Touring the Deep South USA: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Entering the state of Georgia en route to Tennessee

Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.

A game of Cards Against Humanity on the van

Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.

Setting foot in Georgia state

Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.

Arriving at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and below, a dusting of snow on the trees

We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.

The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.

First stop, the Visitor Centre!

The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.

Views changing as we drive through the park

Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.

Beginning our Abrams Falls Trail hike

Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.

The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.

Not a bad spot to sit and have some lunch!

Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.

Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.

Beautiful autumn colours looking out from the closer to the waterfall

Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!

Downtown Gatlinburg

We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.

Autumn displays decorating the main Strip

As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.

Arriving at Ole Smokey Distillery

Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.

Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.

A band plays outside the distillery

Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.

Belting out the cheesy pop tunes at karaoke night!

Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!

Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!

Denver, Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park

A trip to the Mile High City

The D&F Building on 16th Street

It had been a busy few weeks. The start of our trip in Vancouver seemed like a lifetime away; Seattle and Portland nothing but a distant memory; 10-days in Alaska had passed in a blink of an eye and now we were onto the final leg of our adventure, a 2 night stopover in Denver, Colorado on the way back to the UK.

Swinging chair fun along 16th Street Mall

Arriving in Denver early morning after an overnight flight from Anchorage, Alaska wasn’t ideal, especially as there were no rooms available for an early check in at our hotel. But we fought through the tiredness, grabbing some lunch to give us some energy, and caught the train into the city centre from the suburb we were staying in.

Colorado State Capitol
The Mile High club

From Union Station, we found our way to 16th Street Mall and started walking towards the state capitol building at the far end. We passed the D & F Tower, stopped to play on some of the twirling chairs laid out in the middle of the street and popped into a few stores along the way but still, the tiredness along with the affects of the high altitude of the ‘Mile High City’, made our walk take a bit longer than it should have!

Finally reaching the state capitol building, we posed for photos on the steps marked ‘one mile high’ then wandered around the park across the street before exhaustedly beginning our walk back.

As we returned, we detoured past the city’s Convention Centre to see the huge blue bear sculpture that appears to be peering into the building!

After a while, we decided to hop onto the free tram that runs up and down the main street to take us back to Union Station.

Posing with some Denver art

We decided to stay on a few extra stops and took a quick walk across to the river before catching the train back to our hotel where it was finally time to check in!

After dinner, our evening was spent catching up on lost sleep.

The next morning we were up early to catch the train back into the city. After grabbing breakfast at a train station cafe, we waited outside to be picked up for our day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Being short on time, we had opted to take a small group one day highlights tour to the park which lies less than 2 hours’ drive from Denver.

A quick rest stop

We were picked up on time by our bubbly tour guide/minibus driver and began to make our way out of the city towards the mountains looming in the distance. We made a stop in a small town just outside of the park to pick up our included lunch orders then continued to the Estes Park entrance of the park.

At Sheep Lakes Overlook

Our first stop inside the park was at Sheep Lakes Overlook, a meadow area, to see if we could spot any wildlife but there wasn’t anything about.

We continued along the road through the park stopping at viewpoints along the way as we gradually climbed to a higher altitude.

View from Falls River

We stopped for lunch at the Falls River Visitor Center Area just as it began to rain, the cloud slightly obscuring the view.

Looking out from the Falls River area
Following the Alpine Ridge Trail

After lunch, we began a rather precarious uphill drive in a thick fog that had descended up to the highest visitor centre in the park, Alpine Visitor Center.

We were given free time here to walk up the Alpine Ridge Trail which ended at a view point over 12000 feet above sea level.

Despite it being a relatively short hike, the high altitude made it physically exhausting and our lungs were burning by the time we reached the peak! Unfortunately, with the cloud, there wasn’t much of a view at the top but we were at least pleased to say we had made it up there.

Spotting a marmot
Beautiful mountain view

After looking around the visitor center, it was back on the bus to begin our descent through the park. We stopped at a boardwalk area to take another short hike to a viewpoint and spotted a marmot sat out on the rocks!

We pulled over a few more times on the road out of the park to enjoy the views now that the cloud was beginning to clear then it was time to leave the park.

