Things I Wish I’d Known Before Embarking On A Group Tour

Day 1, group photo 1

When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.

So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).

As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…

I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller

Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!

I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long

This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.

Age wouldn’t be an issue

This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!

It wouldn’t be all partying

Night out in Birmingham, Alabama
Birthday night out in Austin, Texas

Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.

Line dancing in Nashville
At the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming

And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!

Being a fussy eater is fine

Group meal in San Diego
BBQ food at The Salt Lick in Texas

Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.

Interesting food options at New Orleans’ French Market
Group meal on the Mississippi Steamboat

My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!

Van time would be fine

The only 2 awake on the van
Playing a round of Cards Against Humanity on the van

That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.

Van selfie

On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.

Van life

There’d be a range of weather along the way

An unexpected Grand Canyon Rim hike through the snow
Trying to keep warm around the camp fire at a KOA park in New Mexico

When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.

Pre-snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis

Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!

Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)

Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.

Making the most of the bad weather – taking in the beautiful views of snow-covered Monument Valley

Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.

Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!

It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home

Why spend group meals chatting when there’s free wifi to use?

With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.

The message we all dreaded seeing – too many already on the van wifi!

On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.

But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!

There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs

A rock concert plays backing onto our room at our Alouisiana accommodation

I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Experiences along the way make it all worthwhile!

The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!

As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!

Hostel Life would be ok

Arriving at our Nashville hostel

I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!

Hostel life – down in the common area

For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!

We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences

Fireworks after our evening bike tour of Chicago
At the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming

Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!

The amazing Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
White water rafting on Snake River, Wyoming

Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.

Kayaking out to view icebergs in Valdez, Alaska
Stopping at the Vegas sign during our party bus ride along the Strip

And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…

A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!

I’d learn a lot

Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!

I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

I’d bond with the group quickly

One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!

Final group photo of the trip in New Zealand

I’d make friends for life

On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.

Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.

Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.

I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…

but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!

It’s addictive

I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.

It would be the best thing I’d ever do

So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!

*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.

Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!

Trek America Northern BLT Days 20-21: California Coast

The end of the tour

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.

The Haunted House on Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!

Santa Cruz Beach

After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.

View from Santa Cruz Pier

Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!

From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.

Elephant seals

Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.

Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.

Santa Barbara

Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.

Santa Monica Beach

Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.

Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach

Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.

Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.

Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!

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

Arriving at Yosemite National Park

Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.

Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.

Views along Tioga Pass Road

From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.

Riding through Yosemite Valley

From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.

Views in Yosemite Valley

The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.

After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!

We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.

After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.

Floating down the river

Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.

We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 18-20: San Francisco

Driving into San Francisco
Entrance to Pier 39

This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.

City views from the pier

We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.

After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.

San Francisco Cable Cars

It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.

View from the cable car

The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.

View of Telegraph Hill from Lombard St
Lombard Street

From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.

Church of Sts Peter & Paul in Washington Square
The Coit Tower

It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.

Looking back at the city from the Alcatraz ferry

The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!

Nearing Alcatraz Island
On Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies

After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.

In Haight-Ashbury

As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.

On the boat under the Golden Gate Bridge

That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!

Sunset Catamaran trip
Dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe

It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Abou to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.

Crossing the bridge

As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.

Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 14-15: Idaho, Nevada and Lake Tahoe

Entering the state of Idaho

After our early morning horse ride though the hills of Jackson, it was time to wave a sad goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we continued on our adventure. It was nearing te end of our epic journey now and tomorrow we would be reaching the final state of our trip, California. But first, we had a long drive day to our overnight stop at Elko, Nevada, the halfway point between our current location and tomorrow’s destination of Lake Tahoe.

Driving past some large horned cows!

After leaving our KOA, we crossed the border from Wyoming into Idaho. We’d just be clipping a corner of this state without really having time to see anything but straight away I could tell it would be a state worth returning to at some point in the future as we passed more beautiful mountainous scenery.

We made a stop just off the highway in the city of Idaho Falls for lunch at an Applebees and then another quick stop at an Idaho tourist centre so those of us collecting souvenirs at each state could grab a magnet/pin or some other Idaho-emblazened item then continued on towards the state of Nevada.

Driving through Nevada

The day was pretty uneventful as we chatted and sang along to cheesy pop and Disney songs in the van, occasionally pulling over for a rest stop. Eventually we reached our motel in the city of Elko. After causing numerous problems for the receptionist after checking in to find we’d been allocated smoking rooms or in some cases, rooms without enough beds and therefore asking to move rooms, we eventually got ourselves settled and met back up to go out for a group dinner.

Travelling through Nevada

We ate at a family dining restaurant which basically means you individually order your main item – steak, chops etc – but the sides such as potatoes, vegetables, bread etc are placed in huge portions on the table for the group to share. When the biggest pork chop I’ve ever seen arrived in front of me, I wished I’d got one of those to share too but managed to plough through it.

On the beach at South Lake Tahoe

The next morning was an early start to ensure we had plenty of time at Lake Tahoe. We made a quick stop at a neighbouring casino (when in Nevada…!) to grab breakfast at its Starbucks before continuing on our way.

Off to get on the boat

It was a beautiful day so when we arrived at California’s South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon, we were dropped off straight at the beach and spent the afternoon walking along the shore, swimming in the crystal clear waters and generally relaxing on the beach.

Boat trip on Lake Tahoe

After the previous night’s not-so-great accommodation, we were delighted to find we were staying in a lovely little B&B that night. We made a quick stop off to drop off our luggage and get showered and changed before catching a shuttle bus to Zephyr Cove, back on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where we had all signed up for a sunset cruise on the lake.

Sunsetting across Lake Tahoe

The cruise included unlimited drinks – champagne or soft drinks and plenty of nibbles and we all had a really fantastic evening hanging out together watching the sun go down over the lake.

After the cruise, we were dropped back in South Lake Tahoe where the town is split across the states of Nevada and California. We wandered through the casino on the Nevada side before crossing the road into California and finding a bar with live music which was still serving food. Pizza’s ordered and eaten, we took the short walk back to our motel to enjoy a night of relative luxury before the next 2 nights in a hostel!

Northern BLT Days 12-14: Jackson, Wyoming

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

After an incredible few days, we were all feeling a bit down as we drove out of the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park but this didn’t last long as we were suddenly met with stunning views of snow-capped mountains ahead of us. Pulling over so we could take photos of the beautiful view, we were told that these were the Grand Tetons and our next stop that day would be at the often over-looked Grand Teton National Park. Most of us had no idea that this was even on the itinerary and were excited at the prospect of visiting another National Park straight after Yellowstone.

Views while hiking at Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Jenny Lake Visitor Centre mid-afternoon and after looking around, grabbing some souvenirs and trying some of the local huckleberry products, we embarked on a lakeside hike to Hidden Falls. The easy trail provided us with more stunning views of the Grand Tetons and of the lake itself and we even spotted a few deer along the way. Rather than hiking the entire perimeter of the lake, once we reached Hidden Falls, we took the park’s shuttle boat across the lake back to the visitor centre.

Dinner in Jackson, Wyoming

Unfortunately that was all we had time for at the park but I made a mental note to return and explore more at some point in the future. From the park, we drove south to the town of Jackson, Wyoming. As we drove through we were all quite excited to see some well-known branded cafes and stores such as Starbucks as we’d been out in the middle of nowhere a lot since Chicago! We didn’t stop but continued on to our KOA site a few miles out of the town centre to check in, freshen up and have a bit of downtime.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

It was Saturday night and this evening we were going to be dropped back in to the town on Jackson for dinner and a night out at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – something many of us girls were particularly excited about! Once back in Jackson, some of the group decided to eat at a nice steak house just off the main square while the rest of us chose the cheaper option of a small diner further down the high street and we arranged to meet after inside the cowboy bar.

After dinner, we entered the bar to find the bar stools were saddle seats! We all took turns to sit on them for a photo opportunity before ordering our drinks and finding a table. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live country music band which was playing and watching the two-stepping taking place on the dancefloor while trying (and failing!) to attract the attention of some of the younger local cowboys!

The next morning, most of the group had booked to go white water rafting along the nearby Snake River. This was something I was actually quite nervous about but had no reason to be as it was one of the most fun things I did all trip! With 8 of us in the raft and an experienced guide steering at the back, we navigated our way through the rapids, all managing to stay firmly in the boat – until we reached a still water area and were invited to jump in for a swim in order to earn a wristband!

Rafting along Snake River

Being a water lover, I was first in before the guide had even finished talking. The water was freezing and I was clambering back on board within seconds or at least attempting to, as climbing back onto the raft was a lot easier said than done! Once we were all back on board, we continued to ride the remaining rapids until we reached the exit point where a shuttle met us to take us back to our KOA.

Jackson Square

Soaking wet and exhausted from the effort, we quickly made use of the KOA showers and changed before heading back into Jackson for the afternoon to meet back up with the remaining group members and tell the about all the fun they had missed!

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, visiting countless souvenir shops and cowboy apparel stores and eating ice cream sat out in Jackson Square before dinner at a local brewery then returning to the KOA for an evening sat around the campfire talking and drinking.

Some of us were up bright and early the next day to go horse riding at the OK Corral Stables just across the road from the KOA site. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a child but the guided trails are set up for beginners to enjoy and once we had been assigned our horses and climbed on we were lead along the road to a trail leading up into the mountains. This was such a fun activity and once we had made it to the top of the trail, the views over Wyoming were absolutely beautiful making the early start to the day more than worth it. Once back at the stables, we said goodbye and thank-you to our horses and returned across the road to our KOA to meet back with the rest of the group, load our things onto the trailer and jump back on the van to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we began our journey to our next destination.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Jackson, Wyoming here:

Northern BLT Days 10-12: Yellowstone National Park

After leaving the Wild West behind in Cody, it was on towards Yellowstone National Park, a part of our trip that we were all pretty excited about!

Our first stop in Yellowstone National Park
First of many Bison spottings

We entered Yellowstone at the east entrance and made our first stop for a short hike to see views over Lake Yellowstone and our first of many bison sightings before continuing on the Fishing Bridge Visitor Centre. National Park Passports stamped and souvenirs bought, we then continued our drive through the park. Our cabins for the next 2 nights would be just outside of the town West Yellowstone, Montana, meaning today, we would mainly be spent making our way across the park with a few stops along the way.

Valley views

After lunch at a Canyon Village, we continued east stopping for another short hike to view bison in the valley. We hit traffic soon after – often the sign of a wildlife sighting. It turned out to be a family of black bears crossing and making their way into the woods and we pulled over to watch them go in their way from a distance.

Black bear in the distance

We got caught in a longer queue of traffic soon after but our patience was rewarded with a grizzly bear sighting which was very exciting! Eventually, we made it to Mammoth Hot Springs where we were dropped at the top of the viewing terraces and told to make our way down where we’d be met in the village.

Grizzly bear sighting
Rock formations at Mammoth Hot Springs

The boardwalk through Mammoth Hot Springs took us past a variety of interesting limestone rock formations, mineral deposits and hot springs and was a really interesting place to explore. We slowly made our way down towards the village stopping to take plenty of photos along the way.

Once at the other end, we looked around the visitor centre, got ice cream from the general store and said hello to the elk grazing in the area before hopping back on the bus to continue our drive west.

Cabin by the lake

Once we’d exited the park and made a quick grocery stop, we drove to our cabins for the next 2 nights and were delighted to find that rather than the usual KOA site, we instead were staying at a lovely independent site in a pretty lakeside setting with larger cabins than we’d been used to for the rest of the trip! We spent the evening relaxing, enjoying a barbecue and drinks around the campfire and gazing at the star-filled sky.

Looking out across the lake from our cabin at sunset

We were up early to head back into the park the next day and drove back to the east side where we parked up for a hike. We were not told where we were hiking too which made it even more impressive when we got to our destination.

Hiking through Yellowstone

Our hike took us past more hot springs and thermal activity, past lakes and through forests and along a series of switchbacks taking us higher and higher until we arrived at a huge canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The view was jaw-dropping and after sitting on the canyon edge for our picnic lunch, we followed the south rim of the canyon until we reached a waterfall.

Lower falls

Most of us chose to follow Uncle Tom’s Trail to view Lower Falls although I slightly regretted that decision when we had to climb back up the hundreds of steps after!! We then made our way back to where we had started that morning to get back on the van.

After a stop to see the Canyon from a few different viewing points and to get snacks from a general store, we made our way back across the park and our to our cabins. That evening, we drove into West Yellowstone for dinner and after eating at a BBQ place, we spent a fun hour wandering around the many shops before returning to our cabins.

Down by the river

Our final morning at Yellowstone and we had a choice for the first activity of the day – a swim in the river or a boardwalk trail to see more thermal activity. Choosing the latter, we followed the trail at Fountain Paint Pots before jumping back on the van to go and pick the swimmers up.

Arriving at Norris Geyser Basin

Next we were all dropped off at Midway Geyser Basin where we followed the trail round to view Grand Prismatic Spring. We’d all seen the pictures on postcards at the gift stores over the last few days but it was much more impressive to see in person.

The stunning Grand Prismatic Spring
Watching Old Faithful erupt

Our final stop in the park was to see Old Faithful Geyser erupt. The geyser is so called because of it’s predictable eruptions and we arrived with plenty of time to spare so got to fit in one last visitor centre and souvenir store before we took our places out on the viewing platform.

After grabbing some lunch at he general store, it was unfortunately time to wave goodbye to Yellowstone but it had been amazing and definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far!

Watch my Trek America adventures at Yellowstone National Park here:

Northern BLT Day 9-10: Cody, Wyoming

Devil’s Tower seen from our KOA park

Having seen Devil’s Tower looming in the distance from our KOA overnight stop, we set off after breakfast on site (during which we were told ordering tea with milk was the ‘funniest thing’ our waitress had ever heard!) to visit it close up. Though not technically on our tour itinerary, our guide told us it was silly not to go there when it was right next door to the site.

Devil’s Tower is a National Monument, a huge rock sacred to Native Americans, sat just across the Wyoming border as you enter from South Dakota. After arriving we were pointed in the direction of the trail head of the circular walk around the rock and after a visit to the Visitor’s Center and gift shop, set off to hike the perimeter.

The hike took longer than expected purely because we repeatedly stopped to gawp at the huge rock and to take photos of the amazing views across South Dakota and Wyoming along the way. Definitely a worthwhile deviation from the tour schedule!!

Next stop was just outside of the Devil’s Tower park at a roadside prairie dog ‘village’. Here, we spent many minutes watching and giggling as the burrowing rodents scuttled around and popped in and out of the many holes they had dug connecting the vast network of tunnels they live in below. They caused much amusement and we could probably have stayed watching them for hours but after taking so long on our hike, we were already way behind schedule and eventually were made to get back on the bus!

We spent the rest of the day playing catch up so we could make it to our overnight KOA site in Cody in time to attend the rodeo that evening. The drive through Wyoming was beautiful and we stopped a few times to stretch our legs and admire the views along the way.

At the rodeo

We eventually made it to Cody a lot later than planned, missing the free shuttle bus put on by the KOA to take us to the rodeo meaning our Trek guide would have to take us! After dropping our luggage in the cabins and quickly freshening up, it was back onto our tour bus to head to the rodeo.

It was a great atmosphere at the rodeo and some of the horse riding was really impressive but I’m not sure how I felt about seeing some of the animals chased around and lassoed purely for entertainment purposes, often feeling sorry for them. It was certainly an interesting experience though and the food truck snacks were delicious and definitely a highpoint!!

After a night at our Cody KOA, we began the short journey to Yellowstone National Park stopping first in Cody town at Old Trail Town, an outdoor Wild West museum which was an included extra on our tour. The museum houses a collection of historic buildings and artefacts from Cody’s Wild West days and it was fun to wander around and peer inside the old buildings.

We left Old Trail Town to continue on to Yellowstone National Park, a part of the tour that the whole group was excited for!

Watch my Trek America adventures at Devils Tower National Monument and in Cody, Wyoming here:

and here:

Northern BLT Day 7-8: South Dakota

After a fun morning visiting the Jolly Green Giant in Minnesota state, we crossed the border into South Dakota for lunch in the town of Brandon. This stop was notable mainly for us having a group member with the same name, causing all sorts of hilarity as we dug into our Subway sandwiches followed by some frozen yoghurt!

This afternoon we were heading towards Badlands National Park but delayed for various reasons, we arrived to late to spend any time in the park that day and instead, went straight to our KOA site to check into our cabins and do the first group cook of the trip.

That evening there were early nights all around as we prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to head into the National Park for sunrise. Those plans were abandoned the next day when we awoke to torrential rain and it became apparent that there would be no sun to view rising. Instead, we made multiple attempts to get to and from the shower blocks without getting so drenched we had to change clothes all over again before having a pancake breakfast under a marquee only just about holding up under the weight of the heavy rainfall.

Deciding the weather probably wasn’t improving any time soon, we made the decision to head into the park anyway. Luckily, as we approached, the weather started to clear up and by the time we’d spent some time in the visitor centre looking at the displays, watching a video about the Badlands and buying souvenirs, it had stopped raining completely allowing us to go hiking over the odd moonscape.

With a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t spend too long at Badlands National Park. We made a brief stop at a National Park Service Missile Silo on the way out then continued to our main stop for today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Mount Rushmore was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but unlike many of the other recognisable US site such as the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty, isn’t in one of the major cities and is therefore more difficult to get to.

As we travelled through South Dakota on our way to Mount Rushmore, we kept passing signs advertising the town of Wall Drug. The signs continued for hundreds of miles showing pictures of cowboys, ice cream, coffee and even a dinosaur! We were all intrigued and our guide informed us that Wall Drug would be today’s lunch stop.

Once there, we found a Wild West type town with plenty of places to eat and drink. We settled on a bar where many of the groups tried bison burgers while the rest of us tucked into pizza then spent the next half hour wandering through the themed stores, buying souvenirs and eating ice cream. Unsure why the town had been hyped for so far along our drive, we returned to our Trek van to continue on our journey.

Carved in to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore depicts the faces of four USA presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be but I still took way more photos of it than I needed to and bought loads of useless souvenirs, including a Christmas bauble in the shape of Mount Rushmore, from the visitor centre.

Just up the road from Mount Rushmore, we stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently being carved into the Black Rocks and unlikely to be finished in our lifetime, it was fascinating to see the work going on in the distance and see displays showing the progress so far and how the sculpture will look when it is finally finished.

Our overnight stop tonight was on the South Dakota/Wyoming border at another KOA, our cabins overlooked by the looming Devil’s Tower National Monument. Arriving at dusk, we went straight to the site’s cafe for dinner followed by drinks around the camp fire and a few hours sleep before an early start the next day.

Watch my Trek America adventures in South Dakota here:

Northern BLT Day 6-7: Wisconsin and Minnesota

After a fun day exploring Chicago, we were heading to one of those break-up-the-journey, middle-of-nowhere stops today somewhere in the state of Minnesota.

Just before leaving the state of Illinois, we stopped in the town of Des Plaines to see the Original McDonald’s but unfortunately, when we arrived we found it was closed so instead of going inside and visiting the museum, had to make do with taking photos from outside.

Walking along Braodway at The Dells

Our lunch stop today was in Wisconsin at a place called Wisconsin Dells. As we drove through the Dells towards the main street, we were all very excited to see various water parks, amusement rides, adventure golf courses…followed by all sorts of tacky attractions including a Mirror Maze and Museum of Torture along the main street so when we were told we’d only be getting just over an hour to explore and get some lunch, we were all a bit disappointed. We spent our time browsing in the many tacky souvenir stores with most of us grabbing lunch from The Cheesy Tomato Cafe which specialised in menu items containing Wisconsin cheese. I went for their ‘famous’ Donut Grilled Cheese – a grilled cheese sandwich but with a jam doughnut being used where the bread usually goes! It was just as sickly as it sounds.

Minnesota

The rest of the day mainly consisted of sitting on the van as we entered Minnesota state and drove past seemingly endless fields, farms and red barns until we reached out motel in Albert Lea.

Popcorn!

After dinner in the motel restaurant, we went out to the cinema for evening where we were pleased to find that the bags of popcorn were just as huge as they appeared to be on TV!!

The next day was to be another long drive day as we aimed to reach the state of South Dakota but first we had one more stop in Minnesota, one that the whole group had been looking forward to. We were off to visit the Jolly Green Giant in the town of Blue Earth. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily by the time we arrived so we didn’t spend as long as we probably would have taking photos. There was a small gift store by the statue with all kids of random Jolly Green Giant themed items and we spent most of our time in there rather than outside with the Giant himself.

After seeing the giant, we were dropped off just around the corner at the Jolly Green Giant Museum, an unexpected stop. Here we learnt all about the history of the Jolly Green Giant and found more Jolly Green Giant merchandise on display than we ever thought possible! It was such a fun place to visit.

Then it was back onto the van to continue our journey through Minnesota state towards the border of South Dakota where we’d be spending the next few days of our trip.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Wisconsin and Minnesota here: