Revisiting Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – Part 1

Having been holidaying in Tenby, a popular seaside resort in the south end of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park since I was a child, I know that area of the park at least pretty well so when we decided to include this park in South West Wales in our Welsh National Parks Road Trip itinerary, I knew I wanted to make sure we included some places and activities there I’d either not done before, or hadn’t done since I was much younger while still revisiting what I consider to be some of the park’s highlights for my friend who had not been before to see.

Views walking along the sea wall from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

With this in mind, we planned a 5 night stay in the area. With many of the hotels in the park itself sold out or way too pricey by the time we got around to booking and many holiday parks only offering the standard Sat-Sat, Mon-Fri or Fri-Sun stays which didn’t suit our itinerary, we eventually decided on a roadside motel in the small village of Llandissilo, a few miles north of market town Narberth and, while quite a way outside of the park, a pretty central location to reach all parts of the park from with pretty much everywhere being within a 20-40 minute drive!

Arriving early on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t what we had planned – we’d expected to spend most of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but the weather had had other ideas – so we made a hasty decision to stop off at Wisemans Bridge at the southern end of the park and the closest point of the park to our motel. When we had to queue along the a-road out of Carmarthen into the park, I should have realised how busy everywhere would be on a Saturday afternoon and we arrived to find all the spaces in the free car parks at Wisemans Bridge completely full. Continuing on, we came to the car park for Coppets Hall, a small bay lying between Wiseman’s Bridge and the popular seaside town of Saundersfoot. Although busy, the car park had an attendant who directed us to park along a grass verge despite there not being an actual marked space there. It didn’t cost much for a couple of hours parking so all paid up, we picked up the coast path and headed through the old railway tunnels and on to the sea wall path back towards Wisemans Bridge.

Rocky coastline at Wisemans Bridge

The Wiseman’s Bridge to Saundersfoot walk is one of the easiest walks along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path being along flat and wide paved footpaths so it didn’t take long to reach the pebbly beach at the other end. We spent a bit of time wondering along the beach looking in the rockpools revealed at low tide before retracing our footsteps back to Coppets Hall and walked in the opposite direction to the bustling town of Saundersfoot where we treated ourselves to an ice cream and wandered around the harbour.

After returning to Coppets Hall, we drove to our motel to check in deciding to have dinner in the restaurant on site realising it was unlikely we’d find anywhere with space for us to eat out at that evening!

For our first full day in the park, we had booked tickets to visit Skomer Island. Worried about things getting booked out, we had done this quite a bit in advance which meant we couldn’t check the weather first.

Walking along the coast path near Martin’s Haven

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side that day. Arriving in Martin’s Haven to check in for our boat trip an hour before it left, we were met by high winds and heavy rain. After checking in and looking around the small gift store,we found the rain had eased a bit so I decided to go for a walk along the coast path while we waited for our boarding time. The views were stunning as I watched the waves crash up against the rocks.

Once it was time to board, we walked down to the small bay and onto the awaiting boat. Just as we set off, the rain started to pour once again making for a rather uncomfortable crossing only cheered up by a seagull deciding to hitch a lift on the corner of the boat to save him the flight across!

Arriving at Skomer, we climbed a set of steps up to a ranger station where we were met by an island ranger who explained a bit about the island, what we might see and the rules for our visit.

Above, and below, exploring Skomer Island

Because of Covid restrictions, the paths around the outskirts of the island had been made one-way in an anti-clockwise direction from the visitor centre and picnic area at the centre of the island. We had 4 hours until we needed to be back at the ranger station and were told that that should be more than enough time to walk the perimeter and be back with time to spare.

As we set off along the path to the centre of the island, the rain finally stopped and we made it about half way around the perimeter path before it started up again. The path around the island lead to many beautiful viewpoints from the cliff tops but wildlife wise, being slightly too late for ‘puffin season’, we instead had to make do with spotting a seal frolicking in the waves crashing against the rocks below.

The pouring rain and strong winds made the last section of our walk slightly more uncomfortable than we’d have liked and with not stopping as long as we otherwise would have to enjoy the views and speeding up our pace a bit to get out of the rain, we ended up back at the centre of the island quite a bit sooner than we had expected to.

The rain sets in again as we walk the coast path on Skomer Island

Luckily, we managed to find an empty bench in the covered picnic area so spent the last hour on the island having a leisurely picnic lunch and looking around the small visitor’s centre before making our way back to catch our boat back to the mainland. Just as we were about to depart, we spotted another seal playing in the surf then scrambling up onto the rocks just off the island.

The rain had stopped again making for a much drier and more pleasant boat trip back to the mainland. Arriving back late afternoon, we drove back to our motel and change into some drier clothes before going for dinner there.

Above, and below, taking Reggie the Alpaca for a walk

The next day, we were pleased to wake up to a much drier day and a forecast of some sunny spells! We had booked an alpaca trek for that morning and tickets to Heatherton World of Adventures for that afternoon so after breakfast, drove out to a farm near Manorbier to meet our furry friends for the morning. Having never walked an alpaca before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but it turned out to be a really fun activity even if we were technically just walking around a field.

My alpaca, Reggie, was pretty obliging, trotting alongside me and posing for photos when we reached the halfway point in return for a few handfuls of food.

After returning Reggie to his pen and saying our goodbyes, we drove on to Heatherton, an activity centre just outside of Tenby. This was a place I’d always go on a cloudy day with my family when I was younger. Back then, it was a much smaller affair and billed as a ‘country sports’ and golfing centre. We’d spend our morning on the pitch ‘n’ putt course and our afternoons trying out archery, pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, croquet, boules, and, of course, take a few trips round on the bumper boats. Now the park has extended to occupy a site across the road from when the original activities are still housed and the list of activities on offer has more than doubled to include baseball, ropes courses, slides, a hedge maze and many many more. I mainly just wanted to revisit all my old favourites for nostalgic reasons so we bought an 8-credit pass which we calculated to be enough to spend on all these with a couple left over for anything else that took our fancy.

Upon arriving, we couldn’t quite believe how busy the centre was, especially as passes had to be pre-booked due to ongoing Covid restrictions and were supposedly limited each day. We struggled to even find a parking space in the overflow but once we had, went to pick up our passes from the main reception. Seeing that there were long queues for everything, we went with the one that currently seemed to be the shortest/moving the quickest and that was the bumper boats. Within 10 minutes we were sat in the boats – which didn’t seem to have been updated at all in the slightest since my original visits in the late ’90s – racing (well, more like crawling) around the small course trying to bump into the other boats. Great fun!

Having forgot to take our lunch with us that day, we grabbed sandwiches from the on-site cafe before our next activity. We went with pistol shooting next. Although we were the next group to take part when we joined the queue, there was a loong, tedious wait as the group before us had their safety talk then slowly worked their way through their 20 pellets but once it was our turn, it was a fun activity to try out and when I collected my target after our session finished, I hadn’t done too badly!

It was another long queue next, this time to try out laser clay pigeon shooting. This was always my favourite when I was younger as I was always pretty good at it but not today, as I failed to hit all but 2 clays as they flew through the air! At this point, having only averaged one activity an hour since our arrival and with still over half of our credit to use up, we were slightly worried we wouldn’t get through everything but as we headed across the road to try out the park’s new Dragon Slide – where you sit in a giant rubber ring, a bit like a water park slide but without the water! – we found a much shorter queue time and were on and off in 5 minutes. The slide was so much fun that we decided to use another credit up to ride it again!

Crossing back under the tunnel to the other side of the road again, we found the crowds had started to empty out a bit. We had 3 credits each left to use, 2 of which we knew we wanted to spend on the still extremely busy Adventure Golf, the other, we originally planned to use on archery but seeing there was still quite a queue for this and no queue at all for the bumper boats next to it, we decided to jump on these again instead!

Having left Adventure Golf to the last hoping the crowds would clear, we decided it was now or never and went to get our clubs and golf balls and were warned that we’d have to queue to play each hole. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad with just one group in front of us to wait for each time. Seeing how busy the park had been put us off booking to go to Oakwood, a nearby theme park, over the next few days as we worried we’d just be spending the whole day queuing so instead we decided to use the day we would have spent there exploring the coast a bit more.

It had been a fun start to our time in Pembrokeshire and we still had a few more full days left to explore the park as well as the morning before we left for Snowdonia. With the weather forecast not looking too bad, we were looking forward to spending a bit more time out on the coast.

Brecon Beacons National Park

After a few weeks of planning, we were starting a 2-week tour of Wales concentrating our time mainly on the country’s three National Parks. First up was the Brecon Beacons, situated in the middle of South Wales. The park was one I’d driven along the outskirts of many a time, bypassing it on an A-road at least once a year for the last 25 years as we headed on family holidays to South West Wales and I’d visited the town of Brecon as a ‘halfway to our destination’ stopping off point many times over. But I had never crossed that busy A-road to see what lay on the other side!

At the trail head to climb Pen y Fan

We arrived at our motel for the next three nights early evening on a Wednesday. We were staying in the town of Merthyr Tydfil just outside the southern end of the park as prices were a lot cheaper here than to stay in the National Park itself but in just a 5 minute drive, we were across the park boundaries.

After settling in to our room, we went out in search of dinner thinking that we’d have no problem getting a table anywhere on a Wednesday evening.

As restaurant after restaurant told us they were full though, we began to realise we were once again going to have to plan ahead for our meals this trip, pre-booking and making sure we were back in time rather than seeing where the day took us and grabbing something wherever we ended up. Finally finding a Pizza place that could squeeze us in, we had dinner a little later than we’d hoped but still found time to fit in a walk around town after our meal.

Sheep near the top of the mountain

Our itinerary for our stay in the park was more a list of ideas and suggestions than a definite plan. A walk up Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Southern Britain, was top of that list and we were keeping an eye on the weather to decide which day was looking best for it. The weather looking to be ok and expecting the National Park to be pretty full with the August summer holidays in full swing, we were up early for our included breakfast at our motel the next day, aiming to be at the car park for the main path to the top of Pen-y-Fan by 9am to beat the crowds.

While the car park was by no means empty when we arrives, we did comfortably find a space and when we returned later to find cars parked everywhere in the main car park, along the road and in lay-bys within a mile or so either way, were glad we made the effort for an early-ish start.

View from the top

The weather was pretty clear for the most part, the sun shining as we set out. The path was easy to follow and the instructions I’d downloaded from a National Trust circular walking route helped us work out which of the two peak we were aiming for when the path split – and it’s a good job it did, We reached a very windy peak of Pen-y-Fan just as the cloud started to move in, some kind of view still visible to us from the top but just minutes later, we made our way across to the peak of Corn Du, the second peak to find ourselves completely immersed in fog and cloud and unable to see Pen-y-Fan, or anything else, anymore!

On top of Corn Du in a cloud!

From Corn Du, we retraced our steps back down the path we had walked up rather than taking the circular route down an alternative path to the road. Exhausted, but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we collapsed into the car feeling grateful that we had a space so close to the path entrance so that we didn’t have to walk any further, and treated ourselves to our packed lunch and a nice hot cup of tea from a flask!

Lunch over, we drove north and seeing the National Park Visitor Centre signposted, decided to use the facilities, get some more park information and buy some souvenirs. There were a number of walks signposted from the visitor centre of varying lengths and difficulties but deciding we’d done enough walking for the time being, we moved on to do a circular scenic drive through the east side of the park.

Above, and below, Gospel Pass drive

Driving up towards Brecon, we turned off back into the park and followed an extremely narrow, steeps, twisting and turning track which, judging from the grass growing up the middle of the road, is rarely used. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any oncoming traffic and just as we were wondering where the sat nav was taking us, the road opened out to reveal Gospel Pass, the road we were aiming for, in front of us.

This mountain pass is seen as a ‘must-do’ drive in the Brecon Beacons for it’s stunning views and we made our way along it past pretty countryside and wild horses roaming the hills. We pulled up at Hay Bluff, a parking area from where we could admire the views.

Llanthony Abbey ruins

After taking in the scenery, we continued along gospel pass, the road again narrowing and heading through woodland. Eventually, we reached Llanthony Abbey. The abbey ruins are free to visit and there was a cafe on site run by neighbouring Llanthony Priory Hotel for refreshments.

From here the road continued to a main A-road which we then followed west back to our Merthyr Tydfil Hotel giving us a few hours to relax and freshen up before our dinner reservation in town that evening.

The next day we were once again up early, this time to drive out to the car park at the start of the Four Waterfalls walk. As the name suggests, here there is a circular path with paths leading off it at various intervals to see four waterfalls!

Above, and below, on the Four Waterfalls walk

Finding the car park almost empty at around 9am, we chatted to the car park attendant who explained to us that none of the waterfalls are visible from the main circular trail and that the paths leading down to each of the falls were quite strenuous. He recommended we did the loop in reverse to see the most impressive waterfall first so if we were to decide we’d had enough at that point, we could just retrace our steps back still having seen a pretty good waterfall!

Although we were pretty sure we’d not give up after one waterfall, we decided to take his advice so we could at least get the waterfall with the most steps up and down out of the way first!

The main path to the waterfall exit was easy but we could straight away see why we were warned over the path to the waterfall itself. The steps down were often uneven, made of slippy blue stone and way too deep for our short legs to manage easily without grabbing onto something for support as we lowered ourselves down – and often there was nothing to grab on to! But it was worth it once the waterfall was revealed. It was possible to scramble across some rocks to go behind the waterfall but seeing as we’d had a tough time just getting down to that point, we stayed to admire it from the base of the steps before climbing back up to the path again – surprisingly, it was easier going up than down!

We continued along the path which narrowed, had frequent unpaved sections and rocky sections and was in itself, not an easy walk anymore, until we reached the next branch off to another waterfall. Again, we found a steep path with loose gravel sections, muddy areas and even a few boulder sections! It certainly made the walk more interesting though. It took us about 3 hours to complete the full walk with stops for a bite to eat along the way and taking our time across trickier sections of the path and we made it back onto the main paved section of the path back to the (now packed) car park just as it started to rain, grateful that it hadn’t rained while we were scrambling over already slippery rocks to see the falls!

Pretty views from the lay-by opposite Crai Reservoir

After a lay-by late lunch stop, we looked at a map and consulted our list of itinerary ideas deciding to loop around to the centre of the park and visit one of the park’s many reservoirs. We decided on Crai Reservoir which would put us back on a road heading towards Merthyr Tydfil again rather than taking us out of the way. We had read that there was a path you could walk there towards the reservoir dam with great views across but upon pulling up at the car park across from the reservoir, we couldn’t actually find this path!

There was a bridge across a valley stream leading off from the car park which offered a pretty view of the hills and some footpaths signposted up into the hills but across the road, we walked along the grass verge alongside where we could barely even see the reservoir peeping out from behind dense hedgerow, never mind find a path to access it.

Carreg Cennen Castle

Giving up and returning back in the other direction, we walked a bit further south of the car park to a driveway down to a house where there was a public footpath sign which seemed to be pointing along the side of the house’s grounds but a path was barely visible and overgrown with nettles to the point that we weren’t completely sure if it was even there or if the sign was pointing along the road we had just walked along instead.

Not wanting to end up walking across private property, we instead returned to the car and, as it was now nearing 3pm anyway, took a scenic way back to the southern end of the park looping background to our Merthyr Tydfil motel.

Nearing the castle

With no rush to get to our Pembrokeshire National Park destination the next day, we had planned to spend the majority of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but checking the weather, we saw there was heavy rain forecast the next morning. We checked to see if there was any availability at the Dan yr Ogof Welsh National Showcaves but fond all the timed slots already sold out so decided to see what the weather was like the next day and take it from there.

We did indeed wake up to heavy rain and cloud and decided our original loose plans to hill walk to a view of a glacial lake Llyn y Fan Fach or to drive along Black Mountain Pass at the west side of the park were probably not worth it as the views wold be obscured by cloud.

Exploring the castle ruins

Instead, we decided to begin our drive to Pembrokeshire making a stop at Carreg Cennan Castle on the edge of the Brecon Beacons along the way.We had downloaded instructions for a circular walk around the castle providing views it without having to pay to go in but once there, the weather still not great, we decided to pay the small fee to visit the ruins instead. Luckily, the weather started to clear just as we were about to leave so we got to see a bit more of a view from the top!

It was great to finally see what lay on the other side of the busy A-road bypassing Brecon that I’d driven down so many times in the past and as it turned out, our 3 nights in the Beacons was nowhere near enough time to see anywhere near all the park has to offer but it was a start. I was glad I had the chance to visit and definitely plan to return sometime!

A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.

An East Coast USA Road Trip: Acadia National Park

Briefly passing through the state of New Hampshire en route to Maine

I was nearing the end of my 5 week USA road trip and after spending time in Miami, Orlando, Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Nashville and Gatlinburg, we’d driven through the Blue Ridge Mountains and across to Washington DC, visited Baltimore and New York City. The last leg of our trip was a loop of the New England states and after ticking off Connecticut and Rhode Island and driving through Massachusetts, today we’d be leaving our motel on the outskirts of Boston to drive north towards Acadia National Park in Maine.

Driving north from Massachusetts to Maine meant briefly crossing in to the state of New Hampshire. We’d be spending more time in this state on the way back towards Boston after our visit to Acadia but for now, always on the lookout for interesting or fun roadside attractions, we made a quick stop in New Castle at Great Island Common, a small coastal park that’s home to a giant picture frame you can pose inside.

It was fun and pretty early morning stop although probably not worth the cost of parking is you’re not staying for long!

From New Castle, NH, we crossed the state border into Maine where we had a few more fun stops planned to break up our journey to Bar Harbor, where we’d be staying for the next few nights.

Lenny, the chocolate moose at Len Libbies Candies

First up, was a giant arm chair just randomly sat on a grassy area by a furniture store in the town of Kittery. After clambering on to try it out, we continued Scarborough where we visited the roadside store Len Libbies Candies to see it’s giant chocolate moose sculpture and buy some sweet treats for our journey.

Next up, was a stop at a business park in Yarmouth to peer in at ‘Eartha’, the World’s Largest Rotating Globe, rotating so slowly, we weren’t actually sure it was moving at all at first!

Our lunch time stop was in the town of Freeport where, after grabbing a Subway sandwich, we took photos with a giant L.L. Bean Boot car. We were also very excited to find a British shop in the town selling the UK made Cadbury’s chocolate we’d recently found ourselves craving!

The welcome sign at Acadia National Park

It was a long drive from Freeport to our motel on the outskirts of Bar Harbor. With time getting on, we made one last stop at a Denny’s along the highway for dinner, finally arriving at our accommodation early evening. Finding an ice cream and desserts shop near to our motel while out walking that evening, we grabbed a delicious crepe stuffed with Nutella and strawberries to eat before settling down for the night, ready for an early start the next day.

The following morning, we enjoyed a pancake breakfast at a local restaurant before driving towards Acadia National Park. We began our day at the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to pick up park brochures and, of course, a Junior Ranger booklet to fill in along the way!

Above, and below, views from Cadillac Mountain

We had planned to drive along the park’s loop road, stopping off at some of the park’s highlights along the way. We’d been warned that the park often got busy and parking could be difficult to find at some of the main sites after mid-morning so had made sure to get up and out as early as we could.

Our first stop was at Cadillac Mountain where, luckily, there were still plenty of parking spaces available. Walking up the the viewpoint from the car park, we then spent almost an hour hiking over the rocks and enjoying the beautiful views.

At Schooner Head Outlook

Back in the car, we entered the one-way section of the loop road. We diverted off briefly to drive down to the Schooner Head Outlook, parking up and hiking down along the Schooner Head Trail for a bit to get a better look.

Above, and below, our lunch spot overlooking Thunder Hole

Next, we had hoped to stop at Sand Beach but found the area to be overrun with visitors, the car park full and no spaces anywhere along the road either. A bit further along the loop road, we did eventually manage to find a space to pull in and park at to walk down to the coast path and see Thunder Hole, so called because it is said to sound like a clap of thunder when the water hits the rocks at certain times of the day.

Scrambling further along the rocky coast path, we found somewhere to sit to have lunch with a view before returning to the car and continuing along the loop road a bit further to Otter Point.

At Otter Point

After enjoying more beautiful views, we followed the loop road inland towards Jordan Pond. As well as the picturesque lake, this part of the park is also home to restaurants, gift stores and conveniences and is therefore a popular spot on the loop road. With it being mid-afternoon, everyone seemed to have arrived at the same time and despite multiple loops on the car park, we could not find a space.

An Eagle Lake overlook

As this part of the park lay just off the one-way section of the loop road, we decided to drive on and return later when we hoped it would be a bit quieter. Instead, we continued our loop of the park, stopping briefly at a viewpoint for Eagle Lake and then exiting the park back by the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to drive into Bar Harbor instead.

With our motel lying on the outskirts of Bar Harbor, this was our first visit to the main town. After wandering around looking in some of the stores, we walked down to the pretty harbour and along the sea front.

The marina at Bar Harbor

After spending a bit of time in the town, we decided to return to Acadia and make another attempt at finding a car parking space at Jordan Pond. The couple of hours that had passed since our last visit had made a huge difference and this time we had a choice of spaces!

Above, and below, back in Acadia National Park at Jordan Pond

We visited Jordan Pond House first looking around the gift store and enjoying the views overlooking the lake in the distance then walked down to the lake front following the path along the shore for a while. The views across Jordan Pond with the two hills of South and North Bubble behind it were really pretty and we were glad we made the effort to return and spend some time here.

Ice cream!

That evening, we returned to our motel grabbing dinner at a neighbouring restaurant then returning to the dessert store for ice cream before spending some time completing our Junior Ranger booklets.

The next morning, after checking out, we returned to the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to hand our booklets in and earn our souvenir Junior Ranger badges before setting off for New Hampshire and the White Mountains.

We had one more stop to make in Maine, at a roadside attraction in the town of Bryant Pond – the World’s Largest telephone!

Then it was time to wave goodbye to this pretty state and continue with the last few days of our adventure.

Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park

A road trip through North Carolina and Virginia states

After a busy few days in Tennessee visiting the always fun city of Nashville followed by the Great Smoky Mountains, we were driving – in a bit of a hurry – to the next state to tick off on our road trip, North Carolina. Our rush, was due to a bear causing a delay on the one-way Cades Cove loop road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park meaning we’d made it out of the park slightly later than planned and now needed to reach Hartford, just before the North Caroline border, in time for a white water rafting session along the Pigeon River.

Having already missed a dolphin-watching excursion in Savannah earlier along our road trip, we had no desire to repeat our disappointment – or lose more money – by missing out on this! Luckily, we had a traffic and road-works free run and made it with time to spare.

We had both white water rafted before – on the Snake River in Wyoming on our Trek America tour through the Northern states of the USA and then in Oklahoma at a man-made facility in Oklahoma City during another of our self-planned road trips. Both times, and when I’d rafted in Australia, it had been great fun and we were looking forward to doing it again.

With their being just 2 of us, we knew we’d have to team up with other people to make up the numbers in our raft. What we didn’t bank on was there being a huge group of summer camp teenagers booked in for this afternoon’s slot. Climbing onto an old yellow school bus full of raucous excited teenagers was not our idea of fun and we were more than a little relieved when the bus pulled up at the launch point alongside the Pigeon River. Things got better once we were allocated our rafting guide and split up into groups to board our 6-berth rafts – now we only had 4 excited teenagers to contend with!!

The actual rafting trip was, once again, great fun as we tackled a range of fast flowing water rapids dotted along the river and after our initial reservations having seen the rest of the group, we were glad we had booked it.

Dripping wet (the queue for the changing rooms was way too long!) and exhausted from a busy day, we found plastic bags to sit on in the car and started our short drive across the border into North Carolina and our roadside motel for the evening on the outskirts of Asheville.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the IHOP, we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Centre, towards the south end of the famous road, near Asheville. Here, we looked around some of the centre’s exhibits, shopped for souvenirs and picked up junior ranger booklets to fill in along the way and hopefully ear ourselves another Junior Ranger badge!

Then we began our drive along the park way, initially stopping every mile or so to jump out and take photos of yet another beautiful view! Soon realising that our photos were al starting to look similar and that of we carried on like this we’d take forever to reach today’s overnight destination of Wytheville, Virginia, we started to be a bit more choosy about our stops, pulling over at the craggy Gardens Visitor Centre then veering off the parkway slightly into the town of Little Switzerland for lunch. This cute town had buildings in the style of Swiss chalets and the Switzerland Cafe offered tasty home-cooked food and delicious hot chocolate!

After lunch, it was back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to continue our scenic drive until our next stop at Linville Falls Visitor Centre. From here, we took the short walk to see the upper and lower falls before continuing on to our last stop of the day, at Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Centre where we exchanged our now filled in Junior Ranger booklets for Junior Ranger badges!

Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway, we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us into the state of Virginia where we’d be staying at a motel in Wytheville for the night. After a long day of driving, we were exhausted by the time we got there so we had dinner at one of the nearby restaurants before a well-deserved early night.

The next day, after a Walmart stop for lunch and snack supplies, we drove towards the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.

The park is really a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with just one road, the Skyline Drive, running through the park. We soon found that the drive, and the views along the way, were very similar to what we’d experienced the previous day.

After a few stops at view points, we nervously ate lunch in a picnic area, slightly worried from reading the abundance of signs in the area that a bear might appear at any moment! Although we didn’t spot any bears after our lunch, we spotted one soon after on the roadside, climbing it’s way into the overgrowth.

We made a few more stops along the Skyline Drive including one in a pretty flower-filled meadow where we watched brightly coloured butterflies dance from flower to flower and then parked up at the Harry F Byrd Snr Visitor Centre.

Here, we picked up a Junior Ranger booklet then explored the exhibits filling in some of the booklet’s pages.

From the centre, we followed the short circular Story of the Forest trail through a pretty wooded area and out onto the meadows across from the Visitor Centre before returning with our completed booklets to receive our Junior Ranger badges.

From here, we continued along the Skyline Drive to the Thornton Gap Entrance station, spotting another bear on the roadside right before we exited the park!

It had been a long couple of days driving and by the end of it, the views of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains were all starting to blend into one! If I was going to plan it again, I’d definitely plan to spend more than one day in Shenandoah National Park and would look more into where to stop along the Skyline Drive to get out and hike in the park rather than just driving and pulling over at viewpoints as I’m sure the park has a lot more to offer than we saw.

For now, it was time for a drive east across Virginia to our next stop, America’s capital city, Washington DC!

Gatlinburg, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Continuing my road trip through Tennessee

It had been less than a year since I had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time as part of a Trek America group tour of the Deep South. Then, it was mid-Autumn and we’d arrived as the the first snow of the season had fallen, the park a sea of browns, oranges and red as the trees got ready to shed their leaves. This time, it was the height of summer so I expected a rather different experience. I’d planned to spend a bit more time in the park for this visit having only got to spend one morning hiking to Abrams Falls last time so was excited to return and get the chance to see more of this huge National Park.

Meeting Ellie,the Pink Elephant, in Cookeville, TN

We were visiting the park as part of an extensive road trip mainly taking in the east coast states of the US. Having begun out trip in Florida visiting Miami and Walt Disney World, Orlando, we had since spent time in Savannah, Georgia and driving through South Carolina state before briefly heading inland to visit Atlanta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. We were now driving back east towards ours next state of North Carolina, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Smokies.

Once again, I’d be using the nearby town of Gatlinburg as a base having enjoyed its ‘Swiss mountain village’ theming on my last visit. Leaving Nashville after a fun couple of days, we made our first stop of the day literally on the roadside in Cookeville to see Ellie the Pink Elephant. This roadside attraction is known for being dressed in various props and costumes throughout the year and when we stopped, was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses!

It was then on towards Gatlinburg.

Arriving late morning, we drove straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park taking the obligatory photos with the National Park sign at the park’s border. After a quick stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to pick up park maps and buy a Junior Rangers activity booklet to fill in, we began our drive further into the park towards Clingmans Dome viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped at a picnic site alongside the Little Pigeon River, taking a short hike along a self-guided trail up into the woods nearby before returning to eat lunch by the river.

Enjoying the view on the way to Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower

Continuing our drive along the gradually ascending road, we pulled over at a few viewpoints along the way and were very excited when we spotted a family of black bears on the roadside in the distance.

Pulling over at a safe distance, we watched as they crossed the road in front of us before disappearing into the trees.

After that bit of excitement, we continued our drive, stopping at a few more view points before arriving at the start of the trail for Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Above, another pretty view as we climbed the road towards Clingman’s Dome, and below, at the Observation Tower enjoying the views

We then followed the trail from the car park towards the large concrete structure. The observation tower lies just across the North Carolina border and on a clear day you can see 7 states from it.

Even on this slightly cloudy day, the views were pretty spectacular although we found the observation tower itself to be a bit of an eyesore!

Having spent some time enjoying the views, we returned to our car and drove back down through the park and into Gatlinburg to check into our motel, an Econo Lodge just off the main strip. That evening, we took a stroll along the strip before a pizza dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

The next day, instead of returning to the National Park, we visited Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s iconic theme park!

Above, the Dollywood Express running through the park, and below, a fun day at Dollywood

Parking in nearby Pigeon Ford, we used the park’s park and ride service to get to the gates. Once inside, we spent the day riding the park’s various coasters and amusement rides and watching some of the shows.

Dolly Parton’s tour bus

Highlights included taking multiple rides on the huge Wild Eagle coaster, getting soaked on the Smoky Mountain River Rampage rapids, visiting the on site Dolly Museum, full of Dolly Parton costumes and memorabilia and getting to steps inside Dolly Parton’s tour bus!

After a fun but tiring day at the park, we caught the park bus back to the Pigeon Forge car park and drove back to our Gatlinburg accommodation taking another stroll into town that evening to have dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.

We were saying goodbye to Gatlinburg – and Tennessee – the next day to continue on our road trip but first, we were heading back into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend most of the day exploring further. After parking at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, we followed the nearby trail through the woods and out to Cataract Falls.

John Ownby Cabin

Then, we returned towards the Visitor Centre and picked up the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a short looped trail out past the historic John Ownby Cabin.

Returning to the Visitor Centre, we handed in our now completed Junior Ranger booklets and took our pledge to received our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger badges!

With plenty of the park still to see, we then began our drive out to the Cades Cove loop road, an 11-mile one way road past some of the park’s highlights. Allowing ourselves what we thought was ample time to make regular stops along the road and get out and hike, we soon found ourselves hitting slow moving traffic and began to panic that we wouldn’t make it around the loop road and out of the park in time to make our pre-booked early evening white water rafting trip en route to Asheville in North Carolina!

Pulling over along the Cades Cove loop road

Seeing crowds of people gathered around a tree in the distance and realising that whatever they were looking was the reason for the hold up as cars either slowed to see or backed in and out of whatever parking spaces they could find nearby, we joked that maybe there was a bear up the tree only to discover that there actually was! Managing to find somewhere to park, we pulled over to have a look for ourselves and there, sat up high in a tree eating berries was a huge black bear!

Spotting a bear up a tree!

It was amazing to see the bear sat up there, casually eating his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the fuss he was causing around him!

Back in the car, we continued around the trail, unfortunately with no time left to pull over, stop and explore anywhere. It had taken us twice as long as we expected to get around but we made it out of the park with just enough time to get to our next destination on time.

It had been lovely to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see a bit more and experience it in different season and we felt lucky to have had a couple of encounters with black bears along the way but there is still plenty of the park let to see and I hope to have the chance to go back some time in the future.

A South Carolina Road Trip

Visiting Charleston, its surrounds and Congaree National Park

We’d been in the USA just over a week so far, already having visited Miami and spent a few days in Walt Disney World and now, after 2 nights in the beautiful city of Savannah, we were back on the road to drive further north to the historic city of Charleston in the state of South Carolina.

Posing with a giant peanut

With it being just a short (for us!) 2-hour drive between the 2 cities, we had, as always, planned a few stops along the way at some fun road side attractions!

Our first stop wasn’t far across the state line in the town of Bluffton, home of the World’s Largest Boiled Peanut! The peanut sculpture, built for a boiled peanut festival was outside a market store in the middle of nowhere and we almost drove past it and missed out on getting photos with it!

Above, and below, touring the Kazoo factory and museum

We were even more excited for our next stop – The Kazoobie Kazoo Factory and Museum in Beaufort, SC! Here, after watching a film on the history of Kazoos, we toured the factory to see them being made before getting to build our own kazoo to keep as a souvenir! The tour ended with a chance to tour the small museum containing all sorts of kazoo products and memorabilia. It was a really fun stop.

Despite our busy morning, we were in the city of Charleston just after lunch so, after checking into our hotel, made the most of our afternoon exploring.

Above, down by the waterfront in Charleston, and below, Rainbow Row

After visiting the Charleston City Market and browsing the many stalls, we took a stroll down to the Waterfront Park with its Pineapple Fountain and pretty views. Walking back through the city, we passed Rainbow Row – a row of brightly painted houses – and some of Charleston’s many churches before walking along King Street in the historic district with its high end boutique stores.

Shoppng along historic King Street

We returned to our hotel in time for it’s late afternoon complimentary cheese and wine happy hour. This gave us a chance to mix with some of the other residents and swap itinerary ideas.

That evening ,we went for some South Carolina BBQ for dinner before joining a Ghost Walk of the city. This was a really fun way to see the city and hear some stories from its past.

Above, and below, touring the McLeod Plantation

We only had one night in the city itself but planned to spend most of the next day in the area so the next morning, we were up early to check out of our hotel and drive to McLeod Plantation. There are a variety of plantations to tour around Charleston and we were unsure which one to choose but McLeod Planation was recommended to us by our tour guide at Owen House in Savannah a few days earlier.

Arriving early, we bought tickets and had just a short wait until our tour was called. A guide took us around the grounds explaining the property’s chequered past and we were then left to continue exploring the house and grounds ourselves. It was a really interesting morning and definitely worth a visit.

Seeing as we’d made such an early start to the day, we still had plenty of time to spare so decided to take a ride out to the coast,and more specifically, Folly Beach. As we neared the beach town though, we hit traffic jams and warnings that the cars parks were all already full. Having not researched alternative places to park or if there were any park and ride schemes, and not planning on spending a huge amount of time there anyway, we decided it wasn’t worth the wait or the cost of parking and turned around deciding to make alternative plans.

The huge Angel Oak

While talking to other residents at our hotel the previous afternoon, some of them had mentioned visiting a huge and very old Oak Tree, the Angel Oak. We had looked up the tree and where to find it in case we had time to see it and as the sat nav was telling us it wasn’t too far away, we decided to make a lunch stop there. Said to be the largest Oak Tree east of the Mississippi, the tree, estimated to be over 300 years old, was definitely an impressive site.

Arriving at Congaree National Park

Running out of things to do around Charleston, we decided to hit the road and try to make it to Congaree National Park today instead of visiting the next day like we’d originally planned. We estimated we could be there between 2pm and 3pm giving us a couple of hours to explore before driving to our nearby roadside motel for the night.

Sure enough, we made it to the park in just a couple of hours. Once there, we stopped at the Harry Hampton Visitor Centre, picking up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in before taking a circular walk through the park along the board walks leading from the centre.

Above, and below, walking through the park

The park had a weirdly tropical rainforest feel to it made more intense by the extreme humidity that afternoon and the increasingly loud rumbles of thunder echoing in the distance. We made it back to the visitor centre just as the first few large drops of rain began dripping through the canopy of trees above us and onto the boardwalk.

After completing our Junior Ranger booklets back in the shelter of the visitor centre and earning our Junior Ranger badges, we hit the road again just as the storm began to pass over.

From the park, it was just a 30-minute drive to our roadside motel in Orangeburg, close to which we found our first Cracker Barrel of the trip to visit for dinner that evening.

Fitting in Congaree National Park that day meant we could now wave South Carolina state goodbye and make an early start towards Atlanta, Georgia the following day. It had been a brief first visit to the state of Carolina and we knew that the state had a lot more to offer but we’d fit plenty in and had really enjoyed our time there.

A Tully Rainforest Adventure

I’d now been in Australia a few weeks. My trip had been broken down into three parts: New Year in Sydney with some of my best friends; two weeks with one of my Trek America travel buddies travelling to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, Townsville/Magnetic Island and Cairns; and now I was about to begin the third leg, a (kinda) solo adventure, travelling back down Australia’s East Coast all the way back to Sydney.

Visiting Tully Gorge National Park

Rather than book myself onto a small-group escorted tour like I had on my previous solo-travel adventures to the USA, this time I had opted to go somewhere between escorted and completely solo backpacking with a “flexi-tour”. I chose to book with Loka Travel – part of the New Zealand Stray Travel company – as they seemed to offer a good compromise between fully escorted tours and doing it completely by myself.

They operated for small groups rather than the coach loads of rival Oz Experience, so I’d have people to travel with, using a mixture of trains and their own minibuses for transport with each leg accompanied by a tour guide. Unlike on a fully escorted tour, travellers aren’t tied down to a set itinerary but can stay on for extra days at any stop then hop onto the next tour passing through and their was a dedicated, easy-to-access booking site to reserve hostel rooms, experiences or spots on the next train/bus either in advance or as you go. As I knew I had to be back in Sydney by a certain date to make a flight, I mapped out my route in advance and pre-booked all my travel and accommodation.

The first leg of my tour would be from Cairns to Tully where the company offered an exclusive Rainforest Experience. We’d be travelling to Tully by train from Cairns station.

After meeting my guide, I was eager to find out who else I’d be travelling with only to find out that there was just one other passenger on this leg of the trip with me! I know the website said small groups but that wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. I was told that after spending New Year in Sydney, a lot of travellers were heading north to Cairns rather than travelling in the opposite direction like I was.

It didn’t spoil our fun though. Arriving in Tully late morning, we were met by our Indigineous rainforest guide and taken to a local supermarket to pick up supplies for the evening’s BBQ meal and breakfast tomorrow before we headed to Tully Gorge National Park where we’d be setting up camp for the evening. Not being a huge fan of camping, I was glad this was a one-night experience but I tried to throw myself into it as much as possible!

That afternoon, we were taken down to Tully River where we told we would get to ‘play’ in the water. This turned out to mean body-rafting through white water rapids and, much to my initial horror, wading out to waterfalls and sliding down them, plunging into the water at the bottom like they were giant water slides! We were obviously given all the necessary safety gear – life jackets and safety-helmets – and our rainforest guide acted as lifeguard while our Loka guide demonstrated how to manoeuvre through the rapids and, despite my initial reservations, I absolutely loved the experience and had a really fun afternoon.

Back at the camp, we took a walk along a calmer section of the Tully River before returning to have a traditionally prepared BBQ meal, our chicken cooked in leaves from the rainforest. We spent the next few hours chatting and amusing ourselves with card games until it was dark enough for the final activity of the day – going on a snake hunt.

Like with the body-rafting earlier, my initial reaction to finding out what we were doing was along the lines of “We’re doing what?!” but apparently, our Indigenous guide was an expert at finding and handling wild snakes so I went along with it.

I can’t say I was disappointed though when we failed to see a single snake on our drive. It was worth the drive at least to see the beautiful star-filled sky as we pulled over on a bridge across the Tully River for one last attempt to spot a snake before returning to camp to bed down in our tents for the night.

Surviving a night in the tent without seeing a single spider or any other scary minibeast, we were up at the crack of dawn for a fry up breakfast before being led into the rainforest by our Indigenous guide for an interpretive walk.

Our guide explained to us the importance of the rainforest to the Indigenous peoples and how each parts of the trees and plants that grow there are traditionally used in Indigenous culture. It was a really interesting way to finish off our rainforest experience in Tully.

After our walk, it was time to pack up camp and load up the van as we were transported back to Tully station to await a train to our next destination. For me, this would be another visit to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays just a week on from my last stay there and I couldn’t wait to go back!

A US Road Trip: Ohio

Arriving in Ohio

Following on from an epic 3-week road trip travelling through America’s Midwest states, we were now on the second part of our trip, a week travelling from Chicago to Philadelphia via stops in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. After spending the day travelling West to East across the state of Michigan, it was early evening as we crossed into Ohio.

We had both briefly visited the state before on our coast to coast Trek America tour of the northern states of the USA a few years before but we wanted to revisit parts of it and spend a bit more time exploring the state.

Dessert!

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!

Views across Lake Erie and Cedar Point Park from atop one of the rides, and below, a fun day at Cedar Point

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.

In Cleveland, OH, and below, Lake Erie and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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.

A drum kit belonging to the Beatles and, below, other displays at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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, BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.

Arriving at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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.

At Beaver Marsh in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and below, exploring the park

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!

A US Road Trip: Journey to Michigan

Back in Chicago, having breakfast by the silver bean

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.

At Indiana Dunes

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.

Dunes backing the lakeshore, and below, walking along Lake Michigan lakeshore

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.

First visit to the state of Michigan

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.

Above, and below, views across the dunes

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.

In South Haven, MI, and below, a sunset cruise on Lake Michigan

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.

Passing through the Gates of Hell

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!

The Hell Chapel of Love

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.

The Kennedy Car at the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit, MI, and below, exploring the 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.