We made one last stop on the way back in the town of Estes Park where we bought ice cream and wandered around some of the souvenir stores before heading back to Denver.

Down by the river

Millennium Bridge

I had one more morning in Denver before flying back to the UK.

The sky was blue and the sun was shining so I caught the train back into the city and took a walk along the river.

Spotting a trolley bus traveling along the riverside, I decided to get a ticket and take a ride. The trolley bus took us along the Platte River and back with the driver telling us some of the history of the area.

Back by the Colorado State Capitol

After my stroll along the river, I walked back towards 16th Street Mall. A free tram runs back and forth along the street so I hopped on and took a ride back to the capitol building then walked back towards the station again. Everything looked so much better now the sun was shining!

!6th Street Mall

I detoured off 16th Street to walk to the pretty Larimer Square area, the oldest block in the city and now home to a variety of bars, restaurants, cafes and small independent stores.

After a look around and a bite to eat, it was time to wave the city, and the USA, goodbye after another incredible adventure!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Denver here:

Watch my vlog of my visit to Rocky Mountain National Park here:

Related pages

Alaska: Denali National Park

In Denali Village

As we left our overnight stop at Maclaren River, there was one topic of conversation on the bus – would we join the “30 per cent club” and get to see Mount Denali? We’d been told that the Alaskan Range is so often covered by cloud that few visitors to the park actually see Mount Denali itself but we were all hopeful that over the next 2 days, the weather would clear enough for us to get at least a glimpse!

Arriving in time for lunch, we went straight to Denali Village rather than stopping to check in at our cabin accommodation and had some time to grab a sandwich and look around the local stores before heading into the park itself.

Watching the sled dogs demonstration

Our first stop in the park was at one of the park’s visitor centres to look around and grab any information we wanted for the next few days. The park runs a series of shuttles to take visitors around the park and after a while, we met at the bus stop outside the centre to catch a shuttle to the Denali Kennels for a dog sled demonstration.

Before the demonstration begins, visitors are able to wander through the kennel area to meet the park’s sled dogs which, being a total dog person, I absolutely loved being able to do! Then we found spaces in the viewing area as the park rangers led the demonstration with a little help from their 4-legged friends.

Glimpsing Mount Denali

Some of us had taken up the optional extra of a scenic flight over the Alaskan Range that evening with a glacial landing so after our visit to the kennel, we were dropped at the airfield where we were kitted out in some special boots to stop us slipping on the ice before boarding the third small aircraft of our trip so far.

On board our small plane

Like our previous two scenic flights in Anchorage and Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this was not a cheap excursion but we knew we’d not get the chance to visit this part of the World again for a long time, if ever, so we saved hard in order to make the most of these experiences.

Mount Denali
Glacial landing

The saving paid off as this was without a doubt the absolute highlight of our entire trip to Alaska. The views as we flew over the mountains were absolutely beautiful and to top it all off, from above the clouds, we joined that 30% club and caught a glimpse of Mount Denali. It was strangely quite an emotional experience!

Snowball fight!

Landing on the glacier at the end of our flight was also an amazing experience. The air was so crisp and clear and we had a fun time letting our inner child out and playing in the icy snow in between taking photos and standing gaping in awe at the surrounding scenery.

Pizza!

After flying back, a shuttle bus took us to our accommodation of cabins just outside of the park and we met with the rest of the group at the Pizza Pub across the road to share our stories.

Hiking in the National Park

We began the next morning back in Denali Village to grab some breakfast then a quick stop at the park entrance to take pictures with the sign.

It was a miserable, wet day meaning there was little chance of catching another glimpse of the elusive mountain.

Evidence of beavers!

Today, we had tickets to ride the Denali shuttle. This 8-hour round trip was one of the included experiences in our Alaskan Highlights Tour. We had a bit of time to spare before the shuttle left so we spent some time hiking in the rain on the short trail out to Horseshoe Lake, keeping an eye out for beavers along the way.

Spotting a moose from the shuttle bus

Then we boarded the shuttle bus to see more of the park. We saw plenty of wildlife in the park from the very first few minutes of the trip but it was mainly caribou and moose.

Teklanika River

The bus made a few stops on the way around giving us the chance to stretch our legs, take bathroom breaks or take a short hike.

We stopped at a viewpoint for the Teklanika River and then at Polychrome Pass where we walked to a Mount Denali viewpoint but the rain and low cloud meant all we could really see was the river below us.

At the information area at Toklat River

The other main stop of the day was at the Toklat River Rest Area where there was an information area along with a gift shop then it was back on the bus to our final stop, Eielson Visitor Centre.

Here we took a short hike out to another viewpoint. Still no sign of Mount Denali but we did see a really cute arctic ground squirrel!!!

Bears in the distance!

From Eielson, we boarded the bus again to return to where we started. The return trip was mainly uneventful except for when we finally spotted bears! It took us until our penultimate day in Alaska and they were pretty far in the distance but we were excited that we had at least ticked that off our Alaska bucketlist!

Back at the Toklat River rest stop in Denali National Park

Once back at our cabin ground, it was time to get ready for our last group meal of the trip as tomorrow we’d be heading back to Anchorage. We went out to a local restaurant where we had an excellent 3 course meal and reminisced about our amazing trip.

Our final day on the Alaskan trip was quite low key. We stopped for lunch in the town of Talkeetna, famous for its mayor once being a cat called Stubbs! Then continued to former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla looking to see if we could see Russia from there (we couldn’t!).

Spotting caribou from the Denali shuttle bus

Then, with one last blast of our ‘morning song’, Joe Croce’s I Got a Name (despite it now being the afternoon, it had become out tour anthem!), we were back to where we started 10 days before. Some of the group were heading straight off that afternoon and, having already spent time exploring Anchorage before our tour started, we were off to the airport to fly out of Alaska that night but there was time for one last meal with some of the group so we walked downtown and went for a meal together at the Hard Rock Cafe.

It had been an amazing trip with so many highlights. Looking for bears at Lake Clark, wildlife spotting while cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, kayaking out to see magnificent icebergs in Valdez, taking a scenic flight and hiking across a glacier at Wrangell-St Elias National Park, canoeing down the Maclaren River and joining the 33% club by actually laying eyes on Mount Denali! But now, it was time to say our final goodbyes to the group and it was back to Anchorage airport to wave goodbye to this beautiful State!

Watch my Denali National Park vlogs here:


Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and McCarthy

Spotting a bald eagle just outside of Valdez

After an exhausting but amazing day kayaking out to an iceberg field in Valdez, it was back on the van today to set off for our next stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour of Alaska, the historic town of McCarthy from where we’d be exploring the largest US National Park, Wrangell-St Elias.

The long, straight road ahead!

After a quick breakfast stop in Valdez, we began our long drive, stopping just outside of Valdez after spotting a bald eagle in the trees on the roadside and then again at an overlook for Lowe River.

Roadside stop on the way to McCarthy
Casper the Friendly Ghost mural in Chitina

We made more frequent stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs along the way including one at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area to see the waterfall.

Another delicious dessert
No traffic on the road bridge!

Our lunch stop today was in the small town of Chitina. As we’d once again made our own lunch up to keep costs down, we again bought a dessert to share at the cafe the group were eating at!

The road to McCarthy was long and bumpy and following yesterday’s exhausting full day’s kayaking excursion, after lunch, I did something I rarely do and fell asleep in the van!

I woke up just before our final stop before McCarthy at an overlook for the Copper River. We stopped at a long road bridge crossing the river from which there pretty views of the chalky river flowing through the canyon below. The road was so quiet, we sat on the bridge posing for photos – something we’d rarely be able to do on road bridges in the UK!

Our McCarthy guesthouse

Once we reached the vicinity of McCarthy, we stopped and parked up near an old railroad bridge. We were told to retrieve our luggage from the trailer and to take it over the river bridge and once on the other side, we would be met by vans belonging to the guesthouse we were staying in who would take us the rest of the way into town as larger vehicles such as our tour van are not advised to drive the last stretch of the road.

The hotel’s cosy common area

We were staying at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic guesthouse in the town. There was no wifi, no power points in our rooms – we had to use the few in the communal areas – and bathrooms were shared rather than being en suite but it had a real charm about it and the rooms were really lovely. The whole town was like something time had forgot with its swinging saloon doors and Wild West style fronts.

About to board our small aircraft

That afternoon, some of us had opted to take a scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias National Park so, after a bit of time to settle in to our accommodation and look around the small town, we met at the front of the hotel to be shuttled down to the local airfield and board our small aircraft.

Flying over the ghost town of Kennecott

The flight was an amazing experience with stunning views of the park below. We flew over the braided Copper River, over the ghost town of Kennecott and then over mountains and glaciers, the scenery taking our breath away as our pilot told us about the history and geography of the area and answered any questions we had as we communicated with him through our headsets. We had saved furiously before the trip to be able to do these optional extras as we knew they would be what made the trip and while this was certainly not the cheapest optional extra on offer, it was absolutely worth every penny.

Pulled pork dinner
Diet Coke summing up the trip so far!

After our flight, we were dropped back in McCarthy town and all went for dinner at local diner, The Potato, where I had an amazing pulled pork sandwich. The group was really starting to gel now and the banter was in full flow as we were all on a high from our scenic flight experience.

Day 2 in McCarthy and we were off to Wrangell-St Elias National Park for a glacier hiking experience. Once again, we were picked up and shuttled out of McCarthy, this time to the old mining town of Kennecott, now a ghost town, where we met our guide for the day and got kitted out with special grips that fitted over our shoes enabling us to walk on the icy glacier.

Starting the hike across the glacier

Taking a short hike out to the glacier’s edge, we followed the glacier trail until the rocky path disappeared to be replaced by ice. It was surreal walking across the seemingly endless icy plain which we had been flying over the afternoon before. We came across huge walls of ice and deep crevices with no bottom in sight. We stopped for snacks and drinks sat out on the glacier and stopped to fill up our water bottles from the icy springs – the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted!

At the National Park Visitor Center in Kennecott

After returning to Kennecott and handing back our equipment, the afternoon was free for us to either explore Kennecott or to return to McCarthy. We decided to stay in Kennecott, grabbing some lunch and visiting the national park visitor center before signing up for a tour of the old abandoned copper mine.

The mill in the old copper mining town of Kennecott
In our protective gear to enter the old mill

The tour was really interesting, taking us through the town of Kennecott hearing all about its history and then up into the remains of the old, red mill building. Although the building had been stabilised to allow visitors in, we had to wear hard hats in case of any falling debris!

After the tour, we caught the shuttle back to McCarthy taking another trip to the Potato Cafe for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.

The next morning, we had breakfast and spent some time down by the river before we were dropped back at our tour van ready to set off for our next destination, an overnight stop in Maclaren.

Watch my vlog of my visit to McCarthy and scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias here:

Watch my vlog of my Wrangell-St Elias glacier hike and visit to Kennecott ghost town here:

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park

Day 1 of our Alaskan Highlights Tour

After 2 underwhelming days spent in Anchorage, the day we had been waiting for had arrived – the start of our 10-day Grand American Adventures Alaskan Highlights tour.

On our tour van
Potters Marsh

Having got the introductions and paperwork out of the way at a welcome meeting the previous evening, it was straight to loading up the trailer with our luggage, hopping on and setting off. The tour was off to a precarious start when moments after leaving the hotel, a huge moose leapt out in front of us just as we had started picking up speed down a main road. Luckily, there was nothing in the lane next to us and we managed to swerve to avoid hitting it. Danger over, we were relieved and excited to have had our first Alaska wildlife spot!

Spotting a moose

Our guide explained to us that she had a tour ‘morning song’ – a song she played as the first song of the day on the bus each morning and which we’d all get to know and be able to sing along to by the end of the tour. The song was I Got a Name by Joe Croce. It wasn’t a song I was already familiar with but by the end of the tour, we did indeed all know and love it.

Views from Potters Marsh

Our first stop of the day was at Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk just outside of Anchorage. We wandered the board walks and were rewarded as we looked out over the marsh with another moose appearance!

Aerial tramway up Alyeska Mountain
View from Alyeska Mountain

Back on the bus, we continued to Alyeska Mountain where we had the option of riding the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to take a gondola ride, we got our tickets along with a few other members of our tour group and soon we were at the top taking in the beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers.

