For this trip I ended up booking us on all one way flights. It was much less expensive to do it that way and I was able to get better flight times. We flew from Tampa (TPA) to Portland (PDX) to Bozeman (BZN) and then back to Tampa (TPA). We rented a car right from the airport since there wasn’t much of a price difference and started our trek towards Astoria, which is about two hours from Portland. I was told by the rental company that there are no tolls in Portland and after this trip I can say I never encountered one. We also rented a car in Bozeman so we could drive into the park. I would recommend getting an SUV or something equivalent since the weather in the park varies a lot.
Where To Stay
We stayed in this super cute shipping container home. I have been contemplating building one of these or possibly a tiny house and this little gem seemed like the perfect place to see if I would actually like it. I was a little skeptical when I found this on Airbnb since it was listed as having a sleeper sofa but I am so glad I booked this. The bed was SO comfortable; even better than the one I have at home! Michelle was an amazing host and met us when we arrived to give us a quick tour. The container itself used to be a coffee shop but was retrofitted to be a single family home. The place was super cute and so functional. We enjoyed every minute we spent here! It was stocked with all the necessitates including coffee and a k-cup machine. We will absolutely return back to this wonderful place!
Places To Eat
Things To Do
Columbia River Maritime Museum: Learn about the "Graveyard of the Pacific" as well as weather, local fishing and coast guard history. Since the Columbia River bar is always changing and the weather is so unpredictable over 2000 ships have sunk in the area since 1792. To this day crossing the bar is extremely dangerous and often requires an experienced "bar pilot" to navigate shipping barges through the area. You can also explore The Columbia, a ship that was used as a floating lighthouse. This has since been replaced by a floating structure that no longer needs a crew to man it. Tom and I really enjoyed this museum and learned a lot! If you are active military this museum will give you free admission (which is beyond awesome) so be sure to show your ID.
Astoria Column: Head up to the top of the column if you happen to get a break from the clouds and rain. This park is one of the most visited in all of Oregon and it is no wonder why. You can climb the 164 steps to the top of the column that is situated up on the hill to get a breathtaking 360 view of the area. It costs $5.00 for a pass to park at the top of the hill, which is good for the entire year. It can be very windy at the top of the column so be sure to bring a jacket to keep warm.
Downtown Shopping: Spend a little time walking around and exploring some of the antique and vintage shops downtown. Be on the lookout for some furry friends since deer tend to be everywhere... even downtown near where we went shopping. There are some pretty unique little places in town like Vintage Hardware. Be sure to stop by this store and play the world's largest game of Operation.
Where To Stay
We stayed in a cute and very eco-friendly detached bungalow in the city. We loved the electric fire place and cozy bedroom. The area was close to food and had easy access to the highway so you can explore the surrounding parks, scenic drives and waterfalls.
Places To Eat
Portland has so many places to eat. Wherever you end up staying there will be some unique places to try. Below are a couple recommendations but I would honestly just walk around until you find something funky to try. That being said Voodoo donuts is a “must do” in Portland. Everyone will ask you if you have been here when you tell them you have visited the area. So I would stop by and try a couple donuts. I liked it because they had vegan options and Tom liked it because they put bacon strips on a maple eclair donut.
Things To Do
Unfortunately, I came down with a really bad flu like illness about five hours into landing in Portland so I spent most of my time sleeping in the Airbnb. However, here is a list of what we had planned on doing in the area based on local recommendations as well as a few things we did manage to get to. There is a lot to do around Portland and many people recommend not having any plans so you can sort of just go with what’s happening at the moment.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana
Where To Stay
I HIGHLY recommend Heidis awesome cabin retreat! The views are unbelievable and it was awesome eating breakfast watching elk, pronghorn and deer roam around in the front of the house. The cabin is made out of reclaimed barn and has amazing antiques and thoughtful touches including cooking supplies.
Places To Eat
Things To Do
Drive Yellowstone National Park: This is by far one of my favorite parks, which is why I constantly go back and write about it. I recommend driving as far as you can into the Lamar Valley and then working your way back. You never know what you are going to see so make sure those cameras are ready. There are a lot of scenic pullouts to stop at. Please use these since it can be unsafe to stop in the middle of the road.
Hot Potting: This was by far one of the "gems" of this trip. It is a quick hike down from the parking area to the area where you can soak in a natural hot spring. It is really important that you DO NOT get into the boiling river. You should only swim in the areas where the boiling river is mixing with the Gardner river. This is what helps to keep the temperature from scalding the swimmer. That being said there have been unpredictable temperature swings due to hydrological changes near the river which can cause scalding injuries. Be sure to check that the water temperature feels ok before jumping in. Be sure to check for animals along the trail down to the swimming area. We had a couple close encounters with elk and bison.
Hiking: One of the amazing things about Yellowstone is how easy it is to find hiking trails along the main road. You can drive around until you find something that looks appealing, park the car and head off on a winter wonderland adventure.
Where To Stay
Our downtown apartment was just perfect for what we needed. It was two streets over from main street so we could easily walk to restaurants and shopping. It was super cozy and we were lucky enough to get it really discounted due to the season and some construction that was going on down the street. The area was also super close to the Gallatin National Forest, which made getting to hiking spots super easy.
Places To Eat
Things To Do
Museum of the Rockies: Tom and I love dinosaurs and outer space so we had to stop by the Museum of the Rockies. We checked out one of the featured films in the planetarium (which is included with admission) before starting our adventure through the museum. This place had so many amazing dinosaur finds and information. They did a fantastic job blending molds with real artifacts to create full sized dinosaurs.
Hiking to Palisades Falls: This hike was totally worth the terrifying drive to get there. This is were you will definitely want an SUV, preferably with 4WD. We did make it in our little car but there were some touch and go moments. The hike itself is tucked away in the National Forest. The frozen waterfall sits around 7200 feet of elevation and is completely mesmerizing.
Main Street Shopping: The downtown area of Bozeman is so cute and has some pretty awesome shops. I was really happy to find Revolvr, an all mens store. While Tom was looking around at some funky socks we were offered some craft beer to enjoy in the store. Just saying beer plus socks equals shopping perfection!
Missouri Headwaters State Park: Our last day in Bozeman we had an afternoon flight so I tried to find a quick hike that was close to the airport. Missouri did not disappoint. We had the entire park to ourselves and found the views to be worth the quick little hike.
Reusable water bottle
Ankle socks x 2
Sock liners x 2
Winter socks x 2
Nano puff jacket
Buff and/or Scarf
T-shirt and shorts (sleeping)
Camera, charger and SD cards
Phone and charger
Laundry pods x 2-3
Straightener and/or Blowdryer
Medication and First Aid Kit
I flew into Oakland airport because it was closer for the return trip from Yosemite. You could also fly into San Francisco depending on available flights and times. My dad was already in San Francisco for a meeting so my mom and I rented a car, then picked him up and started the hour and a half drive to Napa Valley. If you are planning on heading to Yosemite in the winter be sure to check road conditions because they are constantly changing and sometimes chains, 4WD or snow tires will be required.
Napa is absolutely stunning and such a serene place! If you are choosing a time to go I highly recommend fall when the leaves have started to change. I was there in November and the hills were just covered in yellows and reds. It was absolutely beautiful. I spent two nights at the Chateau de vie, which I also highly recommend!! Peter and Philip run this wonderful bed and breakfast. They are super sweet and make a fantastic breakfast that will keep you full till dinner. You can enjoy the B&B's hot tub, wine and cheese in the afternoon or take a stroll through the vineyards. Napa is home to some of the most famous wineries in the United States so finding a place for wine tasting is not difficult. As you drive down the main road pick a winery that looks interesting to you and pop in. Some wineries are by appointment only so if you know of a particular one you absolutely want to go to make sure to double check if you can stop in without an appointment or if you need to make one. Some wineries charge for tastings while others do not. For example, I tasted at Twomey winery, where a tasting cost 15 dollars per person. We bought a bottle of wine after the tasting and received a discounted tasting and two wine glasses. I'm not sure how customary that is but I recommend this winery if you are in the area. Just a quick side note about drinking; police are looking for drunk driving so make sure you have a safe way back to wherever you are staying.
The Cheese Factory
On the way to the National Seashore Park we stopped off at the world famous cheese factory to try some samples. If you happen to be passing by this place I suggest you stop in and try some cheese. It is absolutely delicious! I got super lucky and found some organic soap in the small shop so I grabbed one of those to take home.
We headed to the national seashore from Napa and it was roughly a 1-2 hour drive depending on what you wanted to see. We headed out to the lighthouse at the very top of the National Seashore Park. Once you arrive at the lighthouse you take a quick 0.4-mile hike uphill to the visitor center and viewing platform. From here you can walk down 300 steps, which are equivalent to thirty flights of stairs to see the actual lighthouse. Sometimes people see whales from this location so make sure to keep an eye on the ocean. The park is also polluted with deer and falcons. The deer are much darker then I am used to seeing, so they are a bit harder to spot against the landscape, but I assure you they are there.
On the way into or out of the park be sure to stop at the Point Reyes abandoned boat. It's located behind a general store. When you are driving to the park you will see it on the right hand side of the road. The general store has signs posted that they will tow your car if you park in their lot so try to grab street parking. It's just a quick walk out to the highly photographed and famous boat. When I was there they had a restoration project going on so try to keep to the trail so the vegetation doesn't get disturbed. It can be a little mucky on the trail and by the boat so I recommend closed toed shoes.
Yosemite National Park
I don't think anyone can tell you how magnificent Yosemite is. I think it's something you just have to experience for yourself. Standing in a valley, carved by a glacier, looking up at a 3000 foot granite rock face is an unbelievable experience. It's even better when the sky is blue and there is snow on the trees.
Entrance Fees: Anyone driving into the park can purchase a private vehicle pass for 20 dollars, which gives you access to the park for a week. You can also walk or bike into the park for 10 dollars per person.
Climate: Expect everything in Yosemite. It can be raining one second and then sunny the next. Make sure you bring layers and a rain coat into the park since temperature and weather can change so quickly.
Lodging: There are eight places to stay inside the park not including campsites. Depending on what type of accommodation you are looking for they have everything from rustic cabins to a luxurious historical lodge. Below is information about availability and pricing.
Yosemite Lodge: Hotel starting at $200
Wawona: Lodge starting at $160
White Wolf: Closed for construction (as of 2015)
Tuolumne Meadows Lodge: Cabins starting at $127
High Sierra: Backcountry tent cabins starting at $98
Housekeeping Camp: Cabins starting at $160
Curry Village: Cabins and motel rooms starting at $126
Ahwahnee: Historical Lodge starting at $491
Shuttle Service: Yosemite provides a free shuttle service that I recommend you use. They have stops all over the park, especially at places that have very limited parking (i.e. Trail heads). The shuttle runs every ten or twenty minutes depending on the season and the time. Not only is this super convenient but the buses are hybrid vehicles, which help cut down on emissions. Go green and ride the tram!
Hiking: There are lots of hiking options in the park. Some areas close for winter so make sure to check on that if you will be there when it’s “off season”. I was unable to hike to the oldest sequoia due to construction, but I guess that means I'll just need to make a second trip. If you are looking for a strenuous hike with waterfall views I recommend vernal falls. It's roughly three miles and has an elevation gain of around 1000 feet. It is straight uphill so be prepared when you set out. Half dome is the parks iconic trail and is a 16 mile round trip hike. Permits are required for this trail and hikers will have to climb a cable latter to reach their final destination. Many people make it to the latter but never make the climb up. No matter where you hike be sure to have enough water, snacks and layers for changing weather.
Animal Spotting: The amount of scenic views packed into Yosemite can easily make a person forget that there is also wildlife in the park, but if you are looking in the right places you might just catch a glimpse of some amazing animals. The first coyote I saw was walking by a bus stop pick-up and made his way past some shops and eventually into the woods. I never would have expected a coyote be roaming where all these people were, but he was there nonetheless. I also saw deer by the village inn gift shop; another weird place to find animals. Keep your eyes peeled since animals are unpredictable, especially in this park.
Bears: I heard all this hype about bears in the park and never actually saw one. Total bummer! That being said there are around 500 bears in the park, all of which have become very sneaky at stealing people food. The park service has asked visitors to use food storage areas and containers as well as to make sure that nothing is left in cars. The idea is to keep the bears wild and all the park visitors safe. Check out this link for extra information on bear encounters.
Napa is a stunning place with rolling hills that are just filled with grape vines. It makes for excellent pictures, especially when the sun cooperates and hits the hills just right. I would recommend a wide angle lens for shots here. The national seashore had a mix of scenery and wildlife so I would recommend bringing a long lens for wildlife and a wide angle for scenic shots. Yosemite is one of the most scenic national parks in the country and depending on where you are you can get some fantastic shots. I was lucky enough to encounter a playful coyote looking for a snack in a snowy field. He hunted a bit and then came straight to me. I was face to face with the most photogenic coyote I have ever seen. If you don't mind carrying the gear I would bring everything you have. You certainly don't want to miss a great shot because you didn't bring your long lens and teleconverter.
Beanie or Buff
Reusable water bottle
Closed toed shoes
Fishing with Relentless
If you are looking to get some awesome time on the water and experience some great fishing then I recommend heading to Islamorada in the Keys. The middle keys are known for their fishing and it is pretty easy to find a charter to take you out. My family and I decided to head out of Bud N' Mary's Marina with Relentless Charters, which I highly recommend! We were catching fish when no one else was because the captain made sure to get live bait before we headed out. We also ended up with the biggest and most fish at the dock; we ended up giving away some fish to the crew since the coolers we had weren't big enough. The fishing trip we did specifically target Tuna, which meant a nice ride out the Humps. I was thinking I would be lucky to catch two or three tuna. Instead, there were so many fish on I was reeling like crazy for about four straight hours. The only reason we stopped fishing was because we ran out of bait, which is a great problem to have.
As a side note, I spent a lot of time reeling in what probably would have been my biggest tuna. Unfortunately, when I got the tired guy to the boat a huge bull shark hit it from underneath and stole have my fish. Not so great for dinner but it was an epic thing to watch!
Below are some charter boats (other than the relentless) that leave out of Bud N' Mary's with the size and price as of October 2015. I have never used another boat out of this marina so I cannot speak to how good they are but everything is worth a shot at least once.
Where to Stay
There are tons of places to stay in Islamorada, some being more expensive then others. If you will be leaving out of Bud N' Mary"s either with Relentless or another charter you can stay in the hotel right on site. This makes its easy in the morning when you have to get up early to be at the boat. From my room it was about 10 steps to the boat. The marina bait shop does have coffee, but its not great. I am alright with admitting I am a bit of a coffee snob so if you are like me I would bring some with you to make in the morning.
Where to Eat
*If you don't mind driving back into Key Largo stop in at The Fish House(Mile Marker. i ate here growing up and still continue to go back because its awesome. Its an expensive place but well worth it. When in the Keys eat like a local; try out the Matecumbe!
* You do not need to bring fishing gear since this will be provided to you.
Accessing the Park
Glacier Park International Airport is located roughly 30 minutes from the west entrance of Glacier National Park. This airport is located in Kalispell and is the closest airport to the park. From here you can rent a car and head towards the park.
You will need a pass to be in the park and this will be checked at all of the entrances. You can purchase park passes for a single vehicle for the week. It costs 25 dollars for a summer pass and 15 for a winter pass. Summer rates run from May 1 to October 31 and winter rates run from November 1 to April 30.
Things to Do
1. Road to the Sun: This is a beautiful scenic drive when the sun is out. The road is about 50 miles long and takes roughly two hours to complete, but this is very dependent upon how often you stop to take pictures or just marvel at the scenery. Traffic can get very heavy as the day rolls on so getting their early would be very beneficial. The highest point is Logan's Pass at over 6,000 feet. There is a visitor center here and this is a good spot to look for sheep up on the mountain. You can either drive the road in your personal car or take a tour with Red Bus Tours. I recommended checking the parks site for information on the road because parts of it can be closed at certain times of the year and they will also provide information on any roadwork being done so you can prepare accordingly. The first day I drove the road it was overcast and socked in, but the next day was absolutely gorgeous!
2. Rafting: I went with Montana Rafting Company (Glacier Guides) on an overnight float trip. We slept at the North Fork hostel, which was very cozy. The owner's name is Oliver and he is such a nice guy! There is a full kitchen and separate rooms with bunks. You can even stay in some retrofitted train cars. The float trip started around noon and ended in the afternoon the next day. There are three forks in the river, which provides some options for rafting conditions. If you don't want to spend the night out I would recommend doing a day trip because the river and the scenery are absolutely beautiful.
3. Hiking: There are great hiking trails all over the park but I think some of the best hiking is on the East Side of the park in the Many Glacier area. There are some great trails that hike around Lake Grinnel and Lake Josephine. To get to Many Glacier you have to leave the East side of the park, drive north and then re-enter the park from Highway 89.
4. Horse Back Riding: We went with Swann Mountain Outfitters on an overnight horseback trip. They are able to take the horses into the West Side of the park, which many other outfitters are not allowed to do. The first day we spent six hours on the horse before arriving at our canvas tent site. Awesome day but the next morning our butts were not that happy. That night we had a cookout and fire. They provide other day trip options if you don't want to do an overnight trip.
5. Polebridge Mercantile (aka "The Merc"): If you do the overnight rafting trip and stay at the North Fork hostel, you will be within walking distance of the merc, which can be very dangerous to your waistline. If you aren't rafting I recommend making the drive to this hidden gem and ordering some of the fantastic baked goods and coffee. I highly recommended ordering the bear claw; one to eat there and maybe a few more to go. There is also a book lending library across the road from the merc. You can choose a new book to read and/ or drop one off if you are done.
These little berries deserve their own section. They are closely related to blueberries but I think taste nothing like them. Huckleberries are a local secret so you will have to do some legwork to find them but it will be worth your time. Keep in mind that you share the woods with bears and they also love huckleberries so I suggest avoiding early morning and late afternoon. I would also pick with a friend and talk loudly to keep "Yogi" from wandering into your picking area. As far as gear you will need a bucket and a sense of adventure.
If you don't have time to pick, you aren't there during the season or you just want to try out some goods there are always places to buy syrups, jams and other goodies. I love the huckleberry jam so if you are taking requests I recommend you pick some up. The other must try huckleberry item is huckleberry pie. Almost every restaurant has it and some places like "The Huckleberry Patch" will even bake it fresh and ship it to you in another state.
Glacier is home to both grizzlies and black bears. The east side of the park is heavily populated with grizzlies. While hiking I smelled and heard some grunting from a few bears, although I never actually saw any of them. Most attacks happen because the bear is surprised so make sure to let the bears know you are there. Check out the survival tips link for more tips and information on bear safety.
Bangor is a good place to stay if you get in late at the airport and do not want to make the drive to Bar Harbor. There is a downtown area that has some cute shops and restaurants. If you do head downtown to eat or shop do not park in the local garage if you think you will be there later than 9pm. They lock the gate and your care will be stuck in there. Just drive around and find a side street to park on. I did this and found parking in a few minutes. I ate at Blaze, which was fantastic and I highly recommend. On my last day in town I actually went to the local theater to see Jurassic World. It was a cute theater and tickets were cheap! The guy behind the counter was looking at me like I was crazy because I was so happy to only be paying seven dollars to see a movie. I also drove by Stephen Kings house. It is really easy to find and if you are lucky maybe there will be some crows in the driveway to spice up your photo.
I stopped in Ellsworth on the way to Bar Harbor. The weather was pretty bad and it was supposed to continue raining all day so I checked out some of the sports shops, L.L. Bean Outlet and TJ Maxx. I love checking out different TJ Maxx stores in different states; each one has something unique to the area. I found some Patagonia clothes in this one that will be put to good use on the next trip. As I came out of my last shop I saw this lobster truck in the parking lot and instantly knew I was officially in Maine!
Things To Do
Bar Harbor has tons of shopping and I mean tons. Main Street is pretty big and there are shops tucked away on the side streets as well. I would leave just a little extra room (probably more than you think) in your bag for whatever items you purchase. Below are some of the shops I went into and thought were fun:
Bar Harbor is packed with great places to eat. Each one has its own atmosphere and spin on food. The best advice I received before heading to Maine was to walk around and find my own favorite places. I am passing this advice onto you. These are a couple places I ate at and thought were good but be adventurous and find your little slice of food heaven.
Acadia National Park
The park is open 24 hours a day so if you already have a pass you can enter anytime. If you need to purchase a pass you can get them between 8:30 and 4:30. This is a very organized park. There is a scenic 27-mile loop that goes around the park. Most of it is one way with two lanes, which is great for stopping and enjoying the scenes. Cars that wish to stop and take pictures can park in the far right lane, leaving the left lane open for traffic to pass. The only downside to this park is that I saw very few animals. That being said there were beautiful scenery shots, great picnic spots and beautiful beaches.
*If you are in the park during falcon nesting time the precipice trail and surrounding area will be closed. Other than that everything else should be open.
If you head into the park you should eat at the Jordon Pond House. They are known for their popovers and afternoon tea. It is extremely busy so call ahead of time and get a reservation. The house is accessible from multiple entrances and has two parking lots.
Bar Island is located behind Harborside Hotel. At high tide it is not accessible by foot but at low tide you are able to walk across, look for beach glass and build a cairn. Before you head over be sure to check the tides and see when low tide is. The button below links to a tide chart for Bar Harbor. You want to cross as early as possible for two reasons. First, you want to have as much time on the island as possible since beach glass is hard to find. Second, you do not want to get stuck on the island. When the tide comes back in it comes in fast and if you are not paying attention you may be spending the night on the island. Every year people get stuck out there. Depending on the weather they either have to wait on the island for the next low tide or be "rescued" by the harbormaster.
Cairns are rock made formations that are commonly used as trail markers. They also help lessen the amount of soil erosion and plant loss in the area around the location of the cairn. If you see one make sure not to move it or destroy it as this can mislead hikers and bikers that may be relying on it for navigation reasons. Make sure to head out and build one while in Maine! Perhaps you can build the tallest one in the area.
Since most of what you will be shooting in the park and around the harbor is scenic shots as opposed to animals I would recommend staying away from long lenses and bringing a wide-angle lens, fisheye or a 24-70 lens. I personally don't like carrying the extra weight if I can avoid it so I only brought my Nikkor 24-70 and a fisheye.
Driving the Park
There are five park entrances that allow access to the park from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. I entered the park from the east entrance and stopped at the Lake Village Visitor Center. I spoke with the ranger there who gave me some great information on driving the park. The map they give for free (which can be found below this post) is broken into section, separated by major junctions. Each segment on the map takes roughly 30 minutes to drive without stopping and without slow traffic. There is a lot of road construction heading toward the south entrance from old faithful so this section takes much longer to drive.
I recommend doing old faithful early in the morning since the viewing area is not covered and it can be very hot in the middle of the day. At the moment she is going off every hour but when I was here 12 years ago it was going off roughly every thirty minutes; check with the ranger about timing. As soon as old faithful is done everyone makes a run for his or her car, which is a lot of people all tying to get out ONE exit. If you aren't in a hurry (which you shouldn't be because your on vacation) I would just sit for a few minutes and let it clear out. Check out the visitor center, general store and grab a drink or an ice cream.
After you enter the mud volcano area and park you will want to walk to the far left of the parking lot. Start your walk on the furthest boardwalk, rather than the boardwalk to the right. Taking the left route will loop you back to the parking lot in a counterclockwise direction. If you decide to take the clockwise approach be prepared to walk up a steep incline. This area has a very distinct sulfur smell, which is originating from the hydrothermal areas on the trail. You will know you are in the right area when you smell that.
Norris Geyser Basin
This basin is considered to be the hottest location in Yellowstone. There are roughly 2.25 miles of trails that you can explore. On those trails you can see the tallest active geyser in the world and colorful hot springs that house some the on the most extreme microscopic organisms on the planet. Since this area is so active be sure to stay on the paths. You will know you are in the right place when you hear the hissing of geysers and smell the pungent odor being emitted.
The petrified tree is easy to get to. You can park your car at the boardwalk entrance and walk a very short distance to the tree. It is gated to make sure it stays in pristine condition. The tree was trapped during landslides that happened over 50 million years ago. There is a picture at the base of the tree that shows what the area looked like in 1907. You will see there used to be two trees but over time people collected wood chips from the tree which ultimately lead to its destruction.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This area houses a handful of intricate hot springs that are covered with different colors due to calcium carbonate deposition and algae that live in the warm water pools. This algae can make the area brown, orange, red and green. The area has a boardwalk with stairs that loop back around to the parking lot. You can also drive to the top if you do not want to walk.
This area was named after the Sheepeater Indians, which lived in the park area. The cliff has hexagonal stacks that make it very unique. The cliff was made from lava deposition during a basaltic flood over 500,000 years ago.
Tower fall is one of the parks most popular waterfall areas standing at 132 feet high. You can take a short hike down to a viewing platform that is located behind the general store, which will put you above the waterfall, looking out at it. From there you can walk down a steep 0.5-mile path to the base of the waterfall. This area can be slippery and many parts drop off so I highly recommended wearing shoes with good tread. If you make the journey down you will hike up the same path that you took going down.
Lamar (Yellowstone Association Institute)
Lamar is one of my favorite places in the park. It is where I saw the most animals and seemed to have a much calmer pace to it; not as many cars rushing by. Heading out to the Lamar Valley is a must, especially if you want to have a close-up encounter with some bison. These giant animals graze right next to the road and more often then not are blocking traffic or walking right next to your car. Make sure to get an epic selfie with these awesome giants! Be on the look out for wolves here. If you are really lucky you may get to see the lamar pack.
Camping and Lodging
Camping and Lodging in the National Park
Campsites and lodges fill up very fast here, especially in the summer. If you want to stay in the park be sure to reserve campsites and hotel rooms early. Since this trip was a last minute thought my friend and I were unable to stay in the park since everything and I mean EVERYTHING was booked. I even spoke with a ranger about sleeping in the car, inside the park, in one of the side road pullouts. They give tickets if they find you sleeping overnight so head out to one of the national forests to sleep if you need to.
Camping in the National Forest
We decided to head out the Northwest entrance towards Cooke City since we were up that way checking out the bison. We headed into the National Forest where we found an available campsite. You can camp anywhere in the national forest except for the red area in the picture below due to a high level of grizzly bear activity. The campsites within this area are for hard sided vehicles only. There is no tent camping. I spent the night sleeping in the back of my car, which worked out really well. If you camp outside of this "hot zone" you can tent camp. Just be bear aware and make sure to properly store food and cosmetic items.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the gods is a beautiful national natural landmark and the best part is it's entirely free. The museum is interactive and informative so I recommend a quick stop in before your hike. The front desk on the second floor has trail maps that are color coded with trail names. The park is easy to navigate and has mild to moderate hiking options. If you are a technical climber you can also get a permit to climb the rock formations, otherwise it's illegal to climb on the marked structures. If you are traveling with your dogs this park is dog friendly as long as they are on a leash. Make sure to bring lots of water with you as most of the trails are not shaded and it can get hot very quickly.
Pikes peak is one of the 14ers in Colorado and has a beautiful 19-mile scenic drive up to the top of the mountain. It costs 12 dollars per person to head up to the top of the mountain. This is collected at a tollbooth at the start of the highway. Just after mile marker 3 there is a big foot crossing sign. Apparently park goers have spotted big foot here. I wasn't lucky enough to get a climbs of the mysterious creature but maybe you will! As you make your way up the mountain the air temperature drops significantly and the trees will start to thin out. Keep an eye out for any animals; especially big horn sheep that like to hang out on the cliffs. There are lots of pull offs on the way up and down the mountain so you can get out and take pictures or just stare at the magnificent view before you. Once you reach the top the air is going to be very thin and it's going to be very cold so I would recommend a jacket. You may get lightheaded at the top so walk slowly. There is a store and cafe at the top of the mountain so you can grab a coffee or souvenir. You made it to the top of Pikes Peak and that's a big deal! So make sure to get a photograph at the sign as proof you were above 14,000 feet.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain is a beautiful nation park with a tremendous amount of wildlife. Of all the parks I have been to this one certainly has the most wildlife. I highly recommend driving the trail ridge road, which connects Estes Park to grand lake. It takes roughly two hours to do the entire drive with some stops along the way. Driving from the east to the west side of the park you will go through three different environments including alpine (above 11,400 ft), subalpine (9,000-11,4000 feet) and montane (below 9,000 ft). While driving the alpine, home to a very delicate tundra ecosystem, be on the look for elk, deer, marmot and rabbits. The elk and deer mostly hang out in the open fields and marmot and rabbit tend to be located in rocky areas. As you continue your drive through the subalpine be on alert for all types of animals. This area is a great location for spotting but it can be hard to stop since there are limited numbers of safe pull of sites. Moral of the story, have your camera ready at all times. As you continue towards the east side of the park be on the look out for moose. I cannot emphasize this enough. A mother and her calf tend to hang out around the entrance of the park. I have been to this park three times and seen moose in this same location every time.
There are a couple of campsites in the park but they fill up pretty fast so if you don't want to take a chance on getting a site make sure to reserve one early. I decided to go for it and headed to Longs Peak campsite, which doesn't allow reservations online. I got lucky and ended up with a campsite. This campsite is tent only and tucked away off the road, which is exactly what I was looking for. If you get a spot here just take a self registration card from the information booth, write the dates your staying and license plate number of your car on it and then hang it on the campsite post. When I was there it was free to camp, making this site that much better. Just be sure to bring water (since the sites don't have any) and cash for wood bundles (6 dollars each).
If you are going to be camping in the park and either don't have gear or don't want to cart it with you on a plane then I would recommend checking out the Outdoor Geek store. This place rents all kinds of camping gear from car camping to ultra light primitive camping. You can pick up the gear from their store in Denver or they will ship it to you. I rented a tent and sleeping pad from them, which were in great condition and worked perfectly.
Estes Park is a quaint town on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The downtown area has lots of cool shops and restaurants. If you’re up for a mom and pop place try out Babas. They have bison burgers and a view of the mountains from the outdoor patio.
While in Estes I decided to try my hand at fly-fishing. I'm just warning you that this is a highly addictive sport so be prepared to want to do more of it when your done. If you’re already a fly fisherman you know exactly what I'm talking about. I used Kirks Fly Fishing Shop and they were awesomeness! The shop had everything you could ever need for fishing and they supply you with your gear and a guide for your excursion. I got super lucky and ended up with Kirk as my guide. He was awesome and knew some super secret spots on the river. We ended up doing a quick hike to Big Thompson River in the national park and then started fishing. I had never fly fished before and I ended up with 12 fish! Of course my prized fish was a greenback cutthroat. Totally worth the trip and the money!
St. Marys Glacier
St. Mary’s Glacier Lake is located in Idaho springs about 45 minutes outside of Denver. This hike climbs about 1000 feet over the course of about a mile. It is not a well marked trail so anywhere it seems there is fork make sure to stay to the left. As long as your headed up and not down your going the correct direction. It's a pretty rocky trail so I recommend breaking out the hiking shoes for this one. When you reach the top you will see the glacier and lake. If you continue walking around the lake there will be a trail that leads up to the glacier. Be careful walking on this trail and be extremely careful if you step onto the glacier. It's very slippery, especially if it rains. This hike is absolutely beautiful and totally worth the uphill climb. This is also a popular spot for bringing your four-legged friend so if your traveling with your best friend be sure to bring them along.
Indian Hot Springs
After hiking you can head over to the Indian hot springs, located off the downtown district of Idaho springs. It's a low-key hot spring with a pool, cave springs and a mid room. I used the cave springs and mudroom. The springs are underground in caves which makes the experience that much cooler. The springs are separate into women and make sides since clothing is optional. The cave springs are VERY hot so make sure to bring water and keep hydrating while your socking in them. The mudroom makes you feel like a little kid again as you smear yourself with mud. After you get the mud all over you grab a lounge chair and relax while it dries. I was there on a Monday for about 3.5 hours and spent a total of 32 dollars. I did not use the pool but if you don't want to go into the caves you can use a pool fed with spring water. It stays around 90 degrees as opposed to 120 degrees.
Below is gear specifically for camping, which is not provided if you are renting.
Camping Gear if you are not renting.