and eventually how they moved into the cliffs and built huge apartment complex type dwellings. They have a pretty well appointed museum and then at 6:45 we met up with a ranger for a twilight tour of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. It was incredible to get up close to the dwelling and see this city built into an alcove of the cliff. You could even look up into one of the towers and see some art that was still painted on the wall. We were truly awestruck.

I highly recommend doing at least one tour of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It’s a great park with a twist in that you learn a bit more about human history and anthropology rather than just nature. It also has a nice campground and beautiful views along the scenic drives up the mesas.

Monument Valley

The next morning we ate breakfast and packed up the camp and drove over to the Four Corners Monument. The kids were very excited to have one limb in each state. It was pretty hot so we didn’t stay long. Driving through the Navajo reservation, we stopped for lunch at a historic little restaurant for some authentic Mexican and Navajo food (fry bread!). Then we drove up to Monument Valley. It was hot and crowded but fun to do the 17 mile car tour around the monuments. The kids felt like we were really off-roading.

Antelope Canyon

We then headed to Page, Arizona, checked into our Hampton Inn and ate dinner at an awesome sushi restaurant. The town of Page is not necessarily quaint or cool, but we thought it had really good food! The next morning we checked in to our Antelope Canyon tour. This little slot Canyon on the Navajo reservation has become very popular since photos of it became screensavers for Microsoft and Apple. You can only go through the canyon with a Navajo guide. As we waited at our tour company we couldn’t believe how many people were there – they run tours every hour and there were at least 120 people for our 10am time slot! They ran it very efficiently however, as they broke the group down into smaller groups, each with their own guide. They take you out to the canyon in pickup trucks and our guide had fun making the drive extra bumpy. They then take you through the canyon and the guides show you the best shots to take with your camera phone. It was pretty packed in the canyon but most of your pictures are looking up. It was fun to experiment with pictures. The canyon itself was amazing, I just wish they hadn’t packed so many people in. It would have been nicer to go at your own pace. It reminded me of some cave tours I’ve been on, except busier. We were lucky that at the end we caught a sunbeam coming through the top and our guide helped us snap a few pics of it.

Afterwards we headed to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, which was also so crowded!!! There were so many tourists, mostly foreign, at both places. It got me wondering if Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are listed as top spots on tour guides of the American West for international travelers. I’ve never seen so many foreign tourists at one US site. It was also ridiculously hot. After a great lunch at a burger place, we headed back to the hotel for a swim and I went to wal-mart for a last re-stock of supplies.

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In the evening, we went over to the Glen Canyon Damn and visitor’s center and watched the sunset over Lake Powell. We had made a reservation for a dinner-theater type place I read about on yelp called “Into the Grand.” It was in a warehouse and you were greeted by the owner, Hoss, who seemed to be a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski. His parents were one of the first river rafting tour companies through the canyon and so the place was somewhat of an homage to that. The warehouse had paintings of the Colorado River from the floor of the Grand Canyon and old rafting boats. There was an acoustic guitar player on stage while we ate our food (Mexican and Navajo and very delicious). After about an hour, Hoss introduced some of the Navajo dancers. Several were adolescents who compete internationally. There was even an adorable two-year old who took to the stage. They all put on a fantastic show, and the finale, a Native American hoop dance infused with hip-hop music, was amazing.

Grand Canyon

The next morning we woke up very early for the 2 hour drive down to the Grand Canyon. Our campground was first come, first serve and we wanted to make sure we got a good site. We made it there around 9:30am and got a nice site at the Desert View Campground near the Desert View Watchtower on the east end of the park. We toured the watchtower a bit and the kids and my husband got their first view of the canyon. My youngest had really been looking forward to it but he said he was underwhelmed.

No matter, we next drove into the park a bit to find the semi-secret Shoshone Point, which I had learned about on a Podcast and in a couple of my National Parks books. The trail is unmarked, but not too difficult to find. We made a picnic lunch and hiked about a mile down a flat trail through the forest. Eventually we came to an area with picnic tables, a pavilion, and even a bathroom area. The view of the canyon from this spot was amazing, and even better, there were only a handful of people (unlike every other overlook at the South Rim which was over-run)! I am so glad I did some research to find this place, because otherwise we would have never known about it. It really goes to show that doing a little bit of research on a location before you go can make a huge difference in finding some of the hidden gems.

Afterwards we went over to the visitor center and watched the film about the canyon. Next we made our way to the Village, where all of the hotels are. It was so crowded! We got some ice cream and checked out the Bright Angel lodge and hiked only about 0.2 miles on the Bright Angel trail to the first tunnel. It was super hot so there was no way we were going to hike down and up more than that. After we checked out the Kolb brothers studio (2 brothers who did daredevil photography at the turn of the century in the Canyon), we started walking west on the rim trail. This got us a little bit away from the crowds and we were able to get to some of the other lookout points. We made it to Maricopa point and then hopped on the shuttle bus to go west to some other lookouts, like Hopi point, Powell point, and the Abyss. The shuttle bus system was great but again, so crowded. There was no place to sit and we were packed in like sardines. We took the bus back to the village and drove all the way back to the campground (about 25 miles), stopping at a few points along the way to catch the sunset.

The next morning we left camp early to go to a fossil walk led by a ranger. My husband LOVES fossils and fossil hunting and we had a great time as she showed us an area off the rim trail with TONS of fossils. After this we went to the supermarket to re-supply. Yes, Grand Canyon NP is so big they have their own supermarket, in addition to hotels, restaurants, and a postal service. To be honest it was a bit off-putting after going to some of the less-visited national parks. And talk about crowds, we then went to the visitor center because we wanted to rent bikes (we had looked into it the day before), but there were absolutely no parking spots in any of their four parking lots! It was like being at the mall the week before Christmas where you are stalking people who you think are leaving to get their spot. We ended up parking illegally and then went to the bike rental place to learn they were sold out! At this point we had enough of the crowds and decided to head east where it is a little less busy. We stopped at some of the lookout points along the road heading east, and then just went back to our campsite to chill. Of course, right around the time we started cooking burgers over the fire pit we had a rain shower, but we were able to cover them with foil and eat quickly during a break in the rain.

When the rain stopped we walked over to the desert view lookout and waited for the sunset talk by a local Native American. The gentleman was the grandson of one of the painters of the interior of the desert view watchtower. He played the flute, sang a Navajo song, and then talked to us about the local Native American people and some of the atrocities they have been through, such as getting sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away, and having their land decimated by uranium mines. Apparently there are still 500 open and abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation, because the companies would declare bankruptcy so they didn’t have to clean them up.

Following Ed’s talk we watched an amazing sunset over the canyon and headed back to camp for the night. The kids worked on their junior ranger books and were very excited about completing all of the activities. They have these at all of the parks but the kids were somewhat disinterested before. Isaac did do one at Capitol Reef. It is a really nice part of the National Park system. After they do some activities in the book and go to a ranger program, they can be sworn in as “junior rangers” and they get a little badge.The next morning we broke down camp and headed back to the visitor center (much less crowded at 8:30am) so the kids could be sworn in. We took a look at the famous Mather Point and the started driving 2.5 hours south to Sedona.

I’m glad we went to the Grand Canyon so that my husband and kids could see it, and we had some incredible moments there, such as the hike to Shoshone point and the sunset talk by the Navajo gentleman. But overall it was just so crowded it turned me off a bit. North rim next time?

Sedona

The drive to Sedona along 89A south goes through Oak Creek Canyon and is very beautiful! You start to see the red rocks with green foliage as you make your way down the windy road through the canyon. As we got to Slide Rock state park it started to get crazy busy! It was a Sunday and there were so many people parking along the side of the road to go to the state park and national forest. Apparently there is a nice swimming spot in the state park and I guess when it’s a hot Sunday in the middle of the desert the place gets full fast!

We got to our resort in Sedona around noon but the room wasn’t ready so we walked into town for lunch. Sedona is definitely interesting. It’s pretty touristy and of course has a bunch of crystal and new age type shops along with a “Wild West” theme. It was just really hot for walking around so we were glad to be able to check into our hotel and use the pool.

We stayed at the Kimpton Amara Resort, booked using Ultimate Reward points. I also learned online that Kimpton does a little promo over the summer that if you say the “password” you get something for free. I learned the password (out of office) from one of the travel blogs I follow and we got a free movie rental. We used that for the kids to rent Peter Rabbit and got them room service while we headed over to have dinner on the patio at the resort. It is really nice for the kids to be old enough to do this. We wouldn’t have left the resort but we were close enough to check on them and also my son could text us if they needed something.

The next morning we ate breakfast in town and headed out for a hike. A few people had recommended Devil’s Bridge, so that’s where we went. It was about 10am but already super hot in the desert. The trail follows a Jeep/ATV road for about a mile, and then another mile up the side of the rock formation to the natural bridge. It was pretty amazing. There is kind of an optical illusion so that the stone bridge looks very thin from the the side as people are walking across it but then when you face the bridge head on it is actually pretty wide. We took turns going on it and even though I knew I was an illusion, I have to admit when the kids were on the bridge my heart almost stopped. Scary!

We walked the two miles back and were soooo hot we couldn’t wait to get back to the resort pool. We scored a cabana and had lunch poolside! So nice to relax in luxury after all the camping! I made an appointment for a massage at the spa that afternoon, which was my reward for planning the whole trip. It was heaven. My body and feet were so sore after 3 weeks of hiking and camping.

We then hung out at the resort for a bit as they were supposed to have s’mores outside and someone to talk about the stars. But for some reason they only put a few, ready made s’mores in the lobby. We ate those and headed into town for some pizza. When we came back the person to do the star talk wasn’t there (maybe they cancelled due to threat of rain), so we watched TV in the room and went to bed.

The next day was our last day but our flight didn’t leave Phoenix until 11:15pm! We decided to enjoy swimming at the pool for the morning. We checked out around noon and went to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross, this really cool 1960’s style Catholic chapel built right into the red rocks. After a last meal in Sedona (expensive!) we made our way to Phoenix and stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument to see another cliff dwelling.

We arrived in Phoenix around 4pm and wanted to visit the botanical gardens, we even walked up to the entrance, but it was 114 degrees out and would have cost us $75! We just couldn’t stomach being in the heat that long so we decided to bag it. Our flight wasn’t until 11:15pm but there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. All the museums closed at 5 and it was too hot to do anything outside. We went to a taco restaurant and then to Tempe near ASU for some ice cream. Eventually we decided just to bite the bullet and head to the airport because at least it would be air conditioned. After dropping off the rental car and checking the luggage we got comfortable in the terminal and just hung out in the a/c for 3 hours.

All in all, it was a trip to remember! The parks were incredible, the scenery was indescribable, and we made lots of fun memories. We can’t wait to see more national parks and I hope we have inspired you to as well!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 2: Dinosaur – Arches – Canyonlands – Telluride

Dinosaur National Monument

After we left Capitol Reef we set off to take a 4 hour drive north to Vernal, Utah, near Dinosaur National Monument. Within the first 30 minutes I made a mistake with the GPS and missed a turn, which probably added 30-40 minutes to the trip. No biggie, we had all day to make the drive. We were just hoping to get to the hotel in Vernal with enough time to enjoy the pool and maybe go to a nice restaurant. About halfway there, we started to head up route 191 which goes north from Helper to Duchesne through the mountains. About 5 miles before the exit for 191 on Route 6, we saw a digital highway sign that maybe said route 191 was closed at mile 283, but every other letter was blacked out, so it was almost impossible to read. We took the climbing mountain road about 20 miles up only to see construction crews and wait 15 minutes in a line up of cars and then were told the road would be closed for at least another 5 hours! At this point we had no cell service to check alternate routes, and had to consult the (gasp!) paper atlas! The only thing I could see to do was go back down to route 6 and take that all the way up to Provo, and kind of go around the mountains instead of through them. There was one very faint grey line that looked like a National forest road that maybe would have taken us through the mountains, but I was worried about getting turned around again, especially if there was a fire (it turns out there was).

utah map

So we ended up taking a very long route to Vernal, and our 4 hour drive became 8! But this is what happens in the West, especially around mountains. There just aren’t a lot of roads to choose from. We were pretty exhausted from driving when we got to Vernal and were thrilled to check into our Springhill Suites, which I got with 15,000 Marriott points for two nights! The suite was large and very comfortable. We headed into town and had a delicious Mexican dinner with two large margaritas for the grown-ups. The kids were excited to take a dip in the pool and I was very excited that there was a laundry room at the hotel!!! After 4 days of camping including still rain soaked (and now very stinky) clothes from our incident at Zion, I was thrilled to be able to do some laundry (when do you ever have that sentiment at home??).

The next morning we ate our complimentary hot breakfast at the hotel and drove a few blocks down to a car service station (we were having an issue with the oil that needed to be a addressed) which was only a few blocks away from where we were to get on the bus for our white water rafting adventure. It was nice to have something so convenient (dropping the car off to be serviced and walking to our next destination) after all the inconvenience of the day before! It was about a 45 minute bus ride to the put-in, and along the way the guides stopped at a site with some pretty amazing petroglyphs for us to look at.

We were all a little nervous and excited about the trip. The kids had never gone whitewater rafting before, and my husband and I hadn’t been for about 12 years. Also the last time we went my husband fell in, which was a bit traumatic for him. All of our fears fell away as we got onto the raft and started to head into the canyon on the beautiful river. The water level was low and slow so there were mostly class II rapids, with a couple class IIIs. We ended up having an amazing time. The guides were great, and the river was awesome. We did a full day trip with lunch and we got to go swimming and my oldest got to jump off a rock! The kids were so happy they got to do this and can’t wait to go again, except they want bigger rapids of course.

After we got back to town we picked up the Audi and the issue was all fixed, yay! We headed across the street to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which had some impressive little exhibits on the archeology and fossils from the area. We then headed across the street to a local brew pub (FYI I’ve never gotten carded so much as in Utah. They are very strict about alcohol!) and then a quick run to TJ Maxx for a couple things and back to bed.

The next morning we packed up and headed over to Dinosaur National Monument and took the shuttle up to the dinosaur bone quarry. This was super cool as they left a lot of bones exposed but still stuck in the rock and they built a building around it. You could actually touch some of the bones!!! Then you could do a short hike back to the visitor center and stop at a couple rock formations that still have dinosaur bones and other fossils in them! We saw part of a dinosaur femur and a spine in the rocks!

Arches National Park

Next we headed to Moab, Utah and had a pleasant drive, even making an unplanned stop in Highline State Park, CO for a picnic lunch and a dip in a really nice lake. Moab was way more built up than I remember. Our hotel, Expedition Lodge, was cool. It was once a 50’s style roadside motel that they updated but they kept the theming sort of vintage 50’s style. They also had a pool and a water slide that the kids loved, as well as complimentary breakfast and a game room with ping pong and free arcade games. We spend that afternoon and evening hanging out in Moab, getting a bite to eat and some awesome cryogenic ice cream!

Arches National Park is super close to Moab (like a 5 minutes drive). In order to beat the heat and the crowds we got up at 6am, ate breakfast, and were in the park by 7. We were able to hike Park Avenue, a mile long hike through a wash that has impressive rock structures (no arches yet) in either side. Then we went to the far end of the park to hike to Landscape Arch and were able to see a couple more on the hike back. We were able to see Sand Dune arch and balancing rock on the drive back to town. Arches is also like visiting another planet. I kept feeling like Luke Skywalker was going to cruise by on his hovercraft any minute.

We had lunch at some awesome food trucks in town and the kids did more swimming in the pool while I went to the store to stock up on supplies. Then we went over to the town park to listen to a free bluegrass concert! Afterwards we headed back the park for some sunset hikes in the Windows section. The light was incredible and I got some great shots as the sun went down.

Canyonlands National Park

The next day we packed up the car again and drove 30 miles into Canyonlands National Park to try to score a campsite at the first come, first serve place. We got there around 9:30 am and picked a sweet spot. The campground was right by a gorgeous overview of the canyons. Since they don’t have water (you have to bring your own), this campground is not super popular which makes it nice and quiet.

After we set up camp and relaxed a bit, we decided to pack a picnic lunch and hike some more. We picked White Rim trail, which was a great choice. At this section of Canyonlands, called (Island in the Sky), you are on top of a Mesa so you can drive or hike out to all of these lookout points to see the canyons below. After hiking about a mile along the rim, we came to the peninsular edge, where we could see 270 degree views. It was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. It was also getting hot, but we found this awesome cave formation that provided shade and looked out at the view, so we had lunch there. Did I mention we only saw 4 other hikers on the trail and had this whole amazing viewpoint section to ourselves??? Canyonlands is the largest and least visited of Utah’s national parks, and that allows for some great privacy.

After this we went to the visitors center and it was starting to become the hottest part of the day so we decided to go for a drive into town to get gas and more cryo-ice cream. We then headed back into the park and did the hike out to Mesa Arch (a little busier as this is a short and popular hike). We then made dinner at camp and we’re going to do a sunset hike at another viewpoint but as soon as we got there the rain and wind started! After what happened at Zion we didn’t want to get stuck in a bad thunderstorm on the trail so we went back to camp. Good thing we did because one of the tents had almost blown away! (It was staked!) The only thing that stopped it from blowing over into the canyon was the other tent! We went into our tents while it stormed, and fortunately it was nowhere near as bad as Zion and only lasted about an hour. My husband and I tried to stay up to see the stars but it was so cloudy we didn’t see much. Luckily, at around 3:30am I woke up to pee and the clouds had cleared. I saw one of the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen. I could see the Milky Way, Mars, and thousands of stars. I woke up my husband and we star gazed for a little bit before going back to bed.

The next morning after breakfast we packed up our camp and went for a hike to Upheaval Dome, a part of the park where a meteor hit 200 million years ago and left a cool hole and rock formation. We also got some views of the other side of the canyon. We said goodbye to Canyonlands and started our drive to Telluride, Colorado!

Canyonlands is definitely worth the trip, especially if you are already in Moab at Arches. The views of the Canyons from Island in the Sky are so breathtaking, and as I said it is the least visited of the “Big Five” parks so you are more likely to have some solitude. Just bring plenty of water! There are no services there and the only water is at the visitor center.

Telluride

We arrived in Telluride, CO around 4pm and got into our Airbnb condo. It was right in town and the balcony faced the mountain and San Rafael river, which has a walking path that was very popular for people and dogs. After taking some much needed showers we walked around downtown and ate dinner at an awesome brew pub. The short ribs I ordered were divine. Following this we walked over to the free gondola, which takes you from Telluride up to Mountain Village (the ski resort area). We had fun just riding that through a few stops and picked up a few groceries in Mtn Village.

The next day my youngest and I took a little walk on the river path and we decided to have breakfast in town. As you can imagine, the restaurants in Telluride are awesome but expensive. After that we walked through town the the popular Bear Creek trail, and started our upwards descent. It’s about 2 miles of a steady incline up to an incredible waterfall, with views of the mountains as you go up. It’s a really popular trail since the trailhead is right downtown, so there were lots of people. We got back to the condo about 1pm, ate lunch and relaxed. Later that afternoon we hung out in the pool and hot tub at the condo, and then walked around downtown again and took another gondola ride up the mountain.

There was a Thai restaurant right by our condo that we had wanted to try for dinner. Even though it was a Monday the wait was over an hour! At least we could go back to the condo and my husband and I could have some wine while we waited. We finally were seated around 8:30 and unfortunately the food didn’t come until 9:30 because they were slammed. But it was super delicious.

The next morning I had my last coffee on the balcony watching the gondolas go up the mountain, and we packed up and left.

I loved Telluride! It was so nice to get out of the desert and into the crisp mountain air. The town itself is gorgeous; they have done an incredible job re-habbing the old houses to retain their original character (of course at price tags starting in the millions). The food was excellent and the people were really nice, if a little yuppie-mountain-hipster. And everyone has dogs everywhere!!! You can even bring your dogs on the gondola. I could have easily spent a week or two there. We met some people just spending the whole summer there, getting away from hotter places. Lucky!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 1: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Capitol Reef

Vegas baby!

We flew out of Syracuse on Delta at 6:45 am, after checking all four bags with camping gear with no problems. The flight was great and arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) early, where we had a 3 hr layover. We headed over to the Escape Lounge, which we could get into with our Amex platinum cards. This place is awesome! It was practically empty, clean, and had lots of seating. It also had a great spread of food, including these delicious little egg dishes in mini cast iron skillets. We ate breakfast here and then on our way out we went to the PGA golf store/restaurant, where our priority pass card got us a $15 credit per person to buy whatever we wanted at French Market, a bakery next door. We were full but we bought $60 worth of chips, nuts, and other snacks to bring with us, all for free! Score!

The 2nd flight was also great and we landed in Vegas ahead of schedule, around 12:30pm. We headed over to the Centurion Lounge for a quick lunch and welcome cocktail before we picked up our luggage. We could also get in here with our Amex platinum cards. So breakfast, lunch, and snacks all free with our lounge benefits from credit cards!

 

Once we picked up our luggage we got an Uber (using our $15 Uber credit from Amex platinum) to our hotel, Delano. The room, a suite, was great with a view of the strip. I paid cash for this room but was able to get several benefits by using my Amex platinum. When I booked it Amex was running a deal to get an extra 6,000 membership rewards for booking an MGM property. Delano is also part of their “Fine Hotels and Resorts” program, and if you have the Amex platinum you get early check in and late check out, $60 breakfast credit, WiFi credit, and $100 food and beverage credit. So I paid $350 but if you subtract the food credits it came out to $190.

We headed over to the pool complex at Mandalay Bay, since the two hotels are connected. It was so hot!!! But the pools were pretty cool. They have a giant wave pool, a lazy river, and a pool just for Delano guests. After a little swim we went back to the room and got ready for dinner.

 

On our way to dinner we walked through the casinos to stay out of the heat, and the kids got a kick out of seeing how they were connected but each had their own theme: Luxor, Excalibur, New York New York, etc. We decided to go to the Wicked Spoon buffet at the Cosmopolitan. I had been there before but thought the kids would be amazed at the huge selection of food. (Another little perk, we were seated more quickly through the VIP line, just for having Marriott gold status). We definitely ate our fill and then left to go see the fountains at Bellagio. Unfortunately, right as we were leaving, my 7 year old said he felt sick and I knew from the look on his face he was about to throw up. We ran back into the restaurant and were not even 5 feet from the bathroom before he started puking. He ran into the bathroom and at least got the rest in the toilet. I felt terrible for the mess but by the time we left the bathroom they had it cordoned off and were taking care of it (I did apologize). He wasn’t sick, but he has a sensitive stomach and so it’s not unusual for him to throw up sometimes when traveling. Plus he ate his weight in pizza and treats at the buffet. We tried to watch the fountains at Bellagio after that but he felt really sick so we walked all the way back to the hotel. We all felt bad for him but we also didn’t want to take an Uber back in case he threw up again. He started to perk up by the time we got to Luxor and then we made it back to the room without incident. By that point everyone had had enough of the heat and the excesses of Vegas.

The next morning we took a Lyft over to an enterprise rental car in the suburbs. I booked the car by going to autoslash.com, which found me the best deal on Priceline. I had requested a standard SUV and when we got there they said they had a Mazda CX-7. They said they also had an Audi Quattro 7 and offered it to us for a $50 a week upgrade. When I hesitated because of the price the guy said he would give it to us for $25 a week. We checked out the car and it looked awesome, so we took it! The guy said the car usually goes for $120 a day. With my deal through Priceline plus the upgrade we got it for $43 a day! Score!

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Sweet ride!

We headed over to Target and bought some supplies, then back to Delano to get our bags, and finally we hit to road to Zion!

Zion National Park

When we arrived at Zion it was about 2pm and very hot. Our campsite at Watchman campground was in the new, tent-only loop and was pretty cool. We set up camp and then headed over to Zion Outfitters to ask about renting equipment to hike the Narrows the next morning. The Narrows is Zion’s iconic hike through the canyon, and for part of the hike you are wading through water so they recommend wearing neoprene socks and shoes. We rented them for the next morning and then went over to the pub next door for some cold drinks and snacks. After that we cooked some burgers, and then the sky started looking ominous and the wind started blowing. Hard. Like so hard the tents were barely staying upright. We heard thunder and lightning and then the rains came. It was a massive, intense thunderstorm. For part of it we sat in the car but it was too hot and we knew we couldn’t wait there all night. Plus we were worried about the tents blowing away and wanted to weigh them down with our bodies. We ran to the tents and my husband stayed in one and the kids and I went to another. That’s when my youngest started puking. Again. In a tent, during a thunderstorm. Awesome. The kids and I ran out of that tent, leaving a puke soaked air mattress, and into the other tent with my husband, where he kept puking into a target bag. After that he felt better. (I think he may have been dehydrated and not used to the heat).

 

For several hours we sat in the tent through what was the worst thunderstorm I can remember. There was almost constant thunder, lightening, and pouring rain. Luckily, our little Coleman tent held up pretty well and we stayed dry. Eventually we all fell asleep (four people on two twin size air mattresses) and the storm stopped. Of course, someone’s car alarm went off twice in the middle of the night, waking us up. Needless to say we got very little sleep. When I woke up at 5am it was still dark, and I worked on cleaning the puke off the air mattress. We ate some granola bars and then put our neoprene socks and shoes on, ready to hike the Narrows early before it got crazy crowded. Unfortunately we learned that because of the storm there were massive floods and mud slides all over the park, and most of the hikes up Zion canyon were closed, including the Narrows. Apparently it was one of the worst storms they’ve had in a while and they got one quarter of their annual rainfall just in that one night! Here is a story on their Facebook page about it and a screenshot of the news.

screen shot 2019-01-19 at 9.37.36 am

Instead we hiked Watchman trail, which was beautiful with great views. After that we hopped on the shuttle bus and made stops at the human history museum for a ranger talk, and then to the Zion lodge where we ate lunch. After that we rested at camp and spent some time wading in the river, then we went back to the museum for another ranger talk and to see the film about Zion. When the film was over and we went outside to catch the shuttle, we were met once again with torrential downpours!!! Ugh!!! We thought this was the desert!!!

 

We ran from the shuttle over to our campsite to secure everything and then as the rain settled down we decided to go out to dinner in town rather than cook hot dogs in the rain. We found a great little place with awesome Tex mex food. That night we slept very well. The next morning as we packed up our site we learned the Narrows was still closed but the shuttles were taking people a bit farther up the canyon. We decided to hit some of the short hikes off the shuttle stops such as Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Court of the Patriarchs. After a picnic lunch we drove about 2 hours through more rain to our Bed and Breakfast at Bryce National Park.

 

Thunderstorms aside, I had mixed feelings about Zion. The scenery was truly awe-inspiring. However when they say Zion is crowded, they weren’t kidding! It is so jam-packed with people, it had me feeling a bit claustrophobic to be honest. I did think their shuttle system was very well run. I would love to go back when it is less crowded sometime. Maybe I’ll finally get to hike the narrows.

Bryce Canyon National Park

When I was looking to book a campsite at Bryce, I read on the National park’s website that they would be doing lots of construction at the campgrounds this summer and therefore sites would be limited and first come, first serve. Not wanting to mess with that, I booked a bed and breakfast near the park through hotels.com. After all the storms at Zion I am glad I did, as there were still more storms in the area the days we were at Bryce and frankly we were desperate for a shower and a bed by that point. The BnB was very nice with a large room with a king size bed for us and a futon for the kids. There was a private bathroom and we all enjoyed showers and baths very much! The first night we went to dinner in town at an awesome little BBQ place.

 

The next day after breakfast at our BnB we headed into the park. I’ll never forget the look of awe on my husband’s face as he peered into the big bowl of hoodoos (drippy looking rock spires) for the first time. We knew there was a chance if thunderstorms around 1:30 so we did the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop trails into the canyon first thing. It was so amazing to be walking a amongst the hoodoos, although the trail was way busier than I remembered. There was a constant stream of people to walk around. It did start thunderstorming around 1 so we took a break to eat lunch, go to the visitor center, and rest at the BnB.

 

Later that afternoon we went back to the park to do a couple more short hikes and drive the whole 18 miles of the park highway out to Rainbow and Yovimpa points. I took a million pictures but none of them can do it justice. The landscape and rock formations are so other-worldly. It’s something you have to see in person. We did the Bristlecone trail at this end of the park which offers some incredible vistas.

We headed back to town around 7:30 and ate dinner at a great little pizza place and then crashed at our BnB. Overall, Bryce was just as amazing as I remembered it. It seemed like there were more tourists than there were 20 and 30 years ago, when I was here before, but It was definitely less crowded than Zion, which was very nice.

Capitol Reef National Park

I don’t even know what to say about Capitol Reef…it has rendered me speechless. To get there, we drove on scenic route 12 from Bryce through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This drive was incredible. The scenery continuously changed and went from sweeping vistas to an other-worldly rock-scape, to an Aspen forest, and finally to the bright red rocks and huge formations rising out of the earth as you enter Capitol Reef National Park. We had AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” playing on the stereo as we drove in, and it was oddly fitting with the huge bright red rock formations looming all around us.

Very quickly the landscape started to become greener as we drove into the Fruita historic district, where the campground sits. The Fremont River flows between the massive rocks and created a fertile valley for indigenous people and later some Mormon pioneers in the 19th century. The Mormons planted several orchards and the trees still produce copious amounts of fruit today. Our campsite was pretty close to the orchards and after we set up camp and ate lunch we were able to pick some apricots! We then headed over to Gifford House, a historic building from the old village that is now a museum, gift shop, and pie shop!!! We bought some ice cream to eat now and some pie for later. Then we headed over to the visitor center, the historic schoolhouse, the Petroglyph wall, and went on a hike to the Hickman bridge, a massive arch. The hike was great and the boys had fun finding little caves to sit in, We ate dinner at the campsite and the kids started to make friends with some of the other kids at the campground. For the rest of our time there they would find each other and have “apricot wars” in the orchard with the fruit that had dropped to the ground.

After dinner at the campsite we went to a fabulous ranger program on astronomy – they have a nice modern amphitheater right in the campground, and then we stayed up pretty late to star-gaze (Capitol Reef is designated as an international dark sky park). The stars were incredible and we could just make out the Milky Way.

The next morning we did the Cohab Canyon trail which takes you through a desert canyon with some cool slot canyons on the sides and has a couple climbs to viewpoints of Capitol Dome and Fruita. It was an awesome hike but got hot pretty quickly, so when we were done we escaped to the air conditioning of the car and went to town for lunch, more supplies, and to check email.

We were still pretty spent by the time we got back so we went to a ranger talk on the Petroglyphs and the Fremont Indians, and then did the 10 mile scenic drive which ends in a drive through Capitol Gorge, a dirt road that goes through a canyon and used to be the only way through the whole area. It was both exhilarating and kind of scary to be bumping along in the car so close to the canyon walls. That night we hiked a little of the Fremont river trail and went to another ranger talk. The next day we packed up our camp and left to drive to Vernal, Utah near Dinosaur National Monument.

I can’t say enough good things about Capitol Reef. It was so much less crowded than Zion and Bryce which made our stay much more enjoyable. At the other parks the trails felt as crowded as walking down Broadway in NYC! Crazy! At CR, there were other people hiking but you would run into them maybe every 15-20 minutes, and the rest of the time you could have a little solitude. The landscape was just out of this world. It really seemed like an alien planet at times. The park also had lots of different things to offer, from the amazing vistas, the desert and canyon trails, the rock formations, the night sky, the ancient petroglyphs, and the historic pioneer town. We went the three ranger talks and all were awesome. I could have easily spent a week just exploring this park and was sad to leave. But, onwards we went!

Wild Wild Southwest, Part 2, the packing

I pride myself on being a “carry-on” only family, as I’ve written about before. There are many reasons why I like to pack in carry-on luggage, including that you have less chance of having lost or damaged luggage issues, it saves time at the airport especially when traveling internationally with multiple leg flights when you have to get your luggage and re-check it, and it makes traveling around your destinations easier.

For this trip however, we are going to have to check some bags as we decided to bring most of our camping gear with us. We still packed all of our clothes and toiletries in probably 3 carry-ons as we usually do (one for me, one for my husband, and one for the kids to share).

So even though I’ve been “travel hacking” for some time now, I still make mistakes and don’t realize certain things all the time. For example, I have a Delta sky miles credit card, which gets me a free checked bag. Since I never check bags I almost never use this benefit (the one exception was checking one bag when I came home from Spain, and one bag when I came home from Amsterdam. Both times were to bring home the fabric I bought in Europe 😊). Since I never use the benefit, I just assumed the free checked bag was for me, the primary cardholder. I spent months trying to figure out how to get all of our camping gear into one checked bag (under the 50 lb weight limit), and maybe one carry-on. After that was unsuccessful, I decided I would bite the bullet and we would check a 2nd bag for $25 each way. Included in these two bags were:

  1. Two tents
  2. 4 sleeping bags
  3. 4 twin air mattresses
  4. Air pump
  5. Two burner Coleman stove
  6. 2 backpacking camp chairs
  7. Set of camping pots and pans
  8. Various camping plates and utensils
  9. Bag of rope
  10. Hatchet/hammer tool
  11. Collapsible water jug
  12. Foldable cooler
  13. 4 camping towels
  14. 4 inflatable camp pillows

We assumed we would buy some larger folding chairs when we got there, as well as some other supplies that wouldn’t fit. I spent a good couple days before the trip trying to make all of this fit in two bags and keep them under the 50 lb weight limit.

Fast forward to the day before the trip, and I go on to the Delta app to check in. When I get to the screen about checking bags, I see that everyone in my party gets a free checked bag, not just me! After a quick moment of disbelief and a humbling fact-check with my expert traveler friends (who made fun of me of course), I realize that in fact, we can check 4 bags for free!!! This was a game changer! That’s 200 lbs of camping gear! I immediately found a couple more pieces of luggage and started piling more crap in. 2 large camping chairs, aluminum foil, paper plates, a tarp, ziplock bags.

I am now just hoping it all fits in the SUV!!!

To be continued…

Wild Wild Southwest, Part 1: The Preparation

Did you know that when a child is in 4th grade they can get themselves and their families into our national parks for free? It is called the Every Kid in a Park Program, and it starts when your child starts 4th grade, through the following summer. My oldest was in 4th grade this year so about a year ago we started planning our big summer road trip to visit some of our National Parks. We decided to focus on the Southwest “Grand Circle” in Utah and Arizona this time and maybe do some more northern ones in three years when our youngest is in 4th grade. I have been to this area before, once when I was about 14 with my Dad and brother, and once right after I graduated college. My husband has never been and I have been excited for years to show him this incredible part of our country.

This first blog post is going to outline some of the prep work that went into planning our three week adventure.

How to get there

I’ll admit, there is nothing like taking a westward road trip across the US in a car. I’ve done it twice, and it’s truly amazing to watch the landscape change before your eyes. My husband and I discussed the possibility of taking our Toyota Highlander and just driving out there. We love the car and it’s big and comfortable, but in the end we decided we didn’t want to use the extra week or so it would take to drive out there and back for driving. We also thought about flying and renting an RV or campervan when we arrived, but they are really expensive! They are an average of $300 a night plus gas! After lots more discussion we decided to fly using miles, rent an SUV when we arrive, and do a combination of camping and hotels on the road. We are going to try to pack as much camping gear as we can in checked luggage and then buy a few inexpensive things, such as camping chairs when we get there.

We booked 4 one-way tickets from Syracuse to Las Vegas for 70,000 Delta skymiles, and then 4 one-way tickets from Phoenix to Syracuse for 50,000 Delta skymiles. I used autoslash to find the best price on an SUV for 3 weeks. Next, to plan the itinerary.

The itinerary

I know it seems romantic to just hop in the car and drive, figuring it all out along the way, and maybe in decades past you could do so (in fact I did in the 90’s), but in case you haven’t heard, our National Parks are experiencing a surge of tourism the likes of which they’ve never seen before. This is causing serious overcrowding problems. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I’m glad more and more people are getting out there to visit and see our country’s incredible natural beauty, on the other hand, in some places it seems that this rise in popularity is overtaxing our park system’s infrastructure. That said, advance planning is essential, especially in the summer months for popular campgrounds and tours, which can be booked 6 months in advance.

Since I was booking these things in February for a July trip, I had to create a detailed itinerary for the three weeks. Here is what I came up with:

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July 10:Fly to Las Vegas, stay at Mandalay Bay. Originally I booked this room using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but then Amex was doing a promotion where you received an extra 6,000 Membership Rewards points for booking an MGM property, plus you get their Fine Hotels and Resorts perks, which includes breakfast for two and $100 food and beverage credit at the resort.

July 11: Pick up rental car, buy camping supplies in Vegas, drive to Zion, set up camp. When we get some of our camping food, we will likely hit up the local Target or Walmart to fill out our camping gear supply with cheap air mattresses or camping chairs.
Zion is one of the most popular national parks, and so camping reservations book 6 months in advance. Luckily, they just opened a new, tent-only loop at Watchman campground, and we were able to reserve a site that looks pretty nice with shade and a fire pit (they don’t all have this).

July 12: Hiking and exploring Zion, stay at campsite. Hopefully we will get to hike the Narrows or do some tubing on the Virgin river!

July 13: More hiking and exploring Zion, drive to Bryce Canyon, check into hotel. Our original plan was to camp at Bryce too, however they are doing major construction to their campgrounds this summer. We didn’t want to get into that mess, so I booked a hotel/B&B that got good reviews on my hotels.com account. This way we can also arrive later if we want to spend more time at Zion, and we won’t need to worry about setting up camp.

July 14: Explore Bryce Canyon, stay at hotel.

July 15: Leave hotel, re-stock food, drive to Capitol Reef, camp at Fruita campground. Apparently this campground used to be first come, first served, but they are now reservable so we got a site for 2 nights.

July 16: Explore Capitol Reef, stay at Fruita.

July 17: Drive to Vernal, Utah, stay at Springhill Suites. A while ago I listened to an episode of one of my favorite travel podcasts, Amateur Traveler, on rafting on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon (which my Dad was lucky enough to do a couple years ago). It wouldn’t be an appropriate trip for kids, but the guest highly recommended rafting trips in Dinosaur National Monument with kids. Combine that with a geology and fossil loving husband and I decided to book this. It takes us a little out of the “Grand Circle,” but not too far. In Vernal I booked a SpringHill Suites using 15,000 Marriott points for 2 nights!

July 18: White water rafting on the Green River! I chose to go with Don Hatch Expeditions.

July 19: Drive to Moab, UT, stay in Expedition Lodge. I found this cool, retro inspired hotel on hotels.com and booked 2 nights so we can check out Moab as well as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

July 20: Explore Arches, stay at Expedition Lodge.

July 21: Stay in Willow Flats campground, Canyonlands. This is a first come, first serve campsite which is supposed to be beautiful in the “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands.

July 22: Drive to Telluride, CO, stay at an Airbnb. I wanted to do one Colorado ski/mountain town on this trip, and have heard great things about Telluride.

July 23: Explore Telluride, stay at Airbnb.

July 24: Drive to Mesa Verde, NP. I reserved a cliff dwelling twilight tour for this evening in the NP, and we booked a campsite at Morefield campground.

July 25: Four corners, Monument Valley, stay in Page, AZ at Hampton Inn. The kids really wanted to do Four corners, and I would like to do the driving tour of Monument Valley. Lodging in Page, AZ this time of year is ridiculously expensive! I dropped 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night at the Hampton Inn, but the cash price was $300!

July 26: Antelope Canyon tour, hopefully see Horseshoe Bend, stay at Hampton Inn.

July 27: Drive to South Rim, Grand Canyon, stay at Desert View Campground. This is also first come, first serve, so hopefully if we get there early enough we will get a site!

July 28: Explore Grand Canyon, Stay at Desert View Campground.

July 29: Drive to Sedona, AZ, stay at Kimpton. I booked this really nice Kimpton resort using Chase Ultimate Rewards, 40,744 for two nights. I’ve always wanted to check out Sedona, and I think staying at a “luxury” resort will be a nice way to end the trip.

July 30: Explore Sedona, stay at Kimpton.

July 31: Explore Sedona, hang out at Kimpton, drive to Phoenix after dinner to catch 11:30pm flight! Since it’s only a 2 hour drive to PHX airport, we should be able to have most of the day to hang out in Sedona and the resort, eat an early dinner, and still make it to the airport in time to return the rental car and catch our red-eye flight back home!

Well there it is, all laid out! You know what they say, “The best laid plans…” We will see how the whole itinerary works out in real time. In the meantime I plan on printing out all of our reservations and the itinerary itself and putting them in a binder to take with us, especially since cell service will be spotty out west. Next up, the packing!