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: 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.

Columbia River access

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.

Oh, Canada: Jasper National Park and Dry Camping Through British Columbia

Oh, Canada: Jasper National Park and Dry Camping Through British Columbia

Next on our journey through southwest Canada, we headed north towards Jasper National park via Canada’s Icefields Parkway. As the name would suggest, Icefields Parkway travels through the Canadian Rockies alongside several magnificent, icy glaciers (Crowfoot, Athabasca, and Dome) which can be viewed from the road or accessed via a short hike. There are several parking lots and scenic overlooks where visitors can get out of their cars, explore the scenery, and take pictures. Since we were pulling the RV, we skipped most of the congested parking areas along the way and I took pictures from the truck.

The drive was gorgeous though the skies were still looking pretty smoky. When we arrived at our campground I was so relived to see spacious campsites nestled in the trees. All of Jasper National Park’s four reservable campgrounds (and three of its seven first-come-first-serve campgrounds) have accessible campsites available, with paved parking pads and accessible restrooms and picnic tables. The accessible picnic tables are longer on one end, which allows someone who uses a wheelchair the ability to sit at the table without the bench seat or table legs getting in the way.

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We loved the view from our campsite so much that we didn’t feel much like leaving to go hiking or sightseeing. We ventured out once to get some shopping done in the town of Jasper and to refuel. Another day we made a quick trip to see Athabasca Falls.

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The trailhead for the falls is located right off of Icefields Parkway and a short paved trail leads directly to the river and falls. There is also access via Highway 93A, however this route was closed for construction during our visit. The trailhead parking area has RV parking and accessible parking and restrooms. There are several overlooks for the falls, river, and canyon, but only a few are accessible. Beyond the first few overlooks for the river and the head of the falls, the trail continues to several short staircases with handrails.

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Back at camp we met up with another young couple who is traveling the U.S. and Canada in an RV. Months ago I met Kim, Mike, and their dogs Pacey and Sierra through social media and we have been following each other’s travel journey ever since. We discovered we would be staying at the same campground in Jasper National Park during the same time and decided to meet for dinner. We had a great time chatting about our experiences and enjoying each other’s company.

img_6150.jpgWe didn’t feel ready to leave Jasper but with the smoke becoming worse each day we hoped we would find clearer skies at our next stop, Mount Robson. For the next seven nights we would be dry camping (meaning no electricity, water, or sewer hookups) in the Mount Robson and North Thompson area as we made our way southwest towards Vancouver. Up until this point in our trip, the longest we’ve dry camped was 2 nights. In dry camping situations, many RVers use generators to supply their rigs with electrical power. Though convenient, generators guzzle gas and are expensive, heavy, and noisy. We deiced against purchasing a generator until we knew whether or not we would really need one. After spending a full week without any hookups, we found our RV is well-equipped and can handle most dry camping situations like a champ. We have solar power that supplies us with enough energy to run our water pump, lights, entertainment center, thermostat, USB power outlets, and fans. Propane fuel powers our stove and oven for cooking, keeps our refrigerator and freezer cool, and supplies us with hot water and heat. The only appliances or features we cannot use without electrical hookups or a generator is the microwave oven, air conditioning, and 12-volt electrical outlets. Unless we dry camp someplace with high enough temperatures to need air conditioning, I can’t see us ever using a generator. 

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In the Mount Robson area we took a trip to watch the chinook salmon jumping up Rearguard Falls. The salmon travel 800 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean back to their home river where they will spawn and then die. They can only be seen at Rearguard Falls during the month of August, so our timing was just perfect. We kept our eyes on the falls and watched as a salmon leapt out of the water every minute or so. Though the salmon are most active during the early mornings or late evenings, we had luck seeing them around 3:00 p.m.

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The upper viewing area is accessible, and though the packed gravel trail down from the parking area is somewhat steep there are no major obstructions. The falls can be viewed from an upper deck however the lower viewing area is not accessible and includes a long wooden boardwalk with a few stairs and handrails. The parking area does not have reserved accessible parking, however several stalls are large enough to accommodate smaller RVs and the parallel stalls can accommodate vehicles with wheelchair ramps and lifts.

The Mount Robson and North Thompson area is home to several other spectacular waterfalls. We visited only a handful— Overlander Falls, Spahats Falls, Helmcken Falls, and Clearwater Falls.

Out of these locations, only Spahats and Helmcken were partly accessible with accessible parking and restrooms and dirt or gravel trails leading to openings where the falls could be viewed from a distance. However, some of the designated overlooks at these locations, which provided closer views of the falls, included stairs with handrails. There was a nifty map posted at the trailhead with a chart that showed parks and attractions in the area, including accessibility details.  

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The campsites we stayed at were all beautiful, quiet, and several were waterfront, overlooking blue rivers or lakes. Most of the campgrounds we stayed in were very remote and we had no cell service, which meant we spent less time on our phones and more time lounging in our hammock and enjoying the views.

We did a little bit of mountain biking and swimming as well. Gaius had a lot of fun playing outside and sniffing his way through the trees, but I’m not sure how much he enjoyed wading through the water.

Next we’re headed back to the city as we explore the last stop on our adventure through Canada— Vancouver. Thanks for reading!

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!

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!

Hitched Up: All Around Colorado Springs, CO

Hitched Up: All Around Colorado Springs, CO

Mueller State Park:

We bounced back from a not-so-pleasant stay at Lake Pueblo State Park with an awesome visit to Mueller State Park, just west of Colorado Springs. We stayed for two nights nestled up the mountains and tackled about 12 of the 55 miles of hiking trails. The trails system was beautifully intertwined, making it easy to hop between trails and see a variety of terrain. Steep climbs led to scenic overlooks with views of Pikes Peak and green mountain ranges, while switchbacks descended into groves of aspen trees and traveled through grand meadows with reflective ponds.

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The trails and campground were green and pristine. I don’t think I saw one piece of trash on the trails or at our campsite. Pets are not allowed on any trails, so Gaius enjoyed the view of the forest from the trailer.

Accessibility Notes: The 1/2 mile Dragonfly Nature Trail is Mueller State Park’s only trail designated as wheelchair accessible.  However, several other trails are smooth and wide and could be accessible for some (see image below). There is accessible parking at each trailhead and restrooms include wide doorways and grab bars. There are also a few large, fully paved campsites reserved for visitors with disabilities. 

The Visitor Center has accessible parking, including a few long parking spaces for RVs. Just outside the Visitor Center, sits a scenic overlook with an accessible shaded gazebo. Inside the Visitor Center there are nature exhibits with wide aisles and accessible drinking fountains and restrooms.

After our glorious but short trip to Muller State Park we headed to Colorado Springs for a visit with my long-time friend Patti and her family. I hadn’t seen Patti in seven years, but she was just as I remembered her- FUN, funny, bubbly, and so sweet she would give you the shirt off of her back. She and her husband invited us over for dinner and we spent the night chatting and catching up. Mitch’s sister Elee happened to be passing through Colorado Springs with her two pups and Patti invited her to stop by and join the fun.

The next morning we ventured out to explore Garden of the Gods and historic Manitou Springs.

Garden of the Gods:

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We took Gaius to the very pet-friendly Garden of the Gods for what was supposed to be some light hiking. Even with maps in-hand and posted every 50 yards we still ended up getting lost on the paved trails and found ourselves endlessly circling around the same rock formations. Gaius was a little trooper and carried on through the crowds receiving lots of attention and praise from kids and other visitors.

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The park was beautiful- but for whatever reason I didn’t snap many photos.

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Accessibility Notes: Several of the parking areas, including the high Point Overlook, include accessible parking. The large North Main Parking Lot includes accessible parking and restrooms. There’s also a small parking lot designated as “handicap only” with easy access to the paved Perkins Central Garden Trail.

The Perkins Central Garden Trail is wide and flat, located in the heart of the park, and guides visitors to 10 of the 19 notable rock formations. By far, the coolest thing I spotted in the park was an accessible parking space with sign labeled, “Think of Me, Keep it Free.”

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What a brilliant idea! Of course I had to know more, so I did some research and learned the signs can be found statewide and are an initiative of the Colorado Advisory Council for Persons with Disabilities. The Council identified that people who have disabilities face challenges parking due to able-bodied drivers occupying designated accessible parking spaces. The signs help remind drivers that by occupying an accessible parking space, they have denied a person with disabilities their civil right to access. “Think of Me, Keep it Free” signage can be downloaded from the Council’s website for free and posted along with ADA signage in front of accessible parking spaces. The Council has worked on other public awareness initiatives to improve access for people with disabilities, including their creative Excuses vs. Reasons campaign that uses real excuses able-bodied people have given to justify parking in accessible parking spaces. The takeaway- No plates. No Placard. No parking.

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We dropped off our tired pup back at home base and then met Patti and her kiddos in historic Manitou Springs for more adventuring. We set out on a mission to sample all eight of the public mineral springs scattered throughout the town. It felt almost like a scavenger hunt trying to find dribbling springs that were sometimes quaintly hidden behind shops or tucked away down ordinary streets. We picked up a handy brochure which revealed the mineral content of the springs- bicarbonate, calcium, chloride, copper, fluoride, iron, lithium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, silica, sodium, sulfate, and zinc. Yum! We saw lots of folks filling empty jugs with spring water and others taking small sips from their hands. A few of the springs had a strong chalky or metallic taste, especially those with the highest mineral content. However, most of the springs were mild with a natural carbonation. Think Topo Chico on tap! We bottled up some of our favorite water to go.

Unfortunately, I became wildly ill that night after indulging my palate with the healing mineral waters. I’ll spare you the details but assure you it wasn’t pretty. But, before the long night I spent in our tiny RV bathroom we made happy memories playing games at the Penny Arcade.

Seven Falls:

We also took a trip to the cascading, not-for-the-faint-of-heart Seven Falls.

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I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I learned the falls can only be viewed after taking a shuttle to the trailhead and purchasing admission. Can you say “tourist trap?” However, I have to admit the falls and surrounding grounds were beautiful and I had a lot of fun.

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As the name implies, Seven Falls consists of seven cascading waterfalls. After taking a quick (and free) shuttle ride up into the mountain, visitors hike about one mile to reach the base of the falls. A tram to the falls is also available for $2 roundtrip. The Eagle’s Nest viewing platform provides a full view of the falls and can be accessed by taking two flights of stairs or hopping in the elevator.

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View from the Eagle’s Nest.

Reaching the top of the falls requires climbing the two very steep flights of stairs seen in the photo above.

Accessibility Notes: Accessible parking is available in the parking area for the shuttle. The shuttles are all equipped with wheelchair lifts. The trail to the falls is a wide paved road with a few gradual climbs. Accessible restrooms are available. There is elevator access to the Eagle’s Nest viewing platform situated across the falls, but unfortunately stairs provide the only access to the top of the falls.

Overall, we had a great time visiting the Colorado Springs area and really enjoyed seeing family and spending time with friends. With fond memories and our RV in tow, we’re hitched up and headed towards our next destination: Denver.

Thanks for reading!