An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

Our third full day in Iceland would be a long one. We woke up early to head out for a tour of the Golden Circle, a route that travels approximately 190 miles in southern Iceland, covering some of the country’s most scenic natural landmarks and attractions. But first, breakfast!

Our hotel offered complimentary breakfast every morning and I have to admit it was one of the best free breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. My plate was a little boring but there was fresh fruit, fish, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal, pastries, eggs, bread, cereal, and a waffle bar. Everything was very fresh and paired with coffee, provided the fuel we needed to start the day.

First stop: Friðheimar grehouse.

The first stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a geothermal greenhouse where organic tomatoes are grown year-round. Agriculture can be tricky in Iceland because of the climate and shortened daylight hours during fall and winter. From May through August, Iceland’s sun doesn’t sleep and daylight persists for 24 hours a day. However, for the remainder of the year Iceland is under much darker skies with only 3-5 hours of light each day.

Visitors can dine on all things tomato right inside the greenhouse.

At Friðheimar, plants are grown using geothermal water and light is sufficiently provided through green electricity produced by hydro and geothermal power plants. A restaurant is also onsite serving up a variety of tomato dishes, drinks, and even desserts. We weren’t feeling very hungry since we had just eaten at the hotel, but looking back I really wish I would have tried the homemade tomato ice cream à la Friðheimar or maybe a tomato beer. Next time!

Friðheimar also specializes in breeding Icelandic show and riding horses. We were able to meet a few of these beautiful animals who didn’t seem bothered by the snow or cold one bit.

Next we were off to the Haukadalur valley, an area with a lot of geothermal activity. Here we saw Geysir, Iceland’s most famous, though mostly dormant geyser. Although she’s been inactive for several years, Geysir is truly the mother of all geysers as she was the first ever to be recorded in earth’s history and all other geysers discovered after her have carried her name. 

These days the crowds tend to form around Strokkur, one of Iceland’s most popular and reliable natural geysers. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes blasting its boiling water upwards of 49–66 ft on average.

Thar she blows!

The Haukadalur valley has over 40 more geothermal features including smaller pots of boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents. The landscape in the area is also stunningly scenic, rich with colorful grasses and algae.

You might recognize this photo of Haukadalur from my last post. It’s one of my favorites from the trip.

I had purchased ice cleats for our trip just in case we needed them and was glad to have them when I started sliding around on the slippery walkways. Once I had the cleats on my boots I felt very confident trotting along through the ice and snow. After exploring the valley for a bit longer we ventured into the nearby visitor center where we had lunch- nice hot soup and cold Icelandic white ale.

I was really excited to visit our next stop on the tour, Gullfoss or golden falls.  This massive and powerful waterfall sits on the Hvítá river and is fed by the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest. It was so windy we had a hard time walking and an even harder time trying to hold the camera still for a picture. Nevertheless, I managed to snap a few without getting blown away by the wind or sacrificing my phone to the falls.

View from the upper observation deck.

Before Gullfoss became a nature reserve, the land belonged to a sheep farmer. Over the years foreign investors sought to use the waterfall for generating electricity.  The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought to preserve the falls, hiring an attorney and even making the journey to Reykjavik barefooted for court proceedings. Though the court did not rule in her favor, plans to exploit the falls ultimately fell through and Sigríður’s efforts helped bring awareness to the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty.

View from the lower observation deck.

The last stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was Þingvellir National Park, a site that is truly one-of-a-kind. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, runs through the park. This is the only location on earth where visitors can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. I’m definitely adding that activity to my list for our next visit! It’s also the only location where the ridge sits above sea level, allowing visitors to walk along the crest on land.

The rift valley from above.

In addition to the beauty and geological significance of this site, it’s also culturally and historically rich as the birthplace of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest parliament in the world. Þingvellir was also Iceland’s first national park, founded in 1930, and was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 2004. Any Game of Thrones fans out there? The park was used as a filming location in season 4 and you may recognize the rugged terrain from the iconic battle between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound.

I made an eerie discovery about Þingvellir after we returned home. I took some photographs of what I thought was just a pretty pond with a small waterfall. I did a little research to see if such a beautiful feature in the park had a name. I learned the site is known as the Drowning Pool and it’s where at least 18 women were legally drowned by Vikings for behavior considered immoral, such as adultery. I also learned that a small memorial plaque listing the names of the women is posted somewhere near the site, but I didn’t see it during my visit. And, although you won’t find any informational signs revealing the grim details, there are several more historical execution sites which exist in the park. As tourists, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of a place, and in some cases, fail to fully understand its history.

Drowning Pool.

