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Taking a one day tour to Mount Rainier National Park from Seattle.
Washington state is home to a number of National Parks and while on a 5 night city break in Seattle, we were hoping to get to see some of them. Trouble was, at this point, we had never driven in the USA and didn’t feel confident to hire a rental and take self-guided trip to these places and public transport wasn’t an option. So instead, we booked ourselves on a group tour offered by the company Tours of Seattle* to Mount Rainier National Park.
Having already taken a small group tour to Olympic National Park a few days earlier, we knew the drill as we waited outside our airport hotel for our transport for the day to arrive. Today’s minibus was more like a minicoach, much bigger than the one we had travelled to Olympic National Park on meaning a bigger tour group too but not too many with numbers hovering around the 20-25 mark. Our guide was fantastic and kept the day running smoothly while still offering the group various options on where we could go and what we could do.
Our first stop of the day was for 10 minutes at a supermarket for anyone that wanted to grab lunch or snacks for the day and then we were on our way to the park.
Unfortunately, this morning, the weather was not on our side and our guide explained that on cloudy or overcast days, Mount Rainier itself often became hidden from sight. But she said the weather was supposed to clear a bit later so there was a chance we would get a glimpse of the mountain then.
We entered the park at the Paradise entrance station and began to make our way up a steep, winding road through the park. Our guide pulled over on request at a couple of viewing points so we could get out, take photos and take in the scenery and talked to us about the park and its history as we continued on again.
Eventually, we came to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center where we were to have our lunch and be set free to explore for a while. We spent some time looking at the exhibits in the visitor center before setting off on a circular hike on the Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls. While the sun had now come out, Mount Rainier was still shielded from our view behind a large low cloud gathered around it but the views across the park from the trail were still really pretty.
As we drove back down, we pulled over at a few more view points then stopped to see Narada Falls. The sun was hitting the cascading water at the right angle to create a beautiful rainbow glistening above the falls!
Disappointed that the weather hadn’t clearer enough for us to see the elusive mountain yet, our guide said she had one more place she could take us from where the mountain was sometimes visible even on days when it wasn’t visible from the visitor center. We were told that stopping there would mean a bit less time at our last stop if the day but as we all wanted to maximise our chances of seeing the mountain, we agreed to give it a try.
So we were taken to Longmire Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Nisqually River. Disappointingly, Mount Rainier still wasn’t visible to us but it was a really picturesque spot to stop off at anyway!
The last stop of the day was in the park’s lowlands at one of the ancient old growth forests where we spent some time walking through the Douglas firs, cedars and hemlocks then it was back to Seattle where we were dropped off back at our airport hotel.
Although we’d not been lucky enough to see Mount Rainier itself, we had had a fun day at the park and having seen the highlights, are planning on returning on a self-guided tour on our next visit to the area!
Watch my vlog of my trip to Mount Rainier National Park:
You can read about the rest of my trip to Seattle here and my day trip to another Washington state National Park from Seattle, Olympic National Park, here.
*Although we were guests of Tour of Seattle on this trip, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
A day trip from Seattle to this stunning National Park
The National Parks of America are my favourite places to visit there so while on a 5 night city break to Seattle, we really wanted to fit in a visit to Washington states’ highly recommended Olympic National Park. Having never driven in the US at this point, we didn’t feel confident hiring a car and finding our own way there so instead we looked up day trips leaving from Seattle. We’d taken these types of tours before such as to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas so expected them to be plentiful but instead when we came to booking a trip, we struggled to find any operating. Eventually, we paid more than we would have liked to take a tour with Evergreen Escapes.
Bainbridge Island Ferry
On the day of our tour, we were instructed to meet bright and early at a central hotel in Seattle. Right on time, our guide picked us up and we boarded a small minibus with 2 other groups, a family and a couple. From the hotel, we were driven the short distance to the waterfront where we boarded a car ferry to Bainbridge Island. Once on the ferry we were given a meeting point to wait at but could go and wander around the boat, buy snacks from the onboard cafe or go out on the deck. It was a chilly morning but we braved it outside for a while enjoying the views of the Seattle skyline.
Back on the minibus, we continued our journey to Olympic National Park, briefly stopping once just outside of the city of Port Angeles for a comfort break.
Our first stop in the park would be at Hurricane Ridge. The minibus drove up the steep, winding road into the park and we were greeted at the top with beautiful views of the Olympic mountains ahead of us, pretty as a picture. From the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, the breathtaking views became clearer – snow capped mountains under the blue sky with the lush green forest below.
We had free time to look around the Visitor Center and take in the epic surrounding scenery before reconvening for an included mid-morning snack of tea and scones. We then took a short group hike around the area before reluctantly re-boarding the minibus and beginning our descent back down the long winding road. On the way down we made a couple if stops to take photos at various viewpoints, each time, the scenery taking our breath away.
In search of a waterfall
From Hurricane Ridge, we continued west towards a waterfall stop but our guide got lost on the way (it was his first day leading a tour by himself!) and with time drifting by, the plan to stop there had to be abandoned for now. We were told we might have time on the way back. Instead we carried on to a stop at Lake Crescent. Our guide told us we’d be having our included picnic lunch here and gave us some free time to walk down to the lake while he set up.
Time for lunch
With the sun shining, the crystal clear waters of the lake against the backdrop of the lush green forest looked stunning. After walking along the lake edge, we made our way back to the minibus to find a picnic table had been set up with table cloths, place mats, plates and cutlery all laid out for us! Meat was barbecuing on a grill and there was plenty of salad and bread to help ourselves to. We all sat around the table for our forest feast and discussed the plans for the afternoon.
After lunch, we took a hike through the forest down to Lake Crescent Lodge, our guide talking to us about all the different trees and plants we were seeing. Once at the lodge we had more free time which we spent looking inside the lodge and walking at the lake edge. Meanwhile, our guide had gone to fetch the minibus and bring it closer ready to pick us up.
Back to Seattle
We were still hopeful we could fit in the waterfall stop we had missed earlier but due to a rush hour traffic alert, we instead had to continue on so we could make our ferry back to Seattle.
It had been a fun day and Olympic National Park was just as beautiful as we’d hoped. We’d only had chance to see a small part of the extensive park so having since conquered our fear of driving in the US, we are planning on taking a self-guided trip there on our next trip state-side so we can spend a bit more time at the places we visited before and make it to the parts we have yet to see!
Watch my vlog of my trip to Olympic National Park here:
Spending time in the party capital when you don’t like to party!
Las Vegas was never high up on my list of places to visit. But visit I have – 4 times now – and I’m pretty sure I’ll return again at some point. My reason for booking my first trip out to Las Vegas was for my friend’s wedding. She had long been a huge fan of the city and had said she would one day get married there ever since I’d known her and long before she met her husband to be!
As our taxi drove out of McCarran airport and around the back of the Strip towards our Circus Circus hotel, I can’t say I was immediately impressed and I wondered how I was going to fill 3 full days in a city of casinos, bars and clubs when I don’t gamble or drink! But as I found out on that visit and subsequent visits, first impressions can be wrong and there’s a lot more to Vegas than that. So why go to the party capital of the World if you don’t like to party?!
It would be strange in any other city, but in Vegas, the themed hotels that line Las Vegas Boulevard, or ‘the Strip’ as it’s often referred to, are one of the city’s main attractions and you can easily spend days just wandering along the strip, exploring these. You can literally – as I’ve found out more than once – lose yourself in these huge complexes.
Take a trip around the World and see France, Italy, Egypt… without leaving the city. In the Venetian, you can visit replicas of the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceiling and a miniature version of the city of Venice where you can even ride a gondola along the canal; see replicas of classic Roman sculptures in Caesar’s Palace; walk through the streets of Manhattan at the New York New York hotel and see a mini-Sphinx at the Luxur. See flamingos hanging out in the gardens at the Flamingo hotel or clowns and acrobats performing at Circus Circus. And it doesn’t matter where you are staying – while I’d never just wander into a 4 or 5-star hotel I’m not staying at in any other city, in Vegas, all the hotel casinos, shops, food courts etc are open to all visitors, not just residents.
The Bright Lights
One of the main reasons I wasn’t immediately enamoured with Vegas was that my first sighting of the Strip was in daylight hours. Wandering down the busy strip in the 40 degree heat is not particularly fun. But after a few hours, when the sun had gone down, the lights had all come on and it had cooled down to a more bearable heat, it looked and felt like a different, much more magical, place and I started to enjoy it a lot more. The Strip at night is just one of those things that has to be seen to be appreciated but the whole atmosphere of the city shifts when the sun goes down!
For a birds eye view of the Strip, in daylight hours or all lit up at nights, there are a few options, the most expensive of which is to take a helicopter ride over the Strip while its all lit up. But if you’re not a fan of helicopters or your funds don’t quite run to that then another good bet is one of the Strip’s two observation decks. At Paris hotel, there is an observation deck at the top of its ‘Eiffel Tower’. It’s situated right in the middle of the Strip and across from the Bellagio meaning that if you time it right, it is possible to watch the Bellagio Fountain show from up there.
Further along the Strip is the tallest building in Vegas, the Stratosphere, with it’s indoor observation deck with floor to ceiling windows to look out of or the outdoor rooftop, also home to the thrill rides mentioned below.
The newest option for views over the Strip is the High Roller, a huge Ferris Wheel outside the Linq hotel. Here you ride in a pod with other visitors – or for a bit more money, you can hire a private pod with a bar – and enjoy the views as you slowly circle up to the top and back down to ground level.
Hint: It’s worth looking out for coupons and promo codes to cut the prices of all these attractions before going to the box office or booking on line!
The Big Shows
I never saw a show the first time I visited Vegas, there just wasn’t time any of the three nights I was there, but I was certainly aware of them with the huge billboards adorning the hotels everywhere. And I’ve made up for it since, seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, Britney’s Piece of Me show and the Backstreet Boys’ during their Planet Hollywood residency on my subsequent visits!
There’s always plenty to choose from and something for everyone from mind-boggling magic shows to the Cirque shows’ gasp-inducing acrobatic displays to chart-topping musicians or top class tribute acts. If you’re not too fussy, a lot of the show tickets can be bought at discounted prices on the day at TKTs booths and it’s even worth turning up at the box office for the show you have in mind and enquiring as we got our Britney tickets, to stand right in the front pit down by the stage, on the day of the gig for less than they’d have been in advance online seeing as we didn’t have to pay as much in processing/ delivery fees etc in person.
The Free Shows
If you’ve not got the time or the money to see one of the big shows then there’s plenty of free ‘shows’ along the strip that shouldn’t be missed. Head to the Mirage Hotel to see the huge volcano outside erupt every hour, pop to the shopping complex at Caesars Palace to see Atlantis, a moving statue show or go to the Bellagio for, probably the most well-known of these free shows, the Dancing Fountains.
If you’re downtown, the Fremont Street Experience offers free live music and a laser show most nights.
The Thrill Rides
If non-stop thrills are your thing, Vegas has plenty but they don’t come cheap! The New York New York hotel is home to one of my favourite roller coasters ever. You board inside the hotel but soon find yourself outside whizzing around the famous Manhattan skyline! If one roller coaster isn’t enough then head further up the Strip to Circus Circus hotel which is home to an amusement park with rollercoasters, family rides and other thrill rides. And if you’re feeling really brave, catch the elevator to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel to ride it’s three thrill rides 350m above the Strip!! Definitely not for the faint-hearted!!
Las Vegas is home to no end of shopping malls and outlets. Pretty much all the hotels have a shopping mall attached and if it’s too hot to walk along the Strip to your destination, many of these link up so you can walk from hotel to hotel without ever having to go outside! Most of the malls are home to a range of stores from well-known high street stores to mid-range stores to high end designer stores. Themed stores like the M&M’s store, the Hershey’s store and the Coca Cola store are always fun to look around and there’s no end of shops offering Vegas souvenirs. If you’re looking for a bargain then catch a bus or taxi to one of the Outlet Malls just outside of the main city.
Few people would say the were heading to Vegas to check out it’s museums but actually, the city has some really great ones! The Neon Museum, or Neon Junkyard as it’s sometimes known, is one of y favourites. Situated near the downtown area of Vegas this museum is host to many of the retired signs from old Vegas hotels. Tours can be taken throughout the day but at night, some of the signs are switched on so you can see exactly how they once looked!
Another museum worth visiting in downtown Vegas is the Mob Museum. This museum tracks the rise and fall of the Mob in Las Vegas and its surrounds and is a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours.
If it’s art you’re after, then the Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio Hotel, right on the Strip is a good call. TheBellagio is not the only hotel to contain a museum, visit the Luxor to find an exhibition of artefacts from the ill-fated Titanic or The Venetian to find good old Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
The Old Town
While most visitors choose to stay in a hotel on the main Vegas Strip, staying Downtown in ‘Old’ Vegas can be a much cheaper option and even if you don’t stay there, it is definitely worth catching the Deuce bus there a few hours. As well as they already mentioned Mob and Neon Museum, downtown is home to some of Vegas’ most famous hotels such as the Golden Nugget as well as tourist attraction The Fremont Experience. Fremont Street is the main street that runs through the downtown area and most nights there’s live entertainment and a free laser show beamed hourly onto the street’s ‘roof’.
If you’re feeling adventurous then you can fly down Fremont Street on the SlotZilla Zipline!
The National Parks
While the city of Las Vegas itself offers plenty to keep you entertained, it’s also a great base to reach some of the USA’s top National Parks from. The most popular to visit from Vegas is the Grand Canyon and if you don’t want to hire a car and drive yourself there, tour companies offer plenty of options from all day coach trips to scenic flights there and back.
If you want somewhere a bit different or to explore a bit further then Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are also in easy reach along with Death Valley National Park in California. Again, there’s plenty of tour companies offering guided tours out to these parks if you don’t want to drive yourself.
If it’s the great outdoors you’re after, there’s many opportunities closer to Vegas – hiking at Red Rock Canyon or hiking, biking and boating at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities in Las Vegas which I’ve not mentioned and if nothing else, the city is just one of those places that just has to be seen! So, even if partying and gambling is not your thing, the Vegas is definitely still worth a visit!
Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.
Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.
From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.
From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.
The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.
After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!
We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.
After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.
Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.
We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.
After an incredible few days, we were all feeling a bit down as we drove out of the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park but this didn’t last long as we were suddenly met with stunning views of snow-capped mountains ahead of us. Pulling over so we could take photos of the beautiful view, we were told that these were the Grand Tetons and our next stop that day would be at the often over-looked Grand Teton National Park. Most of us had no idea that this was even on the itinerary and were excited at the prospect of visiting another National Park straight after Yellowstone.
We arrived at Jenny Lake Visitor Centre mid-afternoon and after looking around, grabbing some souvenirs and trying some of the local huckleberry products, we embarked on a lakeside hike to Hidden Falls. The easy trail provided us with more stunning views of the Grand Tetons and of the lake itself and we even spotted a few deer along the way. Rather than hiking the entire perimeter of the lake, once we reached Hidden Falls, we took the park’s shuttle boat across the lake back to the visitor centre.
Unfortunately that was all we had time for at the park but I made a mental note to return and explore more at some point in the future. From the park, we drove south to the town of Jackson, Wyoming. As we drove through we were all quite excited to see some well-known branded cafes and stores such as Starbucks as we’d been out in the middle of nowhere a lot since Chicago! We didn’t stop but continued on to our KOA site a few miles out of the town centre to check in, freshen up and have a bit of downtime.
It was Saturday night and this evening we were going to be dropped back in to the town on Jackson for dinner and a night out at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – something many of us girls were particularly excited about! Once back in Jackson, some of the group decided to eat at a nice steak house just off the main square while the rest of us chose the cheaper option of a small diner further down the high street and we arranged to meet after inside the cowboy bar.
After dinner, we entered the bar to find the bar stools were saddle seats! We all took turns to sit on them for a photo opportunity before ordering our drinks and finding a table. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live country music band which was playing and watching the two-stepping taking place on the dancefloor while trying (and failing!) to attract the attention of some of the younger local cowboys!
The next morning, most of the group had booked to go white water rafting along the nearby Snake River. This was something I was actually quite nervous about but had no reason to be as it was one of the most fun things I did all trip! With 8 of us in the raft and an experienced guide steering at the back, we navigated our way through the rapids, all managing to stay firmly in the boat – until we reached a still water area and were invited to jump in for a swim in order to earn a wristband!
Being a water lover, I was first in before the guide had even finished talking. The water was freezing and I was clambering back on board within seconds or at least attempting to, as climbing back onto the raft was a lot easier said than done! Once we were all back on board, we continued to ride the remaining rapids until we reached the exit point where a shuttle met us to take us back to our KOA.
Soaking wet and exhausted from the effort, we quickly made use of the KOA showers and changed before heading back into Jackson for the afternoon to meet back up with the remaining group members and tell the about all the fun they had missed!
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, visiting countless souvenir shops and cowboy apparel stores and eating ice cream sat out in Jackson Square before dinner at a local brewery then returning to the KOA for an evening sat around the campfire talking and drinking.
Some of us were up bright and early the next day to go horse riding at the OK Corral Stables just across the road from the KOA site. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a child but the guided trails are set up for beginners to enjoy and once we had been assigned our horses and climbed on we were lead along the road to a trail leading up into the mountains. This was such a fun activity and once we had made it to the top of the trail, the views over Wyoming were absolutely beautiful making the early start to the day more than worth it. Once back at the stables, we said goodbye and thank-you to our horses and returned across the road to our KOA to meet back with the rest of the group, load our things onto the trailer and jump back on the van to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we began our journey to our next destination.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Jackson, Wyoming here:
After leaving the Wild West behind in Cody, it was on towards Yellowstone National Park, a part of our trip that we were all pretty excited about!
We entered Yellowstone at the east entrance and made our first stop for a short hike to see views over Lake Yellowstone and our first of many bison sightings before continuing on the Fishing Bridge Visitor Centre. National Park Passports stamped and souvenirs bought, we then continued our drive through the park. Our cabins for the next 2 nights would be just outside of the town West Yellowstone, Montana, meaning today, we would mainly be spent making our way across the park with a few stops along the way.
After lunch at a Canyon Village, we continued east stopping for another short hike to view bison in the valley. We hit traffic soon after – often the sign of a wildlife sighting. It turned out to be a family of black bears crossing and making their way into the woods and we pulled over to watch them go in their way from a distance.
We got caught in a longer queue of traffic soon after but our patience was rewarded with a grizzly bear sighting which was very exciting! Eventually, we made it to Mammoth Hot Springs where we were dropped at the top of the viewing terraces and told to make our way down where we’d be met in the village.
The boardwalk through Mammoth Hot Springs took us past a variety of interesting limestone rock formations, mineral deposits and hot springs and was a really interesting place to explore. We slowly made our way down towards the village stopping to take plenty of photos along the way.
Once at the other end, we looked around the visitor centre, got ice cream from the general store and said hello to the elk grazing in the area before hopping back on the bus to continue our drive west.
Once we’d exited the park and made a quick grocery stop, we drove to our cabins for the next 2 nights and were delighted to find that rather than the usual KOA site, we instead were staying at a lovely independent site in a pretty lakeside setting with larger cabins than we’d been used to for the rest of the trip! We spent the evening relaxing, enjoying a barbecue and drinks around the campfire and gazing at the star-filled sky.
We were up early to head back into the park the next day and drove back to the east side where we parked up for a hike. We were not told where we were hiking too which made it even more impressive when we got to our destination.
Our hike took us past more hot springs and thermal activity, past lakes and through forests and along a series of switchbacks taking us higher and higher until we arrived at a huge canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The view was jaw-dropping and after sitting on the canyon edge for our picnic lunch, we followed the south rim of the canyon until we reached a waterfall.
Most of us chose to follow Uncle Tom’s Trail to view Lower Falls although I slightly regretted that decision when we had to climb back up the hundreds of steps after!! We then made our way back to where we had started that morning to get back on the van.
After a stop to see the Canyon from a few different viewing points and to get snacks from a general store, we made our way back across the park and our to our cabins. That evening, we drove into West Yellowstone for dinner and after eating at a BBQ place, we spent a fun hour wandering around the many shops before returning to our cabins.
Our final morning at Yellowstone and we had a choice for the first activity of the day – a swim in the river or a boardwalk trail to see more thermal activity. Choosing the latter, we followed the trail at Fountain Paint Pots before jumping back on the van to go and pick the swimmers up.
Next we were all dropped off at Midway Geyser Basin where we followed the trail round to view Grand Prismatic Spring. We’d all seen the pictures on postcards at the gift stores over the last few days but it was much more impressive to see in person.
Our final stop in the park was to see Old Faithful Geyser erupt. The geyser is so called because of it’s predictable eruptions and we arrived with plenty of time to spare so got to fit in one last visitor centre and souvenir store before we took our places out on the viewing platform.
After grabbing some lunch at he general store, it was unfortunately time to wave goodbye to Yellowstone but it had been amazing and definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far!
Watch my Trek America adventures at Yellowstone National Park here:
After a fun morning visiting the Jolly Green Giant in Minnesota state, we crossed the border into South Dakota for lunch in the town of Brandon. This stop was notable mainly for us having a group member with the same name, causing all sorts of hilarity as we dug into our Subway sandwiches followed by some frozen yoghurt!
This afternoon we were heading towards Badlands National Park but delayed for various reasons, we arrived to late to spend any time in the park that day and instead, went straight to our KOA site to check into our cabins and do the first group cook of the trip.
That evening there were early nights all around as we prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to head into the National Park for sunrise. Those plans were abandoned the next day when we awoke to torrential rain and it became apparent that there would be no sun to view rising. Instead, we made multiple attempts to get to and from the shower blocks without getting so drenched we had to change clothes all over again before having a pancake breakfast under a marquee only just about holding up under the weight of the heavy rainfall.
Deciding the weather probably wasn’t improving any time soon, we made the decision to head into the park anyway. Luckily, as we approached, the weather started to clear up and by the time we’d spent some time in the visitor centre looking at the displays, watching a video about the Badlands and buying souvenirs, it had stopped raining completely allowing us to go hiking over the odd moonscape.
With a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t spend too long at Badlands National Park. We made a brief stop at a National Park Service Missile Silo on the way out then continued to our main stop for today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Mount Rushmore was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but unlike many of the other recognisable US site such as the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty, isn’t in one of the major cities and is therefore more difficult to get to.
As we travelled through South Dakota on our way to Mount Rushmore, we kept passing signs advertising the town of Wall Drug. The signs continued for hundreds of miles showing pictures of cowboys, ice cream, coffee and even a dinosaur! We were all intrigued and our guide informed us that Wall Drug would be today’s lunch stop.
Once there, we found a Wild West type town with plenty of places to eat and drink. We settled on a bar where many of the groups tried bison burgers while the rest of us tucked into pizza then spent the next half hour wandering through the themed stores, buying souvenirs and eating ice cream. Unsure why the town had been hyped for so far along our drive, we returned to our Trek van to continue on our journey.
Carved in to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore depicts the faces of four USA presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be but I still took way more photos of it than I needed to and bought loads of useless souvenirs, including a Christmas bauble in the shape of Mount Rushmore, from the visitor centre.
Just up the road from Mount Rushmore, we stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently being carved into the Black Rocks and unlikely to be finished in our lifetime, it was fascinating to see the work going on in the distance and see displays showing the progress so far and how the sculpture will look when it is finally finished.
Our overnight stop tonight was on the South Dakota/Wyoming border at another KOA, our cabins overlooked by the looming Devil’s Tower National Monument. Arriving at dusk, we went straight to the site’s cafe for dinner followed by drinks around the camp fire and a few hours sleep before an early start the next day.
Watch my Trek America adventures in South Dakota here:
Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns National Park
After the unexpected heavy snowfall of the last few days, we were pleased to see little sign of the white stuff as we crossed into the state of New Mexico. We were heading to the city of Santa Fe but would, as usual, be making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs.
Today’s journey once again took us along part of the famous Route 66 highway and the first stop of the day was at a Route 66 Historic Hotel, the El Rancho, in Gallop, once the temporary home to various film stars in its heyday. The hotel has been restored to its former glory and is now a National Historic site. It was interesting to wander around the lobby with its traditional Wild West decor.
A stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque was next where we visited a fast food restaurant used in the popular TV show, Breaking Bad. As I’d never watched the show, this was a bit over my head but other members of the group who were favs of the series were very excited to sit in the booth where characters from the show are seen sitting!
Unfortunately, our motel for the evening wasn’t in central Santa Fe so after checking in, we had to be driven into the city by our guide. We had an hour of free time to wander around before meeting for a group dinner at a lovely Tex Mex restaurant. Just as we piled out of the van, snow once again started to fall but thankfully, only a light dusting this time. The city, the oldest capital in the US, was exactly as our guide had described it – 50 shades of brown! As it was already early evening, there was little open other than the touristy stores on the main square but as well as some souvenir shopping we did find time to wander into the city’s Cathedral before dinner.
The next morning we returned to the city and were given a bit more time to look around. Unfortunately the ‘oldest house’ in the city was closed to visitors while we were there but it was interesting wandering down the oldest street and seeing the old buildings. We spent the rest of our free time in the city visiting the many churches as well as some of the small art galleries and boutique stores before departing for our next overnight stay in New Mexico State, Carlsbad just as the snow started to fall again.
Our journey today was broken up with an unexpected stop at the infamous town of Roswell! With traffic and diversions due to the snowy weather, we reached there later than expected and by the time we’d stopped at Walmart to shop for tonight’s camp, it was late afternoon.
We were given some free time to look around the town and all headed straight to the UFO museum only to be told it would be closing soon. We all wanted to go inside anyway and the staff kindly waived the entrance fee as we’d not be able to see the entire museum in such a short time. The museum was fun in a tacky, tourist-pleasing way and after it had closed we looked around the neighbouring stores all selling UFO themed souvenirs!
From here, it was off to our only cabin stay of the tour at Carlsbad KOA site. The cabins were basic – we had to bring our own sleeping bags & pillows on the trip just for this one night – but comfortable enough and luckily, with the weather as it was, did have some kind of heating system.
It was already dark as we arrived and absolutely freezing cold, so much so that we struggled to cook the evening’s meal on the camping equipment, eventually settling for food somewhere between luke warm and still frozen!! We spent the evening sat around the campfire, wrapped in our blankets and sleeping bags trying desperately to keep warm, our guide attempting to keep up morale by playing guitar and leading sing songs. This was definitely one of the more character building evenings of the trip!
The next day, we awoke to another icy cold morning and a dusting of more snow and after breakfast, set off towards Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As we reached the park, we could see more snow had fallen in the area than we had had at our cabins causing our guide to pull over and check the park’s website – it was currently closed as they tried to clear the snow to allow access. After ringing the park and speaking to a ranger, our guide reported back that the park hoped to have a limited section of the Caverns open to the public within the next couple of hours and decided we should stick around and wait so we drove to a nearby cafe and settled down to hot chocolates and a group game of Cards Against Humanity as we waited for updates.
Luckily, the park did manage to open although as expected, only part of the trail through the Caverns would be accessible. It was bizarre to see frozen cactii lining the road as we drove to the car park and walked across to the cave entrance but at least once inside, we were out of the snow for a while! The caverns were really beautiful and worth sticking around to see. After following the self-guided loop trail, we returned to the gift shop for some souvenir shopping before finding a sheltered picnic bench to sit and have a late lunch on – leftovers from last night’s camp dinner!
Then it was on towards Texas to see what adventures awaited us next!
The highs and lows of a 3 week road tripacrossthe USA.
I was 4 days into a 3 week group tour across America and so far, things were going great. My first experience of hostel life was actually ok, the group were all bonding well, I’d already become firm friends with my roommate and I’d go as far as to say, I was having the time of my life!! But I should have known with this kind of trip to expect the unexpected!
LA, San Diego and Las Vegas already done, next up was 2 nights at the Grand Canyon. So far, we’d enjoyed glorious warm sunshine but as we boarded the bus outside our Vegas hotel the next morning, there was definitely a chill in the air. Time to pull out the hoodie!! As our guide told us much colder weather had been forecast for the next few days, an Australian member of our group admitted he’d only brought shorts with him, assuming that the Southern states were going to be mainly warm!
Our first stop of the day was at Hoover Dam and then at the ‘historic’ Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona. We’d been told that in the summer months, it was hard to move in this town with all the tourists but on a cool February day, it was more like a ghost town and we were warmly welcomed in every souvenir store we entered as it would seem they get very little business this time of year!
The town, dubbed ‘the birthplace of Route 66’, was fun to wander round and was like something stuck in the past with all of its brightly painted buildings and Route 66 memorabilia. We had one more stop, for lunch at a Subway, before continuing the long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.
Arriving later than expected after being rerouted around road closures (we kept ourselves amused in the bus playing ‘Guess the song from the introduction’!), we were given an hour to get settled into our motel accommodation before regrouping for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant. While there, our tour guide outlined the options for the next few days – we could get up early to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon if enough of us were interested, we could hike down into the canyon, book a helicopter flight over the canyon and there were also options to watch a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in the village or do shorter, less strenuous walks at the canyon rim. All the group were up for seeing the sunrise and hiking down into the canyon and lots of us signed up to take a helicopter ride too. With that decided and dinner done, we were let loose for the evening, all deciding to meet for a game of bowling at a nearby hotel after getting our hiking supplies in for the following day.
Things took an unexpected turn as my roommate and I left the bowling alley to get an earlyish night to discover that snow was falling. And seeing as the ground was covered, it had been falling a while! Assuming that it wouldn’t be much, we set our 4am alarms and went to bed.
We awoke the next morning to find that the snow had certainly not stopped but continued to fall heavily throughout the night! Despite guessing that seeing the sunrise was now unlikely to be possible, we got ready and met with the group anyway and seeing as we were all up, our guide managed to drive us into the National Park anyway.
As expected, all we could see was cloud and snow but we amused ourselves by building a snowman and throwing snowballs into the Canyon – not something I ever expected to do!! For some of the Australians in the group, this was the first time they’d actually seen real snow so despite our disappointment at the sunrise not being visible, there was still plenty of fun to be had.
After breakfast back in the village, we were advised by our guide that the helicopter tours would not be running today and that the trails down into the Canyon were closed. It was possible there would be an opportunity for both activities the next morning depending on the weather but we’d have to find other ways to spend our full day at the Canyon. Seeing as the rim trail between Mather Point and Angel Point was open, we all wrapped up warm (the Australian with just shorts packed had purchased some long trousers, gloves and a scarf!) and headed out for a walk in the snow!
To be honest, I had never even realised the Grand Canyon got snow before. Luckily, unlike many of the group, I had visited this part of the National Park before and seen the Grand Canyon under clear, blue skies and sunshine and there was actually something really special about seeing it under snowfall – not that we could see much of the canyon itself! Cold and wet, we warmed up with lunch at Angel Point Hotel before returning to the village for the rest of the afternoon.
With nothing else to really do, a few of us went to watch the IMAX film, so we could at least see what the Grand Canyon usually looks like, and spent some time souvenir shopping before we met for a group meal at a nearby Steakhouse. A few of us then congregated in our motel room with snacks to watch the evening’s Oscars Ceremony!
Unfortunately, we awoke the next morning to yet more heavy snowfall, dashing any remaining hopes of getting to do the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or hiking down into the canyon so instead we set off for today’s destination, Monument Valley, stopping first at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon Park. There wasn’t really much of a view from the tower, just more snow, so we didn’t spend long there but as we drove out towards Utah state, conditions did seem to be clearing slightly.
Our first stop in Utah was at a Navajo trading post in Cameron and we were pleased to not have to wade through any snow to get from the van to the store. We weren’t as lucky when we reached our lunch stop, a Burger King, which doubled as a Museum on Navajo Code Talkers, a couple of hours later. Here the snow had really fallen and we wondered if our destination of Monument Valley would be open for our tour to go ahead.
Luckily, despite the heavy snowfall, the site had remained open although we were told that the jeeps used for the tours could only access a smaller part of the area and therefore we would receive a discount.
If anything, the snow only added to this amazing experience. We were told that snow of any kind rarely falls at Monument Valley, nevermind a blanket of it, and even our Navajo guides were stopping to take photographs of the beautiful scenery as they showed us around. We spent most of the tour stood marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered scenery, enjoying the peacefulness that had descended over the area.
Our visit to Monument Valley ended with a traditional burrito meal before we drove to our motel in the amusingly named town of Mexican Hat. We awoke the next morning to find the snow was starting to melt.
We made one more Monument Valley stop, on the road at the point where Forrest Gump stops running in the Oscar-winning film, before heading off towards the next state on our itinerary – the hopefully less snowy New Mexico!