Our first stop, just across the Michigan-Ohio border in the city of Toledo, was at a restaurant we had spotted on a roadside America website, Tony Packo’s. The Hungarian-American restaurant specialises in hot dogs and is a local institution having been in the area since the 1930s and while the food was fine (we especially enjoyed our cookies and ice cream dessert!), we were stopping by because it also doubles as a museum of signed hot dog buns!
All the walls were plastered with autographed hot dog rolls from celebrities who had stopped by over the years and it was fun trying to spot the stars we recognised!
Staying overnight in a Toledo motel, we were up early the next morning to drive to the familiar surrounds of Sandusky, home of the best amusement park we had ever been to, Cedar Point. We had spent the afternoon at the park on our Trek America tour a few years earlier and it just wasn’t long enough so today we were heading back to make a day of it!
Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a corporate day out meaning the park was a lot busier than it would have otherwise been but we still had a fantastic day riding the many World-beating roller coasters.
Leaving the park late evening, we drove the short distance to the outskirts of Cleveland where we were staying the night in a Travelodge on the edge of Lake Erie.
The next morning, we drove into Cleveland itself to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a museum we had passed on our last visit to Ohio but not stopped at. The museum, sat on the bank of Lake Erie, had lots of music-related artefacts including costumes and instruments belonging to many popular rock and pop artists from over the ages.
Despite it being a ‘rock’ museum, the displays covered a diverse array of artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Roy Orbison, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson all the way up to modern day popstars including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.
After our Cleveland visit, we drove south to spend the afternoon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the lesser known National Parks of America.
Knowing little about the park, we made the visitor centre our first port of call, talking to a park ranger to help us decide on an itinerary for the afternoon.
Having entered the park at it’s north entrance, it made most sense to head south and exit at the other end so we drove along the main park road stopping along the way at some of the short trails to see waterfalls, rivers, woodland, marshlands and a covered bridge!
From Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we continued to drive through Ohio towards the state of Pennsylvania where we would be spending the remaining couple of nights of our trip. It had been fun revisiting Ohio and I’m sure we will return again one day!
We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.
After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.
Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.
Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.
Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.
Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.
After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.
The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!
The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!
While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!
A really fun roadside stop!
Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.
We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.
It was a fascinating museum to visit.
After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.
After more than 2 weeks on the road, we were on the home stretch and close to completing our 3-week tour through America’s Midwest. Looping anti-clockwise from Chicago, we had so far spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri and now, we had just 2 states left before we returned to the Windy City. Starting with Kentucky.
After a couple of nights in the city, we left our St Louis hotel for Louisville, Kentucky with, what we thought was, plenty of time to spare. We had an unusual activity booked their for that afternoon – ziplining underground in some caves – so needed to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to check in.
Unfortunately, we had completely forgot, or just hadn’t realised at all, that we’d be crossing a time zone and because we were travelling East, we would be losing an hour!
It wasn’t until we checked on the traffic as we left St Louis and saw that our arrival time was out that we suddenly realised. Luckily, we were still able to make it on time, it just meant we had to do the drive in one go without any of our planned stops including the stop at a KFC just because we were in Kentucky and at the Louisville Visitor Centre to take photos with a Colonel Sanders wax statue.
Arriving in Louisville and finding the Mega Cavern complex relatively easily, we checked in for our Mega Zips tour and got decked out in our safety equipment. Our guides and ziplining experts took us into the caverns where we manoeuvred around via 6 ziplines and 2 rather precarious rope bridges, often with just the torch on our helmet for light! It was an amazing experience leaping into darkness, often not being able to even see the other end of the zipline as we left the platform, although for the most part, the caverns were well-lit as we zoomed over the cavern below us.
After our zipline adventure, we drove to Cave City where we checked in at accommodation for the next 2 nights at the Wigwam Village! Here, our motel room was an en suite concrete tepee. It was a fun alternative to the standard motel rooms we had become used to and there was a lot more room inside than it looked like there would be from the outside!
The next morning, we drove into Cave City and after breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, visited its Dinosaur World attraction. The park had a collection of life-size dinosaur replicas. It was definitely somewhere aimed at kids and wouldn’t have been my choice of how to spend a couple of hours but one of my travel buddies was a big dinosaur fan and seemed to enjoy it!
After Dinosaur World, we returned to Cave City to look around its few stores and grab some snacks before driving up to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. The park is nestled above Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the World. We had booked a Cave Tour and after picking up junior ranger booklets to fill in from the visitor centre, checked into head underground.
There were a variety of tours to choose from, all differing length and group sizes, but we chose the Historic Tour as it fitted best with our plans for the day. The tour was really fascinating, taking us through the cave to see all the highlights and following in the footsteps of explorers from as far back as the 1800s. We heard the stories of these explorers and saw graffiti etched into the cave walls from long ago.
Once back in the daylight, we used what we had learnt to complete our Junior Ranger booklets and earn another ranger badge!
That evening, after dinner at a nearby Pizza Hut, we visited Ralphie’s Fun Centre for a change from our usual night in and a game of bowling!
Our journey from Kentucky to Indiana the next day meant retracing our inbound route slightly. This gave us the opportunity to call into one of the stops we didn’t have time for before, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The site housed a memorial to President Lincoln inside of which was a replica of the Kentucky cabin he was born in.
Then it was time to say goodbye Kentucky as we continued on our road trip, Indiana-bound!
Taking that into account, we had left our Oklahoma City accommodation pretty early, on what we had down as a 6-hour drive day in our itinerary and after a scheduled stop along Route 66 at the Blue Whale of Catoosa, we were now on track for an afternoon arrival in the state of Arkansas.
Soon after crossing the border, we felt in need of a break to stretch our legs and after spotting some signposts for Fort Smith National Historic Site, we made a spur of the moment decision to stop and have a look around.
We had a look around the visitor centre and museum, set in a building built as barracks in 1851 before being converted into a courthouse and jail in 1872, as well as taking a quick walk around the grounds before continuing on our journey to the next roadside attraction on our list.
With one of my travel companions having a severe peanut allergy, she thought it would be hilarious to stop at (a safe distance from) Planters Company Peanut Factory, where we had seen on a Roadside America website that there was a bronze sculpture of Mr Peanut outside which you could take a picture with.
With most of the cars parked on the lot belonging to the factory’s workers, we weren’t sure if we should even be on the grounds so we made the stop pretty quick, jumping out to take photos before hopping back into the car to continue on our way!
The rest of the day was spent following an extremely long, winding road past a National Forest all the way to the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, our only other stop being a late lunch at McDonalds.
We arrived in Hot Springs early evening, checking into a lovely motel run by a British couple. They were so excited to have fellow Brits staying that they graciously offered us their residents passes to one of the town’s spas to use during our stay!
After settling in at our motel, we took stroll into town hoping to find somewhere to have dinner. Pretty hungry at this point, we eventually decided on Deluca’s Pizzeria. Unfortunately, there turned out to be a large party in who had given their orders in right before us meaning a huge delay in our orders arriving. After waiting over an hour for our food, we did at least get an apology and discount.
We were so hungry by the time it arrived that the pie we had ordered between us wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger and once back at our motel, we were dipping into the breakfast bars left in our room for the morning!
The next morning we wandered back into the town. Hot Springs, a spa town, is actually part of a US National Park, the smallest National Park in the US National Park System. As we walked down the main street past the old bathhouses, we decided to book ourselves onto a National Park Duck Tour.
Two of us had taken a Duck Tour the previous year in Seattle and it had been great fun and we hoped to learn a bit about the history of Hot Springs National Park and see a bit more of it than we would have otherwise by taking a tour.
There was availability on the next tour so we were handed quackers to use on board and climbed straight onto our DUCK.
The tour took us through downtown Hot Springs and out onto Lake Hamilton. Unfortunately there wasn’t a huge amount to see and a lot of our guide’s humour fell flat but we did learn some interesting facts – finding out that the town holds the USA’s shortest St Patrick’s Day Parade on a tiny back street each year and that President Clinton had actually grown up in the town and attended Hot Springs High School – and it was at least fun sounding our quackers, trying to hold conversations with the ducks we passed out on the lake.
After our tour, we took now-traditional National Park sign photos then went straight to the park’s Visitor Centre set in one of the grand bathhouses, Fordyce Bathhouse, to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Although technically aimed at kids, having completed some for these booklets on our Alaska tour before, we had found it a good way to learn about the National Parks.
The Park Rangers tended to allow anyone that asked to take part in the programs and it’s a fun way to explore a National Park as well as the badges awarded at the end making great souvenirs!
Junior Ranger booklets in hand, we set about exploring the town, concentrating on the Bathhouse Row area where most of the historic bathhouse buildings were situated but also fitting in a bit of shopping and a break to sample some delicious cupcakes!
Once we’d filled in most of our booklet, we returned to the Visitor Centre to get them checked by a Park Ranger and take our ranger pledge to earn our badges and certificates!
While Bathhouse Row is the main part of Hot Springs National Park, there is also a section of the park away from the town which, set in the mountains, is a bit more like the National Parks we were used to visiting.
We left the town behind to drive up the steep mountain hills to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a lookout tower perched on Hot Springs Mountain.
We paid the small fee to go up to the observation deck to enjoy sweeping views over the surrounding parkland and down to Hot Springs Village before following the road through the park to West Mountain Summit for more pretty views.
It was now late afternoon and we’d already packed a lot into our day at Hot Springs National Park so we decided to take advantage of the passes the motel owners had provided us with and spend a relaxing hour or so actually experiencing the hot springs we’d heard and read so much about over the course of the day by visiting Quapaw Baths & Spa.
The spa’s thermal pools are filled with Hot Springs water and it was a really relaxing way to spend the end of our busy day.
The next morning we were leaving Arkansas for a few days in the state of Missouri.
We had had a few possible stops down on our itinerary near the city of Little Rock but after talking to the Hot Springs Park Ranger yesterday, had decided to change our plans after he pointed out that the Buffalo National River park would likely lie along our route. We had looked into it and found that we’d not have to alter our route much to be able to stop there so decided to skip our other stops and head straight for that!
It was a really pretty drive through Arkansas to Buffalo River and once there, we spent a bit of time at the Visitor Centre before wandering down the the river enjoying the pretty scenery.
We’d had a fun time in Arkansas visiting one of the most unusual but interesting National Parks we had ever been to and could see from driving through the state that it was one of the prettiest states to visit and one we’d like to someday explore further.
After years of visiting major American cities on various city breaks and then spending some time travelling across America on small group escorted tours, I was really starting to tick the 50 states of America off, having even managed to visit Alaska which isn’t part of the ‘Great 48’ mainland states. A visit to Denver, Colorado marked reaching my 30th state (ok, some states I’d just passed through without stopping at at this point, but it still kinda counted!) and it seemed silly now not to try and aim to tick off all 50.
Looking at a map, it became clear that the majority of the states I had left to visit, were congregated around the middle – the Midwest states – and as it seemed to be agreed on most travel sites that there wasn’t a lot to see in this part of the USA, none of the small group tours I looked at visited any of these in much detail, if at all.
Having made a great group of friends on the tours I had previously done, I began to see if any of these would be interested in adding to the number of states we had visited and eventually, this lead to a group of 3 of us deciding to plan our own tour, a roadtrip of the Midwest states, lasting around the 3-week mark.
We were all drivers so would hire a car, plan a route and take it in turns to drive each day. The aim was to tick off the states in the middle and find our own adventures along the way, proving the websites which said there was nothing to see in these states wrong!
Having never planned a trip like this before – we were all used to jumping on a group tour and having everything done for us – we were unsure where to start but having seen our tour guides in action, how difficult could it be driving across America, getting to places on time and finding interesting places to stop at along the way, right?
Deciding that Chicago would be a good ‘gateway to the Midwest’, we began to plot a possible circular route passing through as many states we hadn’t yet visited as possible before arriving back in Chicago.
Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri were all on our list and, similar to our Trek trips, we decided to aim to spend just one or two nights at each stop along the way.
We had very little idea on what each of these states had to offer but we’d heard of St Louis, Missouri and all wanted to visit its Gateway Arch and one of us knew someone who had visited a Wizard of Oz-themed attraction in Kansas which sounded like fun – who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz after all – so we added those ideas to our list as a starting point.
Wanting to try and recreate the feel of our Trek America trips, we also made a list of all the activities we had enjoyed on these tours so that we could find similar opportunities along the way this time – National Park visits, white water rafting, horse riding, bike or Segway tours… were all jotted down on a document we had created and shared via Google Drive.
On our Trek America trip across the Northern states, we had spent a lot of time travelling through South Dakota but never made it across the border into North Dakota. It was a bit out of the way, to say the least, of the other states we were aiming to cross off this trip but as we were unsure when else we would ever get there, we started to look into whether we could somehow add it into our itinerary.
Remembering a brief couple of hours stop we’d had at Wisconsin Dells on our Trek America trip, we thought we could factor in a longer stop there after leaving Chicago then from there it made sense to once again pass through the state of Minnesota from which we could travel up into North Dakota before heading south through South Dakota and into Iowa to begin our original circular route back to Chicago.
So that is where we began, with 2 nights pencilled in in Chicago then 2 nights in Wisconsin Dells. I’d heard a lot about the Mall of America with its indoor amusement park which sounded like fun so we pencilled in a 2 night stop in Minneapolis.
Thinking of Minnesota reminded us of the random stop we had made during our Trek America trip at the Jolly Green Giant statue and museum and got us wondering what other random roadside attractions we might be able to find. This led us to the discovery of The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine, also in Minnesota and suddenly our trip took on a whole new direction.
We decided to try and find as many random roadside attractions as we could to stop at along the way and as we soon found out, if that was our aim, then the Midwest was definitely the right place to be to find them!
Finding a couple of websites that listed this kind of thing, we began to plot our route and itinerary around these random stops! The Roadtrip America and Roadside America sites, both had useful map features pinpointing places of interest in each state and we soon had a long list for Wisconsin alone including the Jelly Belly Factory, a Cheese Castle and giant sculptures of a cow, an elephant and a bicycle!
We had a lot of debate over where our overnight stops should be in each state, how long our drive times each day could reasonably be and what routes to take and there had to be a lot of compromise. Eventually, we realised that adding in North Dakota was too much of a stretch so we dropped the 4 days we’d have spent there and in South Dakota from our original plans, leaving us with a couple of days to add in elsewhere along our route which we ended up allocating to a stop in Branson, Missouri.
A rough route worked out starting and ending in Chicago and taking exactly 3 weeks, the 2 of us who were school teachers and had more time to play with plotted out an extra week or so on the end of our trip with the aim of ticking off the states of Michigan and West Virginia and ending in Philadelphia – a city we’d made an hour’s stop in on our Trek America tours but felt we needed a bit more time exploring.
Flights booked, we went back to the first draft of our itinerary and spent the next few months fine tuning it, looking at where we’d make our one or two night stops and booking roadside motels or convenient city hotels. Here, we found a slight problem for travelling as a group of three in that most accommodations offered rooms with 2 doubles and didn’t offer triple rooms or rooms with an extra bed. This meant that most nights, two of us had to share a double bed while we took turns have the other bed to ourselves! Car parking was also something new for us to consider and while most roadside motels offered it for free, this was rarely the case in the cities so we had to factor this into our budget.
We had originally said we’d aim to keep drive days down to a maximum of 4-5 hours driving but the more we researched the states we were passing through, the more random roadside attractions we found that were ‘just a short diversion off our route’ and just had to be added into our itinerary. We even managed to alter our route to include cutting through a corner of Texas as one of us hadn’t been to that state before!
Suddenly, we found that some of our 4 hour drive days, were now 6 or 7 hour drive days but we told ourselves it would be fine as we could make an early start and share the driving three ways. With two of us making it clear from the start we were much less confident with city driving, we also had to make plans to switch drivers well before we reached any cities on our itinerary.
The last thing we got around to booking were the attractions and activities that needed to be booked in advance. Where possible, we booked these in places where we were staying 2 nights so we were already in the area and didn’t have to factor in possible traffic stopping us from reaching the attraction on time. If we couldn’t do this, then we aimed to book them for first thing in the morning on the day we left that area so any driving was after. There were a couple of activities including ziplining in Kentucky where we had to book for the afternoon we arrived so we made sure we didn’t have any other stops planned along the way that day and added an extra hour or so onto our arrival time, booking a slot for late afternoon. It was good job we did in Kentucky as we had completely forgot to factor in US time zones into our plans and we later realised we would lose an hour crossing a time zone that day!
There were also some activities we had to drop purely because we didn’t have the time – we’d read that in Nebraska, something called ‘tanking’ was a popular summertime activity. It involved floating down a river sat in a giant tub and it looked like great fun. But as we researched it, we realised it was a full day activity with tanking trips taking 4-5 hours and unfortunately there was no way we could fit that in. We replaced it with an air-boating trip on the River Platte so we did at least get out on the eater!
When our trip finally came around, we were very excited but also nervous at the thought of hiring a car and driving around such a huge country, on the other side of the road, with its complicated multilane highways around the cities. We had a great few days in Chicago after arriving in the US but sat in silence on the subway en route to the airport to pick up our hire car on the day our road trip was to begin, probably all thinking about all the things that could go wrong!
Three weeks later, we were back in Chicago after what had been, all in all, a pretty successful trip. While we had learnt that we had way over planned what we could fit in on a drive day, we had made it to many of the roadside stops we had in our itinerary and had made it on time to all of the activities we had booked specific time slots for along the way. We also found out that 6-7 hours drive days were not a good idea as we somehow seemed to add on 3 hours to the timings we had down in our itinerary each day once food stops, petrol stops, stops to switch drivers, time spent at each attraction along the way and general faffing had been added in; so an estimated 4-hour drive day took us 7 hours and a 7-hour drive day took us 10 hours!
Lessons learnt for our next US roadtrip and there have been 2 more equally successful trips since.
I’ll be writing about our trip soon so come back to find out exactly how our trip went and what we got up to along the way soon!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We stopped for lunch at the Falls River Visitor Center Area just as it began to rain, the cloud slightly obscuring the view.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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!
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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:
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.