Back to our adventure…after a long day out on the Golden Circle we were feeling pretty famished and decided we needed to head back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for some of those amazing hot dogs we had on the food walk tour. How could we not? We started off modestly ordering one each but then went back for seconds not feeling any shame.

Still dreaming of those hot dogs…

We also went back to Apotek for dessert and tried their Christmas special- spice crumble topped with a scoop of vanilla sorbet, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with apple filling atop a gingerbread cookie, dulce de leche sauce, raspberry and lime gel, fresh fruit, chocolate pearls. It was divine! They had a case full of adorable little pastries that they use for their desserts and I wanted to take them all home with me.

I’ll have one of each, please!

Since it was our last night in Iceland we decided to spend it exploring more of downtown Reykjavik, which was within walking distance of our hotel. One thing we absolutely loved about Iceland was the abundance of art. Art was literally everywhere and we probably looked a little silly taking photographs of beautiful, artful things that are probably just normal sights to Icelanders.

Another delightful and artful sight in downtown Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. The design for this contemporary, steel-frame building that sits on the atlantic ocean was inspired by the basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa’s walls are adorned with geometrical glass panels, which after dark, are illuminated by led lighting and dance in every color imaginable.

Water feature in front of Harpa.

Everything also felt extra magical because of the Christmas season. The Christmas holiday is very important in Iceland and nearly every business and home we saw was decorated in some way. Our local guide explained that Icelanders enjoy having the extra light and cheer during December when the days are shorter. Even tombstones in cemeteries are often lit up with christmas lights in remembrance of lost loved ones.

There was no shortage of beautiful lights or Santas. The Icelandic Santas of folklore are known as the Yule Lads and there are thirteen of them. They’re also technically trolls and a bit mischievous, playing pranks on children, then leaving gifts for those who have been good and rotting potatoes for those who have misbehaved. We spotted a few of the Yule Lads hanging around on buildings while we were strolling downtown.

I wish we would have had more time to wander along the charming streets in search of the other Yule Lads. I wish we would have made it back to Cafe Loki one more time for another helping of that delicious rye bread ice cream.

I definitely wouldn’t have minded another visit to the Blue Lagoon or a trip to some of Iceland’s more remote hot springs. But, unfortunately our Icelandic adventure was coming to an end. The next morning as we begrudgingly headed off to the airport we saw the snow that had enchanted us over the past few days had melted away. It was almost reminiscent of when the clock struck midnight and Cinderella watched as the magic disappeared. Sigh. Overall it was a lovely trip and we left already planning for our return. For now, it’s back to California to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. As always, thanks for reading and may your holidays be blessed!

Oh, Canada: Banff National Park

Oh, Canada: Banff National Park

Exploring the city was fun but we were feeling ready to head back into the forest. In hindsight I feel like Banff was a happy medium- more remote than the city but still very commercialized for a forest and natural resource. The campgrounds in Banff National Park fill up very quickly during summer, but I was lucky to score 6 nights in the park’s Trailer Court Campground when I booked our reservation months ago. Our site had full hookups which was great because we got quite a bit of warm weather during our stay and we were able to run our air conditioning. It wasn’t my favorite campground because sites offered little privacy but it was still a nice stay in the park. We felt a bit compelled to stay indoors more often because of poor air quality advisories and looming smoke from a forest fire in nearby Kootenay National Park. Although the smoke hid the mountains and kept us from some of Banff’s amazing scenery, we still tried to make the most of our visit.

On our first day in the park we hiked the Johnston Canyon Trail to the lower and upper falls. In was after 5:00 p.m. so we had no trouble parking in the large lot at the trailhead. About a 1/4 mile into the trail we saw people grouped up taking pictures of something across the stream. Then we saw it, a large black bear. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to snap a picture of the bear as it climbed up from the water and disappeared into the thick forest vegetation. I was surprised we spotted a bear on such a heavily-trafficked trail but was thankful for the experience and a safe viewing distance.

The falls were gorgeous and well-worth the easy hike. There are many places to stop along the river for photographs and a few benches, logs, or large rocks suitable for sitting and taking a break.

The beginning of the trail is paved but further in becomes gravel and even further includes stairs. Overall this trail is not accessible but I saw a few people who had strollers, one person with a cane, and one person with a rolling walker. I admired the person who was using a walker but felt awful seeing them struggle somewhat to get their wheels over rocks and ruts in the trail. I recently read someone’s rant on social media about how paved trails and handrails ruin the naturey-vibe in nature. It was pretty disheartening to read. This person obviously doesn’t know anyone with a disability and I doubt they have considered what it would feel like to be essentially denied access to nature’s most grand attractions because there were no walkways or handrails. To this day I’ve yet to find a paved trail or handrail that stood in my way of a experiencing a beautiful view or snapping an excellent picture. Accessibility accommodations have never ruined my experience and they have made experiencing nature and the great outdoors possible for so many others.

Banff does have a few accessible trails, but not as many as I would have hoped for. Most of the viewpoints and overlooks along the roadways throughout Banff are accessible and most include accessible parking.

The 13-mile, paved Banff Legacy Trail connects the nearby town of Canmore to Banff and is very accessible. Though mainly used by cyclists the trail is open for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. We biked the trail from Banff to Canmore, then had dinner in Canmore and caught a shuttle back to Banff.

Many cyclists ride the trail one-way then return using the shuttle which runs until around 10:00 p.m. daily. The shuttle is accessible, only $6 per person, and they accept Canadian or U.S. dollars on board (cash only), but cycling back is also an option. I thought it would be a fun challenge to cycle there and back but after 13 miles into Canmore my legs were pretty sore and the wind had really picked up so we decided the shuttle was the best option for us. The trail from Banff to Canmore provides a pretty easy ride overall with only a few quick inclines.

The ride from Canmore to Banff is more difficult because it’s against the wind and has a few longer, gradual uphill climbs. There’s a wonderful day-use area with restrooms at the halfway point and a pair of red chairs overlooking the Bow Valley. Unfortunately there is no running water along the trail so its important to pack enough and refill in either Banff or Canmore.

I was really proud that I only took a few short breaks to catch my breath and did not hop off to push my bike uphill at any point (although I really wanted to a few times). The trail runs between the Trans-Canada Highway and a railroad, so it’s fairly loud most of the way. The scenery is still beautiful and closer to Canmore the trail veers off into the forest.

I saw that the Hoodoo Trail was located close to our campsite and wanted to check it out. Parts of the trail that stem from the parking lot are paved and accessible and lead to scenic vistas.

I learned that Hoodoos are thin, usually delicate, rock spires formed over thousands and thousands of years. Hoodoos are common in parts of Utah and in the Canadian Badlands, but we hadn’t seen any on our trip yet. So, we packed Gaius is his backpack and went out to explore these interesting geological formations.

Although leashed dogs are allowed on most trails in Banff, which is wonderful for pet owners like us, dogs aren’t exactly always great for the environment. Urine and feces left by dogs can damage delicate ecosystems and their scent can deter wildlife from inhabiting the area. This is why many parks don’t allow dogs on trails. Dogs are also known to attract coyotes, wolves, bears…oh my. I love bringing Gaius out to explore when he is allowed, but since all six pounds of him would probably try to charge at a bear if we encountered one, we decided to carry him in his backpack and limit his on-leash adventures in Banff to campground areas.

Since we left Texas we’ve been traveling north hoping to escape the heat but it appears to be following us. With temperatures in the low 90s we decided to find a place to cool off. A scenic drive to Johnson Lake and a dip in its chilly waters sounded perfect. We arrived just in time and snagged one of the last parking spaces available in the lot. There are a few accessible parking spaces and a concrete path leads down the lake’s beach. The trail that travels around the lake has stairs and is not accessible. There are several porta-potties available in the parking area though none are accessible.

There were a lot of families enjoying the beach near the parking lot and to was a bit overcrowded so we hiked along the water hoping to find a more secluded spot to relax. The trail around Johnson Lake heads off through a small picnic area then into the trees before reaching another beach. This beach, though steep and more grassy, was not as crowded and seemed to be where all the young adults were hanging out. We spread out a blanket in the shade, went for a swim, and relaxed in the warm breeze. Our view of the surrounding mountains was obstructed by smoke but I imagine would be stunning on a clear day.

We splurged on tickets to ride the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain and stay for dinner at the Sky Bistro. I learned that the gondolas are accessible and can accommodate most power and manual wheelchairs, though depending on the size of the chair, there may not be room for additional passengers. The gondolas can be taken off of the track, allowing guests as much time as the need to load or unload.

I had purchased nonrefundable tickets in advance but probably would have saved the excursion for another visit when wildfires weren’t a factor. Still, the smoke might have actually played to our advantage a bit since Mitch is not fond of heights and he felt more relaxed not being able to see the depths below us.

The summit was beautiful even hidden in the smoke. A long boardwalk leads from the visitor center and restaurant to several overlooks. Unfortunately the boardwalk includes stairs and is not accessible.

I became so angry when I was walking the boardwalk and saw a grown woman tagging graffiti onto the wooden handrail. Even more so because she was with two kids who watched on. I should have said something but you never know how people are going to react these days so I kept my mouth shut. What she was doing was wrong and pissed me off but she wasn’t harming nature at least, so I decided to just let it go. When I passed by again I saw that this was no ordinary tag job with a marker— she had actually used a lighter to burn the graffiti into the wood. This woman was up here playing with fire on top of a mountain that was covered in smoke from nearby wildfires and all while Banff is under a fire ban. I was fuming mad at this point and kicking myself for not putting a stop to her deplorable behavior when I had the chance. She tagged the name of a Canadian vape/smoke shop. Apparently it’s a trend for some businesses to tag their name or logo along the boardwalk at Sulphur Mountain. I assume the woman who did this is affiliated with the business because who else would go to these lengths for a sleazy shot at free promotion? I redacted most of the graffiti in the image below because I’m told staff will cover it up soon and I refuse to let it live forever here on the internet.

After taking in some of the views we went to the restaurant for our dinner reservation. Mitch said it was like dining in the clouds. The food was pretty expensive but really good. We purchased a package that included gondola tickets and dinner where were each allowed to choose an appetizer and entree. For appetizers we had scallops and bison tartar, then for entrees we both chose the bison steak with potatoes. We’ve been eating a mostly vegetarian diet lately and it was nice to get in some extra protein.

I think my favorite experience in Banff was visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. I had heard these were a “must-see” but very popular and that parking lots fill up as early as 7:00 a.m. Given that we aren’t exactly early birds, we decided to head out in the evening hoping to avoid the crowds. When we passed by the road to Moraine Lake at around 6:00 p.m. it was closed with a sign that indicated the parking lot was full. Parks Canada staff were onsite flagging cars away and ensuring that no one entered. We continued on the main road to Lake Louise and were able to park without any issues. There were still a ton of people around the lake at this hour but crowds thinned out as we started hiking the trail.

We hiked just under 4 miles along the shore and started on the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail, which leads to a tea house up above the lake. Since we were losing daylight and still wanted to see Moraine Lake we turned back but I would love to hike the full trail someday. From the trail we could actually hear the loud booming sound of the massive glaciers moving. The water from the creek that feeds the lake was quite literally ice cold and chilled my hand to the bone with one quick plunge.

The trail around Lake Louise’s shore is accessible and mostly paved, although about halfway through it becomes packed gravel and there are a few gradual inclines. The Lake Louise trail ends and becomes Plain of the Six Glaciers trail, which is not accessible. There was accessible parking and a unisex accessible restroom stall near the parking lot.

It was just past 8:00 p.m. so we headed back to the Moraine Lake road but it was still closed. We went into the small Lake Louise Village for some gas then ended up parking in a lot across the street from Moraine Lake Road, where we saw people watching and waiting for the Parks Canada staff to remove the barricades. We watched as car after car drove up to the road only to be turned away. A line of cars began to form along the shoulder of the road. At around 8:40 p.m. staff removed the barricades and we were all free to visit the lake. I expected to see a tiny parking lot packed full of cars but it was actually a large lot and only about 1/4 full, which made me really wonder why Parks Canada did not open the road a bit sooner.

The lake was definitely worth the wait and I was so glad we stuck around for the road to open. The areas near the parking lot were paved or packed gravel and accessible, however the trail along the lake quickly turns to rougher gravel and then dirt with many protruding tree roots and rocks.

Moraine Lake was a deeper shade of blue but the water still had the same gorgeous glowing quality as Lake Louise. The water was so smooth the icy mountains in the background were reflected. We only made it about a mile down the trail before we decided to turn back. The trail travels along the shore through a thick forest of trees and it had started to get pretty dark. Still, even after the sun had set the lake was absolutely stunning.

There’s a ton more to do and see in Banff but it’s extremely crowded during summer and with the smoke-filled making it more difficult to breath we found ourselves spending more time relaxing in the camper catching up on Netflix. We agreed we’d love to visit again during the off-season and hopefully with clearer skies. Next we’ll travel north via Canada’s Icefield Parkway to Jasper National Park. Thanks for reading!

Oh, Canada: Waterton Lakes National Park and Calgary, Alberta

Oh, Canada: Waterton Lakes National Park and Calgary, Alberta

For the month of August on our RVing adventure we’ll be exploring the southern regions of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. We entered the country via the seasonal Chief Mountain International Highway, crossing from Montana’s Glacier National Park into Alberta, Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. I had heard a lot of hype over crossing the border in an RV and with pets. Others talked of long wait times, their food and houseplants being thrown out, pets being turned away, and intense, interrogation-like questioning. Much to our relief and surprise it was quick and easy and the only thing thrown out was our worry. We pulled up to the Border Inspection kiosk with only one vehicle ahead of us. Moments later it was our turn. We were greeted with a firm but welcoming “Bonjour” and after a show of our passports and pup’s vet records, we answered a few questions about our travels and belongings and were on our merry way.

We’ve crossed enough state borders to know they are just invisible lines separating a continuous landscape, but oddly, after we crossed Canada’s border everything started to look really different. We had a strong feeling that we weren’t in “Kansas” anymore. This national park was also unlike any other we’d been to. Most U.S. parks have little gift shops and lodges with restaurants or cafes but Waterton had a steakhouse, pub, pizza parlor, Subway, coffee shop, small boutiques, and a small shopping strip all within its boundaries.

We spent two nights in the Townsite Campground within Waterton Lakes and thought we had a site with full hookups. When we arrived we found the electric and water hookups but did not see a sewer drain anywhere, which was a problem because we were not able to dump our tanks at the last site and they were nearly full. I started to look around at the other campsites and saw the sewer hoses were running underneath the RVs. We found our sewer drain under the middle of the trailer and it was in a spot that would still be under the trailer no matter how we parked. We have been RVing since late January and have never come across a sewer pipe that was under the rig- typically they are off to the side. We figured the only way to hook up was by carefully getting getting underneath the RV to connect the pipe. A task that must be performed with caution since sewer hoses carry, well, raw sewage. I looked around and did not spot anyone taking photographs or snickering at us while Mitch was on his back wearing rubber gloves and holding a sewer hose in hand, so I can only assume we were correct.

Due to a fire last year, many of the park’s trails are currently closed for restoration. We went out in search of a good, open hiking trail and learned that several other trails are temporarily closed because bears are active and feeding in the area.

We hadn’t seen any bears on our trip so far. But here in Waterton Lakes, while driving through the park we spotted our very first bear running along the side of the road. I was too busy staring at the bear with my own eyes to focus on my camera so the only pictures I managed to capture are pretty blurry.

We drove up to the Prince of Wales Hotel and hiked the short but steep hill down to the lake. The beach was rocky and the water was was quite choppy but reflected stunning shades of blue and green. Wildflowers and berry bushes were blooming all around and we saw that another trail in this area was closed due to bear activity.

The campground had accessible campsites and washrooms (that’s Canadian lingo for restrooms), but unfortunately most trails were not accessible. An accessible paved and packed gravel trail leads from the campground towards and along the lake. There are also paved sidewalks and pathways in the area with restaurants and shopping.

Our next stop on our Canadian journey was the city of Calgary. Ever since Taos, NM Mitch has become a fan of sampling craft beer. Here in Calgary we went on our very first brewery tour at Minhas Micro Brewery. The tour included generous samples of Minhas ales and lagers, an informative overview of the company’s history and their brewing process, and complimentary souvenirs including a pint glass, beer, and soda to-go. Mitch took a bite of the aromatic, fresh hops used to make beer, but instantly regretted it. Luckily he was able to forget the taste by indulging in a delicious pizza and tempura-fried green beans from the fantastic little pizza parlor housed in the brewery.

Back when we lived in Austin, Mitch and I loved going to see Broadway musicals or the symphony. We haven’t been able to catch any performances since we’ve been on the road so I was really excited when I learned that the opera Carmen would be performed in the outdoor Badlands Amphitheater in Drumheller, AB. Tickets were very reasonably priced so we took the plunge. The drive out to Drumheller was quiet, through country roads with very little traffic. Along the way we stopped at the Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River valley. We had a nice time at the opera, enjoying the beautiful weather, and exploring more of Canada’s countryside.

We spent a little time exploring downtown Calgary too. Heading downtown in any larger city can be a traffic and parking nightmare, especially in a bigger vehicle. Downtown Calgary was actually very easy to navigate and we found cheap parking in a large lot with no problem. We had brunch at the popular OEB Breakfast Co. and thoroughly enjoyed their breakfast poutine dishes. Poutine, I learned, is a popular Canadian dish that consists of french fries smothered in cheese curds and brown gravy. Our breakfast-style poutines were thick potato wedges sautéed in duck fat, topped with cheese curds, poached eggs, veggies, avocado, and hollandaise sauce, all over a bed of fresh spinach. It was absolutely delicious!

We took a stroll through the downtown area to the beautiful Prince’s Island Park. The park was very clean with grassy picnic areas, colorful landscaping, and accessible paved pathways.

After about 2 miles I started to develop blisters on the back of my heels. Just more proof that my feet belong in hiking boots. I tried bandages but they didn’t want to stick, so Mitch offered me the socks off of his feet. The last time he gave me his socks to wear it was after we had been walking around the Vegas strip the night before our wedding. I sure do have a sweet husband.

Overall we liked Calgary a lot. Our stay was brief but we had a great time relaxing and getting out to explore. The downtown area really reminded us of Austin, TX but not nearly as weird and a lot less hot. We experienced warm but comfortable temperatures in the low to mid 80s and heard our friends and family in Texas have been sweltering in the hundred-degree heat. We’ve been heading north in an attempt to escape the heat but it’s been following us. Hopefully cooler temperatures await us at our next destination: Banff National Park. Thanks for reading!

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

I had no idea what to expect from our trip to Glacier National Park. Before our visit I knew there would be glaciers and wildlife, including grizzly bears, and that people say the park is really beautiful. I can now report that “beautiful” is truly an understatement. This place is amazing and quickly jumped the ranks to my second favorite national park (Yosemite is still my #1). Since the summer sun doesn’t set until after 9:00 p.m., for our first visit we decided to head into the park after 4:00 p.m. when it would hopefully be cooler and less congested. We drove the narrow, winding Going-to-the-Sun Road through the forest and up into the mountains. All along the road there are overlooks with absolutely stunning views.

Though an incredibly beautiful drive, the road is extremely narrow and larger vehicles are restricted. Anything larger than a 15-passenger van would likely be too big- RVs and trailers are definitely not allowed. Heading eastbound, drivers skirt the winding road with steep drop-offs and short stone barriers, while drivers headed westbound hug the jagged inner cliffside with rocks jutting out into the lane. The road passes by streams that pour down the cliff walls like waterfalls, close enough to reach out and touch. Mitch, who is not a fan of heights, handled the drive like a pro, although with white knuckles and maybe a little sweat.

For our first hike, I wanted to try the three-mile out-and-back trail to St. Mary and Virginia Falls. Because we were entering a grizzly habitat and saw that the trail was lined with yummy berry bushes and a nice cool stream, we went in armed with bear spray. Rangers caution visitors to always carry bear spray and to hike in groups of three or more. Though we started the trail just the two of us, we soon met a woman who had been hiking alone, became quick friends, and decided to tackle the rest of the trail together. Our new friend, Elyda, was a retired speech therapist and shared a ton of knowledge about the park and nature along the trail. She also became our personal hero, saving the day (and possibly the forest) when she tactfully told a man who had been puffing a cigar on the trail, that smoking was not allowed and could be very dangerous for the park and his pocketbook. He apologized, thanked her, and put it out. Go, Elyda! As we hiked along and chatted with each other we saw no shortage of wildflowers, dense forest, green ferns, and meandering streams. The trail was spectacular and smelled amazing. I learned the park is home to 62 species of ferns, giving some areas a very rainforest-like appearance. Just before we reached the teal-blue St. Mary Falls we crossed a sweet mule deer on the trail.

We continued on the trail following the creek, until it veered off into quiet, thick forest for a bit, and rejoined the river at the tall, cascading Virginia Falls. Elyda thanked us for making her follow the trail all the way to the end. Although she had hiked the trail in the past, this was as far as she’d ever been. We noticed a few hikers who seemed to turn back before reaching Virginia Falls. We hiked right up to the base of the upper falls and were rewarded with a refreshing breeze and cool mist. It was beautiful to experience it all together.

On our next visit to the park we decided to take advantage of the free shuttle service up Going-To-The-Sun Road. This time we arrived in the morning, parked at one of the shuttle stops, and hitched a free ride to the trails. The shuttles are accessible and can carry up to 14 passengers. I wanted to check out one of Glacier’s accessible trails, so we started with a hike on the Trail of the Cedars. According to the park’s Accessible Facilities & Services guide, this is one of Glacier’s six accessible trails.

The trail is mostly flat with a combination of cement and wooden boardwalk. This gorgeous trail travels through lush, green forest, crosses creeks and streams, and carries the lovely scent of cedar and pine. We spotted lots of chipmunks and squirrels on the trail and several beautiful butterflies.

The Trail of the Cedars also leads to the trailhead for Avalanche Lake. This trail was approximately 2.3 miles one-way, with plenty of short inclines. Avalanche Lake’s smooth, reflective waters were a beautiful foreground to the surrounding mountains and delicate, cascading waterfalls.

Next we decided to tackle the trail to Hidden Lake. The trailhead is located behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center and travels through absolutely beautiful terrain. Though the first bit of the trail is accessible with a wooden boardwalk, it begins to climb the mountain with stairs. Patches of ice and snow, wildflowers, and rocks sit along the trail.

We saw a ton of wildlife including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, and overly-friendly and socialized chipmunks and squirrels. We stopped for snacks at the overlook and were surprised to have chipmunks and squirrels climb up onto us looking for grub. There were several signs asking visitors not to feed the wildlife but we knew critters were still getting food somehow when we saw a big chipmunk running across the trail carrying an apple. Mitch gestured with open hands that we didn’t have anything but that did not stop these furry little guys from trying to get a closer look.

Though our time here was short, we really enjoyed this park. I learned that most of the trails are considered moderate or difficult, with fewer easy waking trails. All of the visitor centers appeared to be accessible with parking and restrooms. There’s still a ton more I want to explore in Glacier National Park and I’m definitely looking forward to coming back.

We also spent some time in Kalispell, MT and volunteered with Samaritan House. The mission of Samaritan House is to “provide for the basic needs of homeless people, while fostering self-respect and human dignity.” Partnering with United Way and other community organizations, the non-profit provides food, housing, case management, and resources for individuals, families, and veterans who are hungry or homeless. For a few hours in the morning we worked on detailing and organizing the kitchen, where last year alone Samaritan House provided 34,860 meals. We slapped on some rubber gloves and put in some elbow grease scrubbing walls, sinks, stoves, ovens, and appliances. It felt good to be volunteering again after not being involved all month. I had volunteer work lined up with a few state parks in Colorado and Idaho but unfortunately they all fell through. It’s also been challenging to find community organizations and non-profits in some of the more rural areas we’ve been visiting. My goal is to volunteer at least once a month and so far we are still on target.

Next stop- CANADA! We’ve traveled about 3,000 miles since leaving Austin,TX and are excited to explore Canada during the month of August. Thanks for reading!

Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Henry’s Lake, and Lewis and Clark Caverns…OH MY!

Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Henry’s Lake, and Lewis and Clark Caverns…OH MY!

Turns out, blogging without a reliable internet connection is difficult! Since my last update we’ve been to Grand Teton National Park, Henry’s Lake State Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. We are currently stationed just outside of Glacier National Park, so it looks like I’ve got some catching up to do. Three…two…one…go!

Grand Teton National Park:

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Generally, RV parks in the Grand Teton/Yellowstone vicinity are super expensive and overcrowded during summer. Back in April when I was making reservations (yup, I had to book that far in advance), I found that many campgrounds were already filled to capacity for the busy summer season and what remained had a going rate of $70 to over $100 per night. For perspective, when we pulled the trailer out of storage back in Austin, TX and booked out first RV park, we paid approximately $20 per night plus metered water. Many RV parks offer discounted rates for longer stays. The daily rate is usually highest, but if you book a full week, or even month, the price is reduced. Typically, I look for sites that fall under $40 per night for full hookups, so the going rate of $70+ per night just wasn’t going to work for us. I expanded my search area to neighboring communities and found the perfect RV park in Swan Valley, Idaho. This little hidden gem, in a town with a population of just over 200, was the smaller, quieter place we were looking to relax in after facing the crowds and traffic between Denver and Salt Lake City. With shaded RV sites, full hookups, free wifi, and only an hour’s drive from Grand Teton National Park all for around $35 per night, it felt like a bargain.

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Grand Teton National Park is gorgeously rugged, surrounded by lakes, ponds, tall trees, and green meadows. Wildflowers were blooming in every color and growing just about everywhere. There was something beautiful to marvel at around every single corner. I found myself soaking it all in and realized after our trip I didn’t take many pictures. Despite all the feelings of awe I managed to capture a few, at least.

When we passed through the entrance station for a park map, I was a bit concerned when I saw the map and its legend did not include wheelchair accessibility icons. I learned that the park has a separate accessibility guide that is available on request and includes information on accessible facilities and trails. We hiked the Jenny Lake trail and trail near the Jackson Lake Dam which were partially accessible, paved in areas closest to parking lots, and provided grand views. We also saw accessible parking and restrooms during our visit. 

Henry’s Lake State Park and Yellowstone National Park:

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Our next stop was Henry’s Lake State Park. I chose this park because I wanted something affordable that was still close to Yellowstone National Park. Henry’s Lake sits only 20 minutes away from the West Yellowstone entrance station for half the price of the private RV parks in the area. I wasn’t expecting much since Yellowstone is considered the gem of the region but Henry’s Lake was surprisingly beautiful and very quiet. Our campsite, like most in the campground, was right on the water. Every night we were treated to some of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen and we had an awesome view of the lake from our dinette. The campground was also very clean with new showers and restrooms. 

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Accessible campsites, parking, showers, and restrooms are also available. A paved trail runs the length of the campground along the shore and continues as a thin rocky single-track trail through the grass. We took Gaius out on the trail for a bike ride one afternoon. 

Not far from Henry’s Lake State Park is Mesa Falls. This place was stunningly beautiful and I was so glad we made the trip. Accessible trails lead to the falls overlook but unfortunately getting closer is only possible via stairs. When we reached the upper falls we were treated to a magnificent rainbow.

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We made our first trip into Yellowstone during the late morning and realized quickly the mistake we had made. We sat in long lines of traffic and struggled to find parking at every turnout and parking lot. I worked hard to capture pictures without cars or other visitors in the frame. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect during the park’s busiest month during the busiest time of day, but now I knew. It was bad. The crowds wouldn’t have been so bad on their own, but what ruined the experience was seeing how people completely disregarded nature and each other.

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I try to keep things positive, in life and on my blog, but let’s be real, life isn’t always positive. Social media is tricky because it’s easy to make it appear that life is always peachy, but we all know it’s not. Although I am grateful my experiences out on the road, I would be lying if I said every day has been perfect, happy, and fun. We have down days and off days and plain old BAD days just like everyone else. Our initial visit to Yellowstone was was of those days. It was disheartening. We saw visitors honking and narrowly avoiding altercation over parking spaces, people smoking cigarettes and bringing pets (not service animals) in areas where they are not allowed, litterbugs tossing their rubbish on the ground instead of taking it to one of the many trashcans, eager sightseers ignoring posted signs and running across protected areas that were closed for restoration, cars speeding to get to the next attraction with no concern for pedestrians or crosswalks, and far too many folks jumping out of their vehicles and getting way too close to wildlife. Instead of people taking care of each other and the park, it felt like it was every man for his selfish self. Mitch described the experience as “drive-thru nature for people who don’t care about nature.” It did feel like that and it was draining. I begrudgingly snapped photos as we toured the overcrowded park. 

Of course this was just one experience and we knew it wasn’t representative of all people, the world, or the park as a whole, so we decided to head back into Yellowstone another day, this time in the evening when we hoped for smaller crowds. At this hour things were much more peaceful and we were able to really enjoy the beauty of the country’s first national park and its rich ecosystem. We saw colorful geothermal pools, steaming geysers, bubbling pots of boiling mud, waterfalls of every variety, massive canyons, vast green valleys, and plenty of bison, dear, elk, and moose.

Most of the park’s major attractions are also accessible, allowing everyone the opportunity to enjoy. Visitors can request a detailed accessibility guide from any entrance station or visitor center. Accessibility information can also be found in the National Park Service’s free Yellowstone National Park app. The park has accessible parking, restrooms, dining facilities, campsites, picnic areas, gas stations, fishing piers, and an accessible boat launch. Most of the park’s major attractions are accessible and many of the park’s trails have accessible routes. By reading the accessibility guide I learned that loaner wheelchairs are available from visitor and medical centers within the park for “$15 per day, with a $300 refundable deposit (cash or credit card).” This price seemed a bit steep considering that wheelchairs are necessities, not options, for most of the people who need them. The deposit also seemed steep since the wheelchairs provided appeared to be in the hundred-dollar range. I saw more people using wheelchairs in Yellowstone than any park we had been to but I was saddened when I came across a man who was sitting in a loaner wheelchair on the side of a trail. Evidently, his family members were taking turns pushing his chair but had become tired and continued on the trail without him. I thought, why aren’t wheelchairs free to use for people who need them, and better yet, why aren’t all-terrain power chairs available for rent? Someday I would love to start a non-profit organization and this might just be the perfect cause. Stay tuned. 

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park:

I love visiting a good cave and did not want to miss Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana’s very first state park. Entrance to the caverns is only permitted through the park’s guided tours. Three tours are available- classic ($12), paradise ($12), and wild ($30). After a moderate hike up a paved switchback trail, the classic tour guides visitors through the lighted cave along mostly paved pathways and stairs. The paradise tour is accessible and follows a level, paved pathway to the cave leading into the large paradise room. The wild cave tour is conducted in the dark and travels through areas of the cave not visited in other tours.

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Hoping for an adventurous and more private experience, we opted for the wild cave tour which involves a lot of climbing and crawling and is limited to 10 visitors. Admission for the 3-hour excursion includes use of coveralls, kneepads, gloves, helmet, and headlamp.

We had a blast getting dirty, crawling around on the cave floor, and climbing through narrow passages. We also learned a lot about the cave’s history and some of its prominent geological features.

The area surrounding the cave was also beautiful and when we emerged from the tour around 8:30 p.m. the sun was just setting. We camped for the night in the park’s campground, a great place for families with fire pits, picnic tables, restrooms with showers, a playground, and accessible campsites. Our next destination- Glacier National Park.

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Thanks for reading.