Trail to Byron Glacier

We next stopped at a section of the Byron Glacier Trail in the National Forest. We followed the short section of the trail down to the glacier viewing area then returned to the bus to continue on to Seward arriving early afternoon.

Byron Glacier

Dropping us off in downtown Seward, we visited a cafe for lunch before going to check in at the motel we’d be staying in for the next 2 nights.

In Seward
Visitor Center at Kenai Fjords National Park

While in Seward, we would mainly be exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and this afternoon we would be heading to the Exit Glacier part of the park.

We were dropped off at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center where most of us decided to take the guided ranger tour to the glacier. After taking a walk in the park ourselves while waiting for the guided walk to start, we made our way back to the visitor centre meeting point. It was quite an easy hike to the glacier with plenty of stops as the ranger talked to us about the park and explained how quickly the glacier is receding.

The Yukon Bar

Dollar bills on the roof of the bar

After our hike, we all boarded our tour bus again to be dropped back in Seward where we had a group meal after which a few of us decided to head to one of the local bars, the Yukon Bar, where it was open mic night then after a few drinks, we walked back to our motel.

Inside the Yukon Bar
On the boat

Day 2 in Seward we were taking an included full day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. After grabbing breakfast at a cafe in town, we met with the rest of the group at the marina, spotting an adorable sea otter playing in the bay as we waited. Our cruise was lead by a National Park Ranger who pointed out where to look to spot wildlife in the area – and there was certainly plenty of it to spot! We saw seals, puffins, bald eagles and goats on the cliffs we sailed past and eventually, our patience paid off when we saw a whale swimming ahead.

Becoming Explorer Rangers!

During the cruise, the park ranger announced that they were running an Explorer Ranger programme on board, jokingly suggesting that adults could get involved as well as children. So, of course, we requested booklets and completed them to earn our Explorer Ranger badges by the end of the cruise.

Once back on dry land, the evening was ours to spend as we wished. We decided to walk in the opposite direction from the town where we found Seward Lagoon. After having a quick walk along the boardwalk, we went for dinner at Red’s Burgers where you get to eat your food sat on an old converted school bus!

School bus diner

After dinner, we walked back into town taking more pictures around the seafront then returned to the Yukon Bar for drinks at the end of the evening.

Beautiful views from Seward

It had been a great start to the tour. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park had been really fun places to explore and now, we were excited to head to Valdez for the next part of our tour!

Watch my vlog of my journey to Seward and visit to Exit Glacier here:

and my vlog of my Kenai Fjords cruise here:

Mount Rainier National Park

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.

Arriving at 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.

No sign of the mountain peak – stopping at a viewpoint on the way up

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.

Looking for Mount Rainier

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.

The Henry M Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise
The closest we came to seeing the peak of Mount Rainier it peaks out behind a cloud!

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.

Narada Falls

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!

A rainbow!
Longmire Suspension Bridge

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!

Tall trees in the ancient forest

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.

A walk in the ancient old growth forest

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.

Visiting Olympic National Park

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 ferry to Bainbridge Island

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.

Leaving Seattle in the distance

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.

Hurricane Ridge

The Olympic Mountains shrouded in cloud

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.

View from Hurricane Ridge

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

Stopping at a view point on the way down from Hurricane Ridge

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

Ready 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.

Lake Crescent

The Lodge on the bank of Lake Crescent

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.

Seattle bound on the ferry

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:

Viva Las Vegas

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?!

The Hotels

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!

The Views

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.

One of the Cirque du Soleil shows on the Strip

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

Rides in Circus Circus hotel
The Rollercoaster running through New York New York hotel

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!!

The Shops

The Hershey’s store

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.

The Museums

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.

Bryce Canyon National Park

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!

Trek America Northern BLT Days 16-17: Yosemite National Park

Arriving at Yosemite National Park

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.

Views along Tioga Pass Road

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.

Riding through Yosemite Valley

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.

Views in Yosemite Valley

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.

Floating down the river

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.

Northern BLT Days 12-14: Jackson, Wyoming

The view after leaving Yellowstone National Park
Hiking at Grand Teton National Park

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.

Views while hiking at Grand Teton National Park

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.

Dinner in Jackson, Wyoming

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.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

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!

Rafting along Snake River

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.

Jackson Square

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: