China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

I was pretty excited about day 4 of our itinerary when we would visit the Great Wall of China. Unlike the optional excursion we booked on our free day in Beijing that took us to the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City, the activities on day 4 were included as part of the guided tour package and participation was mandatory. If a guest chooses to bail on any component of the guided tour, Rewards Travel China reserves the right to cancel the remainder of the guest’s itinerary, including hotel and flight reservations. However, we learned that it is possible to opt out of certain days of the guided tour for a fee by making arrangements with the tour company. We made friends with another couple on the tour who opted out of day 4 so that they could visit a few families they knew in China. We stuck with the guided tour itinerary and off we went to the Great Wall…after a visit to a jade workshop and showroom, that is.

Another group of tourists from Rewards Travel China leaving the showroom as we arrived.

Here we had our first taste of those government sponsored shopping spiels I mentioned in my previous post. Our bus pulled up to a huge building where we were given a brief introduction on the history of jade, tips on how to spot the difference between fake and authentic jade, and information about the importance of jade in Chinese culture.

Afterwards we were given free time to shop (almost a full hour), or in our case, walk around the showroom attempting to avoid salespeople. The jade we saw was all very beautiful and many people from our tour group bought pieces to take home. We considered buying a few pieces and thought of giving some as gifts to friends and family, but after we converted the prices into U.S. dollars we realized it was a bit out of our budget. The salesperson who helped us followed us around trying to show us other things we might be interested in purchasing. Even though we explained we didn’t have enough money she still stuck to us like a shadow until another browsing couple caught her eye and we made a quick getaway for the exit. It all felt a bit uncomfortable though those who were interested in shopping seemed to enjoy the experience.

At last, we were off to the Great Wall and feeling excited to get outdoors and do some climbing. We visited the Juyongguan, or Juyong Pass, section of the Great Wall, which is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and known as one of the most popular mountain passes along the wall.

Juyong Pass is also known as one of the more steep and challenging sections of the wall. While a few sections of stairs were nice and uniform, most had steps that varied from one to the next in both depth and height, making it somewhat of a difficult climb.

There weren’t a ton of people visiting this time of year, so it was easier to find quiet, peaceful moments and to snap pictures of the wall unobstructed by hordes of tourists. The downside of visiting during winter is that it was windy and absolutely frigid. It was hard to hold on to the handrails because they were ice cold. The other downside is that much of the surrounding foliage is brown or grey, closely matching the color of the stone and making it more difficult to see how the massive wall travels for miles upon miles into the horizon. Still, the Great Wall was a beautiful sight and so much fun to climb.

Using a selfie as an opportunity to stop and rest.

Spanning just over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is the longest manmade structure on earth. It is also sometimes regarded as the longest cemetery on earth because an estimated one million people perished building the wall, and in many situations it was not possible for their remains to be recovered.

We were given about two hours of free time to do as we pleased. We wanted to see as much of the wall as possible so we split our time in order to hike up both the eastern and western ends of the pass.

Next on our itinerary for the day was lunch followed by a trip to the Chinese Herbal Institute. A few of the provided lunches we had were hosted in typical Chinese restaurants where we ate among local patrons. However, most lunches were hosted in the government-sponsored facilities where we ate among other tourists from the Rewards Travel China group. Though the group we were assigned to was smaller, with around 25 people, Rewards Travel China had three buses of tourists that roughly followed the same itinerary and lunch schedule, each with their own local, English-speaking guide. I think it would have been nice to eat in typical Chinese restaurants more often for the typical experience of dining in China, but I completely understand how these private, catered meals are easier to manage with such a large group and probably save quite a bit of money. None of the dinners were included in the tour package, so it was still possible to visit a few typical Chinese restaurants on our own during our trip.

At the Chinese Herbal Institute we entered into a large room with big, cozy chairs, sat down, and were asked to remove our shoes and socks. Next we were given buckets of warm water for a relaxing herbal foot soak. After a few minutes of soaking, in came a troop of staff members who sat on a stool opposite of each guest and provided a 15 minute foot rub. It was pleasant overall, especially after our morning climb, although there were some awkward moments of silence and we sensed that rubbing the sweaty feet of tourists might not be a top career choice.

During the foot rub, we were given a quick but informative introduction to the principles of Chinese medicine and a few guests were treated to fire cupping therapy, a practice beneficial to reducing stagnation and improving one’s qi. Qi is the name for the life force believed to exist in each person’s body. Chinese medicine practitioners liken having balanced qi to having something similar to a super power that results in a healthier, happier, and longer life. Think of it almost like “the force” used by jedis in Star Wars.

While our feet were being rubbed, several Chinese doctors went around the room and met with guests to provide a quick health assessment, discuss any health concerns, and offer treatment. The doctors appeared to start with and focus on the older folks in our group and we were never visited. We noticed that the doctors were recommending expensive creams and health supplements to those they met with, and not wanting to deal with more sales pressure for the day, kind of felt glad we were overlooked.

For our last stop of the evening we visited the Beijing 2008 Olympic Center. This was a highlight for some of the sports fans in our group. While I enjoy the Olympics, personally I’m not a big sports fan and admit this wasn’t my favorite stop on the tour. Still, I enjoyed the free time we had to walk around the huge complex.

On day 5 we had the morning to ourselves. We were pretty tired after two packed days of sightseeing so we passed on the optional 1/2 day Beijing city tour excursion ($79/person) and took the opportunity to sleep in, grab breakfast and coffee at a leisurely pace, and enjoy a little nap before heading off to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Food served on the Chinese flight was pretty interesting and not bad for airplane grub. We were offered a shrimp cocktail appetizer and choice of entree.

Beef, rice, and veggie entree.

The flight to Shanghai was approximately 2.5 hours and after landing we met up with a local representative from Rewards Travel China who would be our guide for the remainder of the tour. Once we collected our baggage, we loaded into buses and drove another 90 minutes to our hotel in Suzhou. Our hotel in Suzhou was smaller than the one in Beijing but still very nice and had a great view of the sunrise in the morning. Breakfast was buffet style and delicious as always.

Day 6 was a jam-packed guided tour day. We started off with a trip to the lovely Lingering Garden, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally privately-owned, the 400-year-old garden is filled with beautiful stone walkways, ponds, temples, and pavilions covering approximately 6 acres.

We had a lot of fun walking around the garden, admiring the traditional Chinese landscaping and architecture, and of course, posing for many, many pictures with friends.

After some free time in the garden we headed over to a silk factory and showroom. Though mostly a stop for purchasing silk bedding and apparel, the factory did house a small museum with information about silk production. Here we heard a little bit about how silk is made and a lot about why we should buy silk. There was even spare luggage for sale and the showroom offered vacuum packing to ensure that travelers would have a way to take their new silk goodies home.

After lunch at the silk factory we visited the Suzhou Grand Canal, which is, you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are actually 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide with 52 being in China, a huge number when compared to the U.S. where there are only 23. These special sites have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as treasures to all of humanity for their cultural, historical, or scientific significance. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few in the U.S. (the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Waterton-Lakes, and Redwood national parks) and was thrilled that I was able to see so many more through this tour.

We declined the optional boat ride down the canal ($30/person) and instead were given a little over an hour of free time to walk along the waters. This area is touted as the “Venice of China” but since I’ve never seen Italy myself, I have nothing to compare and may need to plan a trip. For research purposes.

The area where we walked along the canal was probably the most “real” and depressed bit of China we’d seen yet. Humble homes line the waterways and residents could be seen doing laundry in the canal. Clothing and bedding was strung up on a line to dry between trees, occasionally accompanied by pieces of fish and curious cuts of meat. Open, grassy spaces in between homes were covered in mounds of rubbish. No matter how intriguing, shocking, or different a neighborhood may look, I don’t think it’s respectful to blatantly photograph someone’s home as if it were a spectacle for someone else’s entertainment. Therefore, I saved my photo ops for shots of the canal, empty alleyways, and a cute local pup. Oh, and this one public squat toilet we used that had a beautiful window but no doors.

After our stroll we hopped back onto the bus and headed off to our next city, Wuxi. After about a two-hour drive we arrived in the late afternoon at the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area.

The park covers over 70 acres and includes several stunning sculptures, gardens, fountains, and temples. Though China is technically an atheist country, it is home to the largest population of Buddhists in the world, making the park a very popular attraction.


We were given two spurts of free time, with the first being in the lower section of the park to view the musical fountain show known as, Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni, or baby Buddha.

The Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni fountain plays a musical water show 5x daily.
The fountain rotates, giving everyone in the crowd a great view.

After watching the fountain performance, we hopped onto trams and headed to the base of the Lingshan Grand Buddha statue where we were given more free time to explore and climb to the top.

The drive through the park was absolutely gorgeous and I could see spending hours walking the property and taking in all the beautiful sights. The enormous Grand Buddha statue was naturally the star of the show, especially later in the afternoon when the sun began to set.

At an incredible 289-feet-tall, it’s the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. There are 216 stairs to reach the statue, representing 108 troubles and 108 wishes. The panoramic view from the top was nice, though a bit of smog filled the air.

Candles.

An impressive museum spread over 3 stories is located in the pedestal of the statue, though unfortunately we were not afforded enough time to read through all of the exhibits. For those who want an even closer look at the big bronze Buddha, an elevator from the museum takes visitors to an upper terrace where it’s possible to touch the Buddha’s feet for good luck.

Our sightseeing for the day was over and we headed off to our hotel in Wuxi. This ended up being our favorite hotel from the trip. I was so happy to have a room with a large bathtub and a great city view.

We met some of our new friends for dinner at a Japanese restaurant located within the hotel then scurried back to our rooms and drifted off to sleep. And with that, day 6 of our adventure in China was done. Stay tuned for my final post covering days 7-10 where we caught some of China’s most famous performances, visited a green tea plantation, and experienced the beauty of Shanghai on a cruise after dark. Thanks for reading!

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!

Hitched Up: Desert Dwelling

Hitched Up: Desert Dwelling

We’ve parked our little home on wheels in all sorts of different climates and environments on our travel journey but setting up camp out among the desert cacti would be a new experience for us. My unorthodox way of planning our adventures thus far has been opening up Google Maps and zooming in on the green areas, which indicate a national or state park, and picking destinations that sound interesting. Through this method I stumbled across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and began researching the area.

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Ranking as California’s largest state park, Anza Borrego is pretty remote with the nearest town being the small community of Borrego Springs. When I looked further into Borrego Springs, one of the first images that popped up in my search results was a huge metal sculpture of a dragon weaving through the sandy desert floor. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and since Mitch has always loved dragons I knew right away we had to see this work of art in person. You won’t find a Walmart or fast food restaurant in Borrego Springs but we were pleased with several locally-owned restaurants and markets to choose from. The Center Market had the best prepared foods in their deli section- if you get the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend the mango, jicama salad.  

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We camped in the Palm Canyon Campground located within the state park and surrounded by tall, rocky mountains. Our site had had full-hookups, which means we were able to run our air conditioning in the dry heat of November. From May until October, temperatures stay in the triple-digits and even in November the high of 85 felt more like 95. We had one of the pull-thru sites on the edge of the campground loop (#28). These sites offer more privacy, however the utilities sit on the same side as the picnic table and fire pit which means most RVs will either need hoses and electrical cords long enough to reach around the RV, or camp will be set up with the RV door opening to the road instead of the campsite. Luckily we have long hoses and cords and we were able to get hooked up with no problem.

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The campground has four accessible full hook up sites (#3, 21, 49 and 52) and three accessible developed sites (#118, 119 and 120) which have no hook ups. Accessible restrooms and showers are available in each campground loop and each building has an accessible parking space out front.

We went on a few hikes during our stay, the first being a canyoneering adventure on the Slot Canyon Trail. Reaching the trail requires a 2-mile drive down a rocky, sandy road. I had read 4-wheel drive was recommended because the sand was soft in some areas and cars can easily get stuck, but we saw several small sedans and low-clearance vehicles handle the terrain with no problem.

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A large parking area is located at the trailhead but beyond the parking area the road serves as a multi-use, 4wd and hiking trail. The Slot Canyon Trail can be hiked as a loop by taking the 4wd road back to the parking area or as an out-and-back by heading back into the canyon instead. There is one sign pointing to the trail near the parking area and from there the trail leads into the slot canyon without many opportunities for getting lost. The canyon isn’t as colorful as some of the famous slot canyons of Arizona and Utah but it was still beautiful and a lot of fun to hike through. 

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img_1701img_1700After exiting the canyon, identifying the trail becomes much more of a challenge. There are no trail markers along the way and the space opens up revealing 4wd roads in every direction. We ended up hiking to the top of the 4wd road and had an awesome view of the open desert. We hiked in the morning when temperatures were cooler but it was still hot. Beyond the canyon there aren’t many areas where escaping the sun is a possibility, so having enough water is critical.

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We also hiked the Palm Canyon Trail, which has one of the easiest trailheads to reach and is the most popular trail in the park. The trailhead is located in the Palm Canyon Campground and has restrooms and a water fountain. This 3-mile trek into the desert  travels between rocky hills and ends at a beautiful lush palm oasis. 

The Palm Canyon Trail is well-marked, making it much easier to stay on the correct path.  The trail is also lined with large boulders, some of which provide protection from the sun. Some boulder scrambling is required and there are a few sets of stairs, but otherwise the trail is mostly flat and an easy hike. The cool and shady palm oasis is a nice reward after being out in the heat. Though rarely spotted by humans, endangered bighorn sheep also take refuge from the sun and find water in the grove of palms. Because water sources in the desert are so scarce, visitors are reminded to stay on the trail to help protect wildlife.

 

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Most of the trails within the park are pretty remote and unfortunately not accessible. There are two accessible trails in the park, including the Visitor Center Interpretive Trail and the Culp Valley Trail (0.5 mile, located in the Culp Valley Campground).  The Visitor Center Interpretive Trail, also known as the All-Access Trail, is paved and provides great view of the valley and seasonally, beautiful cactus blooms. The trail travels through the desert between the Palm Canyon Campground and the Visitor Center 0.7 miles away. 

 So how about that metal dragon sculpture? It was awesome and so were all the other interesting pieces of art to be found scattered about Borrego Springs. I learned that the artist behind the work is Ricardo Breceda, who was commissioned by the late philanthropist Dennis Avery to create the 130 metal sculptures that are found around Borrego Springs. The dragon is one of the largest of the bunch at 350-feet-long. 

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Avery’s vision was to create an open-space museum, free and available for the public to enjoy. Breceda’s magnificent artwork is displayed on Avery’s estate, know as Galleta Meadows and visitors are welcome to drive through for an experience like no other. Most of the artwork can be enjoyed from the comfort of a vehicle, though hiking, biking, and horseback riding on the property is also permitted. 

img_1841img_1833img_1834img_1815-492095065-1542220182345.jpgContinuing on with our desert journey we headed northeast to Joshua Tree National Park and camped in the Indian Cover campground near Twenty-nine Palms. The campground does not have any hook ups but the weather was cool and there was no need to a/c. When we arrived I was stunned by the beauty of the giant, towering boulders that surrounded our campsite, then appalled by the amount of litter I found near our picnic table and fire pit.

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I was glad Gaius was not with us because all around our site I found shards of glass from broken beer bottles in every color. I picked up plastic bottle tops, food wrappers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, and bread ties, among other pieces of trash, some of which looked like it had been sitting there on the dirt for months. If you couldn’t tell, litter bugs me! 

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I felt much better after cleaning up all the trash and putting it in its proper place. Then after the sun had set, the stars really came out to shine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen stars so bright. The dark sky was literally filled with a twinkling sea of stars. We fell asleep gazing up at the sky from the window over our bed. The Indian Cove Campground is very popular with climbers, due to the huge boulders that line the campsites.  The posted climbing rules instruct climbers to ask permission before entering an occupied campsite to climb. I was a bit annoyed when a group of climbers walked right into our site, plopped their gear down, and started scaling the surrounding walls without checking with us first. After I watched for a moment and said “good morning,” someone from the group said, “Oh is it okay if we climb here? We’re already set up” while pointing up to the ropes. I imagined by eyes rolling out of my head while I smiled and said “Yeah, sure!” If we hadn’t been heading out I think I would have reminded these folks of the rules. Call me an enigma, but I believe you can be free-spirited, lead an unconventional lifestyle, and STILL show other people courtesy, and STILL respect the rules of places you visit. Okay, end rant. There’s also a really lovely nature trail located within the campground that we enjoyed hiking at sunset. Though there are some mild grades and unevenness in areas, this trail may be accessible for some. An accessible restroom is located within the campground. 

img_1980img_1953The Indian Cove Campground sits just a short drive from the park’s North Entrance Station, so we headed in for some hiking. The drive along Park Boulevard is beautiful with many pull-outs that allow visitors to stop and take in the otherworldly scenery, including the gnarly Joshua trees. 

img_1976We hiked the Hidden Valley Trail and drove down the unpaved Queen Valley Road which travels through the Joshua Trees. 

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The Hidden Valley picnic area is a great spot for lunch. There are several accessible picnic tables, accessible restrooms (pit toilets), and a few accessible parking spots. 

img_1894Unfortunately there are only a few accessible trails, including the Bajada Nature Trail near the South Entrance, Cap Rock Nature Trail at the junction of Park Blvd. and Keys View Road, Oasis of Mara Trail in Twentynine Palms at the Oasis Visitor Center, and the Keys View Overlook. I chatted with a ranger who told me the Barker Dam trail is currently under construction and will be accessible once renovations are completed.

Joshua Tree was beautiful and camping in the desert was fun but it was time to drop off our trailer for warranty work. Next stop- Lancaster, CA.

Thanks for reading!

Hitched Up: California Coasting

Hitched Up: California Coasting

The next leg of our journey involved a scramble down the California coast. We purchased our Lance travel trailer from a local dealership in Austin, TX back in November of 2017. We made the purchase several months ahead of our May departure date because we wanted to have time to become familiar with the trailer and its amenities before heading out on the road. Our fast-approaching purchase anniversary also marks the expiration of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty. Since we’ve discovered a few minor issues that need repair (cabinet locks malfunctioning, entry door not sealing properly, television image distorted, etc.), we made an appointment at the Lance factory in southern California to have the work completed while still under warranty.

Our first wedding anniversary also provided another reason to make a dash for southern California, and what better place to celebrate in than Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. We were married last year in Las Vegas on Halloween weekend so Halloween will probably always be special to us. I’ve actually always wanted to see Disneyland during the spooky season while the park is decorated with characters from the Nightmare Before Christmas. So, whereas we would normally spend several weeks traveling across the state taking our time to explore as many places as possible, we found ourselves making a dash for southern California to celebrate our anniversary in time for Halloween and to have our trailer to the manufacturer before our warranty expired.

The first quick stop on our journey down the coast was San Francisco where we stayed two nights at an RV park in the neighboring city of Marin. The RV park was walking distance from the Larkspur ferry, so we headed to the port via the accessible, paved trail and sailed into the city for some sightseeing.

Many popular attractions and landmarks can be seen from the ferry, including San Quentin State Prison, Angel Island, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Treasure Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and of course, the city’s beautiful skyline.

We grabbed some coffee at the Ferry Building Marketplace then strolled the iconic Embarcadero, which is home to several piers loaded with restaurants, shops, street performers, museums, and more.

We weren’t planning on a trip to the Exploratorium, a popular hands-on science museum, but we saw that it was Community Day and admission was pay-what-you-wish. We were happy to leave a donation and head in to check out the exhibits.

A trip to San Francisco would not be complete without sampling some of its famous seafood. My favorite is clam chowder served up in a fresh, sourdough bread bowl.

After a quick bite we continued along the city’s eastern shoreline until we reached the National Park Service’s Aquatic Park Pier. On the way back to the ferry we popped in at Ghirardelli Square for an ice cream sundae.

Later we met up with my friend, her husband, and their baby girl for dinner. The last time I saw my friend was years ago when we traveled together to London and Paris. It was so much fun catching up over a great meal.

We headed further south and stayed with my mom in my hometown for a few days. We went out for dinner in historic San Juan Bautista and spent some time in one of my favorite places, Monterey. I remember visiting the beaches with my mom as a kid and taking trips to the famous aquarium. Later I would graduate from California State University Monterey Bay and work in the area for years before relocating to the sunny southern U.S.. We saw a movie, walked along the wharf, visited the farmers market, and had a lovely dinner. Since we’ll be spending the holidays with my mom, there will be many more adventures in Monterey and central California coming up soon.

It was nice to be home for a few days but we had to keep moving of we wanted to make it to Disneyland and the manufacturer on time, so we headed out on the road again. We stopped off in beautiful Morro Bay where we camped right on the beach.

The sunsets here were phenomenal, painted with purple and pink tones. When the fog rolled in, the beach looked like something out of a dream.

We visited Morro Bay State Park and walked the accessible Marina Peninsula Loop Trail, which provided stunning views of the bay and estuary.

The paved trail near Morro Rock was also accessible and was a great place to enjoy excellent views of the ocean.

We took a quick trip to nearby Sam Simeon to check out the elephant seals lazing on the beach. The Elephant Seal Vista Point is located right off of Cabrillo Highway (Hwy 1) and has plenty of parking, including accessible spaces and large spaces for RVs. A long, accessible deck and short trail runs along the beach providing visitors with an up-close view of the seals.

We were so close, we could actually smell the blubbery mammals as they soaked up the afternoon sun. The view was fantastic though the smell is something I’d rather forget.

Later we toured the magnificent Hearst Castle, built by the late newspaper and magazine mogul William Randolph Hearst. After his death, the property was donated to the state of California and it became a state park in 1958. The exquisite castle was designed by Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect, and is filled with antiques and an impressive collection of art.

I’ve visited the castle a few times during the day but this was my first time visiting the property at night. We reserved tickets for the evening tour and arrived just in time to watch the sun setting. Though high up on a hill, the castle has an amazing view of the ocean.

The evening tour takes visitors up and down a few flights of stairs, but an accessible tour is also available.

We really enjoyed the beach but were excited to move on to Anaheim for our anniversary celebration in Disneyland. We stayed at an RV resort about a mile away from the park gates. Though we were technically within walking distance, we decided to purchase shuttle passes figuring we’d spend enough time on our feet while in the park. It turned out to be the best idea ever, as we averaged 12 hours standing and 8 miles walking every day. Even with sore and swollen feet, Disneyland was nothing short of magical.

We felt like kids running around the park, hopping on the rides and catching the shows.

We ended up spending 2 full days at Disneyland and 1 day at California Adventure. Both parks were awesome in their own way. California Adventure was modern, had more thrill rides, and offered a Broadway-quality production of the Disney hit Frozen.

We also caught an awesome sunset over the pond at California Adventure.

Still, Disneyland felt more whimsical, magical, and classic while offering a variety of attractions for all ages. The canoe boats were great for an upper-body workout.

The food in both parks was really, really good. Who knew Disney could pull off an authentic and deliciously southern shrimp and grits?

We loved the time we spent in both parks and did not want to leave. Both parks were also super accessible. We saw tons of visitors using wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers. Each attraction has an accessible entrance. Some rides require a transfer from wheelchair to the seat, but several rides have accessible buggies or cars that can accommodate wheelchairs. I wanted to snap a picture but every time I saw a ride with an accessible buggy there was a person in their wheelchair enjoying it. Awesome!

We also visited Downtown Disney one evening for an open-space, interactive virtual reality experience. Being the Star Wars fans that we are, we could not pass up the opportunity to visit The Void for their Secrets of the Empire attraction.

Paired with another couple, we suited up in vests and helmets then were given a mission where we would impersonate storm troopers to infiltrate the Empire. The screens in our helmets displayed a virtual world before us and we walked through mazes working together to meet our objectives. The attraction is also accessible allowing people with varying mobility abilities to get in on the fun. Though I’m not much of a gamer, I have to say it was pretty awesome and I’d definitely try it again. I liked it so much I even bought the souvenir photo instead of taking a blurry picture of it with my phone like I normally do.

While we were in the area we took a day trip to L.A. on Halloween to see Universal Studios and their Halloween Horror Nights. I was most excited about the Harry Potter attractions, especially the famed butter beer. It did not disappoint.

We purchased an afternoon pass which allowed us access to Universal starting at 2:00 p.m. and access to the halloween mazes starting at 5:00 p.m. As we roamed around the park we received many compliments on our matching Star Wars shirts we could not leave Disneyland without.

We also splurged on the Universal express passes that way we could avoid the long lines. We were able to get to everything in the park, including the hour-long studio tour, except for the Waterworld show.

We also were able to jump ahead of the long lines for the halloween mazes, where others without express passes waited 90 minutes or longer. Universal Studios was a lot of fun but we definitely preferred the magic of Disney. I didn’t get a ton of pictures at Universal after dark but I did catch a pretty cool shot in the Stranger Things maze.

Before we left the greater Los Angeles area we spent some time visiting with an old friend from Monterey. I hadn’t seen her in 10 years but it was like nothing changed (in a good way). It was so nice to catch up and to meet her husband and sweet little ones. Reconnecting with old pals as we travel has been one of my favorite things to do on this journey.

With our service appointment about a week away we still had some time to explore southern California. Next stop, the desert! Thanks for reading.

Hitched Up: Rogue Valley to the Redwood Coast

Hitched Up: Rogue Valley to the Redwood Coast

We headed off from the high desert towards Oregon’s southern coast in search of its beautiful beaches and redwood forests that lead into California. Before we would get there we stopped off in the colorful Rogue Valley. We had a great campsite in Valley of the Rogue State Park that backed right up to the Rogue River, was very spacious, and had full-hookups. 

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The park has plenty of amenities, including accessible campsites, picnic areas, and a large fenced dog park. My favorite feature is the new, accessible hiking and biking trail that runs directly through the park. The trail is currently being developed and only a few segments had been finished during the time of our visit. We rode about 3.5 miles on the completed section that runs from the park to the neighboring town of Rogue River. This time of year the scenic trail was bursting with bright autumn colors.

Once completed, the Rogue River Greenway Trail will span 50 beautiful miles. Accessible parking and restrooms are available near the trailheads in Valley of the Rogue State Park. The section of the trail we traveled had rewarding views of the Rogue River and only a few mild inclines. There is an accessible drinking fountain and water fountain for dogs along the trail located just before Rogue River. 

We also ventured out to hike the moderately steep Lower Table Rock Trail just east of the park. A 1.5-mile climb through the trees brings you to the top of the flat rock’s surface. Much of the trail is shaded although once you reach the top it’s full sun and wide open space.

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Operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the trail was very well-maintained. The Lower Table Rock Trail is partially accessible for the first 1/8 mile or so, but beyond this point the trail becomes steep with uneven surfaces. The shorter Oak Savannah Loop Trail is flat and wide with packed gravel. Accessible parking and restrooms are available at the trailhead.

Next we were headed back to the coast and our first stop was Harris Beach State Park. We had a large campsite tucked away into the trees and were only a short walk from the beach. Like other beaches we’d seen in Oregon, Harris Beach was gorgeous and Gaius had a blast running around on the sand. 

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One day we spent an hour picking up litter on the beach. Luckily there wasn’t a ton but we still managed to fill half of a plastic grocery bag with garbage in about a mile. I learned that the community regularly hosts beach clean-up activities where volunteers take to the sand and pick up trash that can be harmful to wildlife. The park’s day-use area is awesome and accessible. There is a long, paved, switchback ramp with rails that leads gently down to the beach. There are accessible restrooms, picnic tables (with a great view), and ample accessible parking. 

We loved being close to amazing beaches while also being just a short drive to majestic redwood forests. After a few days of beaching, we decided to change things up and enjoyed a lovely hike on the Redwood Nature Trail in the Rogue Riber-Siskiyou National Forest and the connecting Riverview Trail located within Alfred A. Loeb Oregon State Park.

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Neither trail is accessible although both have accessible restrooms and picnic areas near the trailhead. Loeb Park has accessible parking and an accessible trail that leads down to the river. Vehicles can also drive down the trail and park right on the bank.

We also spent some time traveling the segment on Hwy 101 known as the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. Along the picturesque route there are multiple scenic overlooks with trails and beach access. Accessible parking is available at most of the stops and a few includes accessible restrooms.

We crossed the CA border to continue our redwood journey and camped near the Redwood National and State Parks, a collection of four parks co-managed by the National Park Service and California State Parks. The parks include, Redwood National Park, Del Notre Coast State Park, Prairie Creek State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. I would love to explore all four parks someday but for this trip we stuck with Prairie Creek, home to some of the tallest trees in the state.

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Hiking through the stunning redwood forest was spectacular. We hiked the handful of the park’s accessible trails, including the Redwood Access Trail, Revelation Trail, Cathedral Trees Trail, and the Elk Prairie Trail. The trails appeared to be well-maintained with packed dirt or gravel surfaces and the occasional wooden bridge.

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Prairie Creek State Park was also a filming location for the sequel to the Jurassic Park movie. Scenes for the action-packed dinosaur adventure flick were shot in the park’s lush Fern Canyon. I had to see it for myself. To reach the trailhead, visitors have to either take a long hike (10 miles round trip) or take a long drive down a narrow, windy, gravel road shaded by dense forest. Access is limited to vehicles 8 feet wide and 24 feet long- and with good reason. Once the wild ride reaches the coast, it travels along the beautiful Gold’s Bluff Beach and through a few water crossings before ending at the Fern Canyon trailhead.

img_0189 The canyon features 50-foot walls covered in a variety of green ferns. A quiet creek runs the length of the canyon requiring visitors to travel through the water or carefully cross fallen logs. The trailhead is a gravel lot with an accessible restroom. The short trail to the canyon is wide and mostly flat with packed gravel. Once the trail meets the canyon is becomes submerged under water and is not accessible.

The park is home to a thriving herd of Roosevelt Elk which roam freely and can be very aggressive. We saw one of these magnificent creatures on the Fern Canyon Trail just before reaching the canyon. The elk was grazing a safe distance away so we passed on the trail behind him without incident. On our way back out we turned a corner on the trail and I had an eerie feeling. I could feel eyes on me and when I scanned the environment I saw a huge elk staring right at me through the trees just ahead. The elk stared. We stared. We slowly backed away and he went back to grazing allowing us to sneak by. Phew! Once we were at a safe distance I snapped a few quick photos of our friend from the creepy encounter.

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With that we ended our redwood journey (for now) and were off to explore more of California, starting with a brief trip to San Francisco.

Thanks for reading!

 

Hitched Up: Oregon’s High Desert

Hitched Up: Oregon’s High Desert

Searching for sunshine we left Oregon’s gorgeous, but cloudy coast for the High Desert. Our first stop was Prineville Reservoir State Park. I’m typically not a big fan of reservoirs because oftentimes they’re artificial and really look the part. Another thing— speedboats. Don’t get me wrong, boats are loads of fun, but their loud engines aren’t as thrilling when you’re watching, speedboat-less from the shore. The last reservoir we visited was terribly littered and appeared to be more of a place to party than a place to connect with Mother Earth. I can almost still smell the stale beer in the air. Prineville, however, was quite different. Perhaps during busy season we would have had a different experience, but our late-September visit was quiet and peaceful. The park was clean, the campground was full of trees, and the water was smooth. 

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Our campsite overlooked the water, like several others, including an ADA accessible site with a view of the reservoir through the trees. As I explored the grounds I was really impressed with the park’s accessibility overall. Near the boat ramp there are standard accessible parking spaces and extra-long accessible parking spaces for vehicles with boat trailers. There is also a large accessible fishing pier with benches.

An accessible, paved trail runs throughout the campground and there are multiple accessible restrooms and showers. The day-use area is also accessible with horseshoe pits, picnic tables, and a trail that leads to the beach. The accessible picnic area provides a great view of the water and beach (in fact, the best view out of all the picnic spots). There was also an observatory for star-gazers, though it’s only open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

We hadn’t been out in the kayak lately so we suited up Gaius in his little puppy life vest and headed down to the boat launch. The smooth water made for a very pleasant paddle and with the exception of a few fishermen, we pretty much had the entire reservoir to ourselves. 

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We enjoyed our stay but were pretty excited to head over to our next destination. We camped near the city of Bend, OR in La Pine State Park and it turned out to be a great home base while exploring the area. We were only a quick drive from Newberry National Volcanic Monument and stopped by to check out a really cool cave I was eager to visit.

img_8482The cave is a massive lava tube that was formed by a volcanic eruption over 80,000 years ago. The exact size of the cave is unknown but visitors can travel a mile into the pitch-black darkness before reaching a stop sign with instructions to turn around.

Unfortunately, the cave is not accessible. Though the floor inside the cave is mostly flat, there are lots and lots of stairs to navigate upon entering and exiting the cave. Throughout the cave there are several areas with large rocks and holes and a few passages with low-clearance where most adults will need to duck down. The park has high-power flashlights available to rent for $5 but we opted to bring our own light. And of course, it died. In the middle of the cave. Leaving us in absolute darkness. Luckily we had our cell phones handy and used their flashlights until we reached the exit. Did I mention the cave was freezing? If you look closely at the picture of Mitch below, you can see his breath (and also that he gave me his jacket to wear because I forgot mine). 

We also did a bit of exploring at our campground in La Pine. The park sits along the beautiful Deschutes River in a forest of ponderosa pines. In fact, Oregon’s largest ponderosa pine is located in the park and can be visited via the short and accessible Big Tree Trail.

Another accessible option is the McGregor Memorial Viewpoint which offers breathtaking views of the winding Deschutes River.

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We headed a bit further south to camp near Crater Lake National Park. Our campground was right on the outskirts of a state and national forest so there were plenty of beautiful trees and a beautiful little creek ran right behind our site. Mitch even took to the outdoors with his guitar and played by the water. We had a little fun and didn’t kill each other trying to maneuver a canoe through the log-ladden creek, although we learned quickly that we much prefer our kayak.

We had some down time in the RV due to a few days of rain but once the skies cleared we made a trip to Crater Lake National Park. Contrary to popular belief and its namesake, Crater Lake was not formed by a meteor. The lake was formed when the volcano Mount Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago then collapsed forming a caldera that eventually filled with melted snow and rainwater. At 1,943 feet, the lake is the deepest in the country and as far as I can tell, one of the most beautiful too. When we caught our first glimpse of the water, we were completely astonished by how blue it was.

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The cinder cone that sits above the water’s surface is known as Wizard Island and can be reached by boat. I’d love to trek out there someday but for this trip we decided to stick to the roads (and our heated seat-warmers). One can drive around the rim of the lake on the scenic 33-mile loop that has several viewpoints and trailheads. There are four trails specified as “accessible to wheelchair users with assistance” within the park-  Sun Notch, The Pinnacles, Godfrey Glen, and Plaikni Falls. We hiked the Sun Notch trail and after a bit of an incline reached the rim’s edge overlooking the water. This short, but somewhat steep loop trail is approximately .08 miles and its terrain is mostly pavement or packed dirt.

The sun was shining bright but the wind was in full-force and we were shivering in the 39 degree temperatures. Too cold to attempt any more hiking, we stuck to the pullouts along the rim trail. They did not disappoint and we had amazing views all around. Most of the overlooks are accessible though many do not have developed parking areas or designated, lined spaces. Those with developed parking areas have accessible parking spaces and paved paths.

On another sunny day we grabbed Gaius and hopped in the truck to check out the Wood River and determine if it was paddle-worthy. We found that not only was it paddle-worthy, it was downright dreamworthy! Gorgeous shades of green and blue glimmered through the crystal clear water while yellow and orange grasses and tall green trees lined the shore.

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The water was so pristine and clear that its surface was barely even visible. As we floated along the smooth water it almost felt like we were hovering or flying above the riverbed. Before too long we reached some fun obstacles to conquer, like forks in the river, downed trees, and shallow beds of sand (where we accidentally beached our boat a few times). We had a blast and even Gaius seemed to enjoy riding along.

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We had the whole river to ourselves on a lovely day. It was beautiful, peaceful, and quiet as we gently floated along watching hawks and other birds near the banks. Rowing our boat gently down the stream, merrily, life really was was but a dream…

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And then it wasn’t. Suddenly the wind picked up and the sun hid behind the clouds. The current grew stronger, carrying us faster, and we decided to turn back before things got worse. Our 35 minute joyride downstream yielded an hour-long paddle against the current. We rowed and rowed and rowed with all of our might. Sometimes it felt like we weren’t moving forward at all and if either of us stopped paddling for even a moment we would quickly lose ground and drift backwards. Now cold and wet we paddled nonstop until we finally made it back to where we started. It was an adventure and totally worth it.

Tomorrow we head off on our next adventure- Western Oregon and the southwestern coast.  Thanks for reading!

 

Hitched Up: Cannon Beach and the Historic Columbia River Highway

Hitched Up: Cannon Beach and the Historic Columbia River Highway

After seeing how much Gaius loved playing on the sand back in Washington, I was really glad that our first stop in Oregon was Cannon Beach.

Home of the iconic Haystack Rock, this picturesque beach town is dog-friendly and lined with art galleries, cafes, and charming boutiques. The beach is nothing short of stunning with teal blue waves crashing along the shore and miles upon miles of soft sand as far as the eye can see. If you’re into long walks on the beach, this is definitely the place to be.

The beach also has an accessible entrance, allowing visitors of all abilities to get right down to the water. An accessible trail to the beach, parking, and restrooms are available at the Gower Street entrance. Beachgoers who use wheelchairs can also rent specialized beach wheelchairs for free, available for pick-up from the Cannon Beach City Hall building. Bravo, Cannon Beach! Click here for more information about renting a beach wheelchair at Cannon Beach.

I had seen pictures of Haystack Rock but was not expecting it to be so large. I learned that this massive hunk of stone is a popular nesting spot for puffins. We didn’t spot any puffins during our visit but there were plenty of pups on the beach having fun.

Gaius had a blast running around like he owned the place and making friends with other visitors. One even gave him some fancy duck jerky just for being cute.

Gaius was due for one of his annual vaccines so I made an appointment with the veterinarian in the neighboring town of Seaside. After his appointment we stopped off at the Seaside Farmers Market to peruse- who doesn’t love a good farmers market? We ended up taking home fresh bowls of ramen, chèvre from a local creamery, goat’s milk caramel spread, and all-natural hazelnut butter.

We also visited Hug Point State Recreation Area, just south of Cannon Beach. The beach at Hug Point is beautiful and during low tide visitors can explore its exposed caves and tide pools.

I was thrilled to see accessible parking, restrooms, and a paved trail seemingly leading to the beach.

Unfortunately, although this trail offers a great view of the beach and ocean, it ends with stairs and does not provide an accessible path down to the sand.

Next we traveled inland towards U.S. 30, also known as the Historic Columbia River Highway to check out some of the many waterfalls along the way. Our home base was Viento State Park, which sits right on the Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington, and is only about an hour east of Portland. Interstate 84 runs directly through the park, splitting it into a north and south area. The northern end houses the RV campground, day use picnic area, a nature trail that travels through the trees ending at a picturesque pond, and an accessible trail to the shore of the Columbia River.

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The southern end houses tent camping sites, a few short nature trails, and a trail that leads to the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. The State Trail is a real treat for waterfall enthusiasts. The entire trail spans between Troutdale and The Dalles with several hiking/biking segments that are accessible.

We traveled an approximately 2-mile portion of the trail between Starvation Creek and Lancaster Falls. The Starvation Creek trailhead has a paved parking lot with accessible parking, restrooms, and picnic area with a beautiful view of Starvation Creek Falls.

Heading west, the wide, paved, and mostly flat trail parallels the interstate a short distance before entering the forest and leading visitors to several waterfalls. Though there’s a bit of road noise to begin with, visitors can expect a great view of the Columbia River from the trail.

The first waterfall along the way is Cabin Creek Falls, where the best view lies directly on the paved trail.

Next up is Hole in the Wall Falls, my personal favorite from the bunch. Just off of the main trail sits an accessible picnic table in a paved viewing area that provides a grand view of the falls.

From Hole in the Wall Falls, a non-accessible dirt trail ascends steeply into the hillside passing Lancaster Falls.

The falls can be spotted approximately .02 miles past Hole in the Wall Falls from the accessible main trail, though the view is obstructed by trees.

Located about 20 minutes east of Portland. Multnomah Falls is another great accessible attraction along the Historic Columbia River Highway. The trailhead and parking area is positioned between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 84, with left-side on and off ramps. Accessible parking, restrooms, and picnic areas are onsite with a paved accessible trail to the base of the falls.

A paved, but non-accessible trail that includes a few stairs, leads from the base of the falls up to the bridge. We hiked up to the bridge but to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with the 1/2 view of the falls and felt the base of the falls was the best spot for a picture. The area was damaged by a fire last year and the trail beyond the bridge was closed during our visit. Still, the falls were lovely and next time I’d probably spend by time admiring them from the base.

During my initial trip planning I thought we would stay in Portland to explore the city for at least a week. After all, Portland is the sister-city to our Austin, TX home base and perhaps the only other city in the country to embrace weirdness.

But after experiencing nearly a month of smoke-clouded skies in Canada followed by a few weeks of gloomy rainclouds along the Washington coast, these Texans really wanted to find some sunshine before autumn set in. We did however make one trip into the city to meet up with an old friend from high school and his girlfriend. Though we opted for the less-busy east side of downtown, Portland definitely gave off an Austin vibe with it’s trendy eateries, bars, and music scene. Oh and the beards, so many beards.

We had a great time catching up, laughing, and indulging in some of the best bar food we’d ever eaten. It was a nice way to end our stay in the area as we prepared to continue south on our journey in the morning. Next stop- Oregon’s warmer and sunnier High Desert.

Thanks for reading!

Hitched Up: Olympic National Park and Mount Saint Helens

Hitched Up: Olympic National Park and Mount Saint Helens

We got lucky in Seattle with a week of clear skies but the gloomy clouds and rain were waiting for us at our next stop in Port Angeles. We had really been looking forward to reaching this point in our trip because our friends from Texas and Louisiana (who introduced us and attended to us in our wedding last year) moved to the area earlier this summer.

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We were super excited to spend time together and to explore their beautiful new home in the Pacific Northwest. The week of our arrival marked the first significant rainfall the area had seen all summer. But, we weren’t going to let a little rain spoil our fun, so we put on our jackets and headed into Olympic National Park to check out some of its waterfalls. There are dozens of waterfalls of varying types and sizes around the Olympic Peninsula, fueled by abundant rainfall and over 60 glaciers. Some of the waterfalls can only be enjoyed by kayak or boat and some are located deep in the backcountry, but many can be viewed after a short hike. 

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Our first trip was to Sol Duc Falls at the northwestern end of Olympic National Park. Accessible parking and restrooms are available at the trailhead, however the trail itself is not accessible with obstacles including stairs, rocks, and tree roots. The rainforest canopy provided some shelter from the rain as we made a short trek through the rainforest to the falls and the Sol Duc River. 

On another rainy day we hiked out to the beautiful Marymere Falls and Lake Crescent. Even in the rain, the lake was gorgeous and the misty, looming clouds gave the mountains a magical feel. 

img_7024Accessible parking and restrooms are available at the trailhead for Marymere Falls but the trail is only accessible for the first 1/2 mile. The accessible portion of the trail is packed gravel, however further down the trail and closer to the falls there are several sets of uneven stairs with handrails.

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img_7022I was eager to visit the accessible trail to Madison Creek Falls. The trail is also one of the few where pets are allowed. Accessible parking and restrooms are available at the trailhead and the trail is paved and mostly flat.

This was my favorite waterfall so far— tall and cascading, surrounded by deep green foliage. The short hike to the falls was also gorgeous as it meandered through huge moss-covered trees.

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Another accessible option from the Madison Creek Falls trailhead is taking the paved Olympic Hot Springs Road along the Elwha River. The road is closed to vehicles just beyond the trailhead parking due to a bridge washout further ahead, however the paved road is pet-friendly and can still be enjoyed by hikers, bikers, and equestrians. We walked along the road traveling through the forest, alongside the Elwha River, and over a few bridges. We stopped near one bridge and walked to the river to check out the salmon swimming upstream on their run. 

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img_7435img_7439After a few days of steady rain we had a pocket of sunshine midday so we took advantage of the opportunity and made a quick trip up to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The drive up to Hurricane Ridge was super scenic and we even spotted a black tail deer grazing on the side of the road. 

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img_7207.jpgThere are a few accessible scenic overlooks along the way, though some have walkways which are only partly accessible, starting off as paved but leading to stairs. 

The Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center has a few paved trails deemed “accessible with assistance,” defined as trails which “do not meet ADA/ABA standards, but may be passable by those with sufficient upper body strength or a friend to help.” An accessible gift shop, cafe, restroom, parking lot, and a large patio overlooking the Bailey Range is also onsite. The Cirque Rim and Big Meadows trails are paved and “accessible with assistance,” offering stunning views of the Olympic Peninsula on a clear day. The Hurricane Hill Trail is also partially “accessible with assistance,” though it was closed for construction during our visit. According to the park’s website, the project includes “improving the first 4/10 of a mile of the trail to federal accessibility standards.” Whoo-hoo! More details about accessibility in Olympic National Park can be found here.

We hiked up the High Ridge Trail (the first section is steep and marked as “accessible with assistance” from the Big Meadows Trail) to Sunrise Point. Those who are not faint of heart will enjoy the steep and steady climb up the narrow trail to the top.

img_7213With another short window of sunshine predicted in the weather forecast, we decided to head out on our bikes. We traveled a short segment of the 130-mile Olympic Discovery Trail which runs along the coast through towns and forests between Port Townsend, WA and La Push, WA. This fully accessible and mostly-paved trail has something for everyone— beaches, forest, city streets, streams, bridges, picnic spots, marinas, barren industrial facilities, you name it.

Heading east from Port Angeles we had stunning views of the coast. I loved the trail so much, cycling it from end-to-end is now on my bucket list. Gaius also enjoyed cruising along the trail and when the raindrops started to fall, we got to try out his rain cover. He didn’t seem to mind it or the rain at all. Rain or shine, riding around on the bike with Gaius in a basket is a guaranteed way to put a smile on the face of every person we meet. He never fails to gather a lot of attention.

We said goodbye to our friends and left Port Angeles to head further down the coast where this lucky little dog got to experience his first trip to the beach. As soon as his little paws hit the soft, warm sand he instantly began running circles around me as fast as he could. He was a very happy boy.

We also took a trip to Forks, home of all things Twilight, and hiked to a few gorgeous beaches. My favorite beaches have always been those that are rocky with lots of trees and these did not disappoint.

Several of the beaches have accessible overlooks, including Ruby Beach pictured above left. However, according to Olympic National Park’s website, none of their beaches have ADA-accessible trails to the shore. I usually try to write my posts in a positive tone, but I’ll admit it’s difficult to maintain after realizing my dog can easily experience the sand on a beautiful beach but a person who uses a wheelchair cannot. Also disheartening is traveling an “accessible” trail only to reach an inaccessible scenic overlook or attraction. It’s like a big tease or a really cruel joke– “Oh I see you came all this way, did you want to see the epic view that lies ahead? Just kidding, here’s a 6-inch stair that will keep you from it!” I can only begin to imagine how incredibly frustrating this must be for people who use wheelchairs or scooters.

With that said, some places are awesomely accessible, including the Mount Saint Helens Visitor Center operated by Washington State Parks. For a small admission fee, visitors can enjoy museum exhibits where they will learn about the volcanic mountain’s geology and landscape before and after the historic 1980 eruption. There’s also a theater and a fantastic walking trail through second-growth forest and wetlands. The 1-mile loop trail is accessible and travels over wooden boardwalks and packed gravel or dirt surfaces. A manual wheelchair is also available for loan.

After a brief stop at the visitor center, we drove to the Johnston Ridge Observatory at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The observatory is located at the end of State Highway 504, which passes through a few small towns and provides access to several marked scenic overlooks. We stopped at each overlook along the way, all of which are accessible, and had grand views of the volcano’s blast zone. The observatory is also super accessible with restrooms, exhibits, indoor and outdoor theaters, overlooks, trails, powered-assisted doors, and ample parking.

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Visibility wasn’t great on the day we visited but even though the clouds hid the top of the snow-capped volcano, we couldn’t complain about the view.

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We also couldn’t complain about camping in the forest and staying warm by the campfire. Since May, just about every place we’ve camped has been under a fire ban so sitting around the campfire was a real treat.

There’s still a lot more of Washington we’d love to explore someday but for now we’re on to our next stop– Oregon.

Thanks for reading.

Hitched Up: Seattle, WA

Hitched Up: Seattle, WA

We spent a few hours in Seattle last year when we were in the area for the weekend of Mitch’s cousin’s wedding. I really wanted to see Mount Rainier but I also wanted to spend a few hours in the city. We had enough time to take a glassblowing class downtown, stroll Pikes Place Market for a bit, check out exhibits at the Pacific Science Center, and have an early dinner up in the Space Needle. The skies were clear and we were treated to some pretty epic views of Mount Rainier. We did a lot in just a few short hours but there was still so much more to do and see in Seattle and the surrounding area.

Since we had more time during this visit we decided to purchase the CityPass to experience some of Seattle’s most popular attractions. The adult pass is $89 and includes vouchers for admission to:

  • Space Needle ($32.50 in the morning and $37.50 for afternoons and evenings)
  • Seattle Aquarium ($29.95)
  • Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour ($30.50)
  • Museum of Pop Culture ($28)   OR  Woodland Park Zoo ($20.95)
  • Chihuly Garden and Glass ($26)   OR   Pacific Science Center ($23.95)

Without the CityPass we would have spent $151.95 each to visit these attractions. Pass-holders have 9 days to use their vouchers, though we used all of ours in only 2 days. The CityPass vouchers cover regular admission only, so any special exhibitions that normally cost an extra fee are not included. We only paid extra once to see the Marvel exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture ($8 and totally worth it). All of the attractions are accessible and we saw plenty of accessible parking in the downtown lots and garages.

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The CityPass also includes two trips up to the Space Needle- once during the morning and once in the afternoon or evening. The catch is that the trips must be within 12 hours of each other but this is still a great way to experience the view during the day and when the city is lit up at night.

We started off our city adventure with a trip to the Museum of Pop Culture. If you were only able to see one of the museums included in the CityPass, the Museum of Pop Culture would be my choice. This place was beyond cool and to my surprise seemed more appropriate for adults than children. The Marvel exhibit was full of cool artwork, costumes, and props from the earliest issues of Captain America up to the blockbuster Black Panther and everything in between.

We had a great time strolling through the exhibit and learning about our favorite superheros. There were also a ton of life-size statues sitting (or hanging) around offering awesome photo-ops.

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The Marvel exhibit was definitely a favorite of ours but the rest of the museum was really cool too. The Sound Lab was a musician’s dreamland with instruments scattered about just waiting to be played.

There were several private sound booths with guitars, keyboards, microphones, and drums. There were also jam rooms and recording rooms set up allowing visitors to play on their own or collaborate and play together. Mitch played around with several guitars and we both had fun blending and adjusting tracks in the mixing room.

For those who appreciate listening to music more than playing it, the museum also had exhibits dedicated to local icons including Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. Other museum exhibits showcased the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres.

Next we were off to Chihuly Garden and Glass and then had dinner and dessert near the Space Needle before taking a trip up to the top. The Space Needle’s observation deck has been completely renovated since the last time we visited and includes a rotating glass floor and glass benches that recline down towards the city streets.

We’ve been on a bit of a cycling kick lately, so I was super excited when I saw that a trail travels from Issaquah to Redmond along Lake Sammamish. The trip was approximately 26 miles roundtrip, making it our longest ride to date. We were pretty sore but it was a fun experience.

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We ventured back into the city again for the harbor cruise, aquarium, and to spend time with a friend from high school and her fiancé. We lucked out with warm weather and beautiful clear skies. We had great time cruising around and checking out the marine life at the aquarium.

Afterwards we met up for dinner with our friends and they showed us around to some of their favorite spots to take in views of the city skyline. The city looked spectacular and we were able to catch a gorgeous sunset across the bay.

We also spent some time catching up with Mitch’s cousin and her husband in nearby Mukilteo. We headed into the small town to experience their beachside farmers market and lighthouse park before meeting for dinner.

The park had an awesome accessible trail that traveled along the beach and to the lighthouse. There was accessible parking, restrooms, and picnic tables. We saw lots of brown bunnies hopping through the grass near the picnic area and several harbor seals swimming along the shore.

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We really enjoyed our time in Seattle and had so much fun visiting with friends and family. Continuing in that fashion, our next stop is Port Angeles, Washington to visit our friends who recently moved from Texas. Thanks for reading!

Oh, Canada: Vancouver, B.C.

Oh, Canada: Vancouver, B.C.

Our last stop in Canada before heading back into the U.S. was Vancouver. The city scene isn’t usually our style but Vancouver was a lot of fun and had plenty of beautiful nature spots to explore. I had heard about a park with a suspension bridge and sky walk (Capilano Suspension Bridge Park) and really wanted to check it out. That is, until I saw the steep admission fee of $46 per person. Ouch! As a free alternative, we went hiking at Lynn Canyon, famous for its beautiful natural pools and suspension bridge. There were a ton of people when we arrived in the morning but we were lucky to snag parking in the overflow lot, which was completely full by the time we left. The crowds seemed to be centered around the suspension bridge and thinned out on the trails.

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IMG_6179 2I was hoping there would be better accessibility at Lynn Canyon but unfortunately none of the trails are accessible with the exception of the gravel service and emergency access roads (neither of which are particularly scenic). Despite lacking accessibility, the park itself was beautiful with lots of moss-covered trees and ferns in every shade of green. We had a peaceful hike on the Baden Powell Trail’s wooden boardwalk and saw only a few others along the way.

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We had a few days of stormy weather, which meant we stayed inside the RV listening to the rain, reading, and watching Netflix. The storms also cleared out a lot of the smoke from nearby wildfires. When the sunshine returned we went out on the bikes with Gaius one day. Our RV park was located right near a nice hike and bike trail system and we rode to a dog park where Gaius got to run around and play for awhile. Usually Gaius doesn’t get to enjoy dog parks because he’s mean to the other dogs (especially large dogs) but luckily we had this place all to ourselves.

We also spent a day hiking at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. The park is located in a beautiful rainforest that flourishes along the rocky coast. Hiking trails travel through lush forest canopy and lead to beaches and scenic overlooks. The Beacon Lane trail doubles as a wide gravel access road that provides a direct and accessible route through the forest and to the lighthouse lookout. There are accessible restrooms and a drinking fountain near the end of the trail.

Other trails in the park were only partially accessible, including the Juniper Loop Trail which starts off as accessible packed gravel trail at the parking lot but leads to areas where large rocks obstruct the path. Segments of other trails had steep inclines, deep stairs (some without railings), and traveled over large boulders. A few large accessible parking spaces are available in the parking lot.

Visitors aren’t allowed inside the lighthouse but a paved driveway leads down to a nice lookout. The park also has a few small beaches and offers a great view of the city from across the bay.

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I think my favorite experience in Vancouver was riding the trail around the town of Port Coquitlam. Many visitors complete the trail in segments but we decided to do the entire 18-mile loop at once. The trail truly has a little something for everyone and is also super accessible. We started off on a packed-gravel trail that passed through a city park, then traveled a short distance down a paved trail along the highway before riding alongside the Coquitlam River.

The ride along the shore was beautiful and easy with very few inclines. The gravel and dirt sections of the trail were flat and free of obstacles. The paved sections of the trail were nice and smooth and there were accessible restrooms along the way. The route is marked with signage, making it very easy to follow. The trail passes through most of the city’s parks so there are plenty of spots to stop for a picnic or other activities.

We saw several signs along the way warning of bears in the area and had our bear spray packed just in case. Seeing how populated and active the area was, I honestly thought our chances of seeing a bear were pretty slim.

I was wrong. At about 9 miles into the trail we traveled through a beautiful wooded area along a stream. We turned a corner and no more than 15-20 feet in front of us was a gigantic black bear sitting in the middle of the trail. We slammed on our brakes and our bikes skid a bit sending a poof of dust and dirt into the air. I screamed, not because it was a bear, but because I did not expect to see anything around the corner. Luckily, the bear was startled and sort of jumped up like it was spooked, quickly flipping his head and running off into the trees (kind of like those videos where cats are startled by cucumbers). Mitch quickly grabbed his bear spray but thankfully the bear continued into the woods. We hopped back onto our bikes and cautiously continued down the trail being sure to make a lot of noise. We didn’t see the bear or any others again but still can’t stop talking about the experience.

A section of the trail was closed so we had to take a short detour down a city street before meeting back up with the trail. Near the end of our loop the trail passed a bar and pub (no minors allowed) where we decided to stop for lunch. There was a bike rack on the side of the pub near the pier where we locked up our bikes before we headed to the patio for some grub. It was a great place to stop for a bite to eat and to rest from the long and exciting ride.

We also utilized Vancouver’s awesome (and accessible) public transportation system and spent a day exploring downtown. Using public transportation is great because it’s usually affordable, it’s better for the environment, and it takes away the stress of driving and parking downtown. We purchased $10 day passes from the RV park, which gave us access to Vancouver’s buses, trains, and ferries.

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We visited Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood and home to the antique, whistling steam clock and some of the cities most notable restaurants.

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We also visited Stanley Park and walked along the Seawall. The Seawall follows along the perimeter of Stanley park and was built to slow coastal erosion. The entire trail is roughly a 15-mile long loop offering stunning views of the coast. The trail is paved and very accessible. Accessible parking is available in the various lots that provide access to the Seawall. Cyclists are permitted to ride the loop via a one-way bike trail that travels counterclockwise. Visitors using the pedestrian trail are permitted to travel in either direction.

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Along the Seawall there’s a small accessible water park for kids with accessible restrooms and a cool “kid-dryer” or walk/roll through human dryer.  There’s also a small park with beautiful totem poles. These brightly colored cedar poles tell the story of the First Nations people and their culture.

We finished off our day with dinner and drinks in Gastown at the Steamworks microbrewery. We sat out on the patio and shared a bowl of seafood chowder as busy city life bustled by. We followed dinner with gelato from Bella Gelateria. I had read their salted pecan flavor had won awards in Italy. After trying a sample topped with maple syrup, I could see why it was such a hit. Mitch chose salted caramel and I went with a double scoop of salted pecan with maple syrup and matcha green tea. Still dreaming about it today…

It was hard to believe we’d been in Canada for a whole month and that our Canadian adventure was over. Still, we were ready to trade in liters for gallons and kilometers for miles and make our way back home. Next stop- Seattle!

Thanks for reading.