Spontaneity at its Finest in Miami!

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What do you do when Hurricane Matthew ruins your Labor Day Weekend trip to the Outer Banks?  You head to the airport, have a mimosa (of course), and find a cheap flight to the next best place: Miami!  As I watched the forecast early in the week I could tell that things weren’t looking so good for our North Carolina excursion.  The storm was tracking towards the Outer Banks but I remained optimistic that it would head off to sea instead.  As Thursday approached though I wasn’t so confident that camping on the beach in the middle of a tropical storm would be the greatest idea. As sad as I was to postpone that trip we immediately started researching alternative ideas for our long-weekend getaway.  Flights to Florida are generally pretty cheap out of BWI so we chose Fort Lauderdale as our destination.  We decided to wait until we actually landed in Florida to book a rental car or a hotel (my first, but certainly NOT last time ever doing that) because we figured if the flight was delayed or cancelled from any lingering parts of the tropical storm then the trip wasn’t meant to be.  Our front row seats and free in-flight alcoholic beverages said differently though and we were well on our way to Florida for a spontaneous adventure!

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Upon landing in Fort Lauderdale we headed to the rental car place and scored a decent deal on an average vehicle.  Our plan was to spend the first two nights in Fort Lauderdale and then drive to Miami for our last night, but plans quickly changed when my boyfriend discovered that he had some friends staying in Miami for the weekend, so we decided to drive straight there instead.  We arrived in South Beach around 9:00PM, pulled over, and looked for the best hotel deals on the amazing HotelTonight app. We chose The Hall Hotel, conveniently located on Collins Ave, just a block from the beach.  This boutique hotel featured cute bungalow-style rooms at a more-than-affordable last-minute price.  Our booking even came with free drink vouchers for the hotel bar called Sunny’s (appropriately named), which we took full advantage of once we arrived.  The group of people that we knew was out on a bar crawl and invited us to join, but the time we arrived they had already been to quite a few bars so we had to play catch up.  That’s all I will say about our first night…  (Hehe)

img_3039The next morning began with a much needed Eggs Benedict breakfast at the Front Porch Café on the next street over.  We then hit the beach for what couldn’t have been a more perfect beach day.   Sunny, blue skies, white sand, and crystal clear water set the tone for a perfect day of relaxation.  Our hotel provided lounge chairs for the beach and had umbrellas available for rental, which was convenient.  We watched cruise ships come and go in the distance and even got an uncomfortably up-close-and-personal experience with what I am still convinced was a shark.  It was a perfect beach day and exactly what we were hoping for on our spontaneous weekend getaway.

We spent the evening with the awesome crew from Maryland again (although no bar crawls were involved this time).  We had dinner at SuViche, a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant that did not disappoint!  The group then made our way to Mango’s, a restaurant/multi-bar/all- night/live-entertainment kind of place.  It was in the same area as the hotel and restaurant Michael and I went to on our last spontaneous trip to Miami for our cruise.  (There’s something about those spontaneous trips to Miami).  We spent the next day on the beach soaking up the hot Miami sun before enjoying an adventurous dinner.  We were told that we must try the Grasshopper Tacos at Taquiza, an adorable outdoor taco stand.  Yes folks, GRASSHOPPER TACOS.  They really were not bad and paired perfectly with the locally brewed Miami Weiss beer.  I definitely recommend giving it a try!  We opted for a relaxing evening and strolled along the Lincoln Road Mall, a pedestrian-friendly, outdoor strip mall with upscale shops and restaurants.  We had a few appetizers and the infamous Key Lime Pie (my absolute favorite) before heading back to the hotel for some rest and an early morning flight back to Maryland.

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I used to be such a routine person and would need to have all of the details figured out way before I would ever think about going anywhere or doing anything.  Travelling though, has really taught me the beauty of being flexible and just “going with the flow.”  This trip to Miami was the true definition of spontaneity.  While I’m not sure I would use these same tactics for all of my trips I learned that some of the best deals really do come at the last minute and that it’s perfectly okay to not have everything planned out.  I challenge you to book a cheap flight somewhere and just go with no agenda in mind.  Figure things out when you get there and just roll with it!  Until the next adventure…

-x0 Lia

 

 

9 Day Western Adventure (Bryce, Canyonlands & Arches)

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It was an easy three and a half hour drive from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon National Park, our destination for the evening.  We arrived at Sunset Campground just in time for a cloudy sunset as thunder echoed off in the distance.  Luckily though, the rain held off and we were able to enjoy S’mores and a Utah-brewed HooDoo beer by the campfire.  That was honestly our first campfire of the whole trip and it was just so perfectly relaxing.  We woke up bright and early after a good night’s sleep and drove to the trailheads at Sunset PointBryce Canyon is simply beautiful.  The colorful hoodoos, the stone columns formed by ice and rain, contrast perfectly with the blue sky and lush green Douglas-fir trees.

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We started on the Navajo Loop which first lead us down Wall Street, a series of steep switchbacks leading to a narrow gorge.  A tall pine tree stands right in the middle of the gorge.  At the trail junction we branched off to the Peakaboo Loop, which is appropriately named.  This trail leads you through a series of tough climbs and descents.  Just when you thought the trail would even out you would find yourself with ascending or descending (followed by another ascent) again.  It was pretty strenuous in the early afternoon heat and there is barely any shade along the trail but the views are absolutely stunning the entire way.

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We left Bryce Canyon in the early afternoon and drove approximately four hours to Moab, Utah, for the final few stops on our 9 Day Western AdventureMoab is an extraordinarily adventurous city.  With two national parks and one state park there is certainly no shortage of hiking, exploring, mountain biking, rafting, etc.  We drove straight to Arches National Park and made the quick 1.5 mile hike to the famous Delicate Arch just in time for sunset and a rainbow!  The distant lightning illuminated the trail just enough for us on the dark hike back to the car.  We headed straight to the Moab Brewery for some local brews and food before checking into our Super 8 Hotel.  It’s funny because we thought we would want the last two nights in a hotel but we honestly regret not camping in Arches or Canyonlands.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely recommend the hotel we chose but camping in the national parks is just so much more rewarding.  Guess we will just have to go back!

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We actually slept in a little, enjoyed our free hotel breakfast, and headed towards Canyonlands National Park.  Since we got a later-than-usual start it was extremely hot when we got to Canyonlands so we opted to do the drive through the park, pulling off occasionally and taking shorter hikes.  Of course everything was beautiful and I wish we had more time to do some more strenuous hikes.  We made a quick stop at Deadhorse Point State Park which is right down the road from Canyonlands.  Both parks are known for their mountain biking and off-roading trails.

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After basking in the hot sun all day, we refueled at the Peace Tree Juice Café in Moab, a good vibe, hippie-ish, restaurant that serves a variety of juices and healthy options.  I enjoyed a quinoa and pineapple burger and a smoothie.  This was one of my favorite food stops and the outdoor seating with mist and fans provided relief from the heat.  We had to go back to the hotel to pack up and organize (one of the less-enjoyable parts of the trip), before meeting my aunts and cousin back at Moab Brewery.  How cool is it that on my last road trip and this one I ran into people I rarely get to see!?  Last year it was my high school friend from Switzerland and this year my aunts from Ohio and my cousin from Spain and I were all ironically in the little middle-of-nowhere town of Moab, Utah.  Pretty cool!

After a great evening with family and my boyfriend it was time to head back to the hotel for our last night of the trip.  We woke up at 4:00AM to watch the sunrise in Arches National Park before heading for the airport in Salt Lake City, about 4 hours away.  It was such a bittersweet way to end such an amazing trip.  This 9 Day Western Adventure honestly could not have been any more perfect.  We saw so much of the beautiful country and were blessed with beautiful weather every single day.  Yes, I had been to a few of the places before on my last road trip but I loved re-visiting the old places and exploring the new places.  The west truly has a piece of my heart and I am so thankful for the opportunity that I had to take another amazing trip with someone that has the same passion for travel as I do.  Writer Lewis Carroll is so right: “Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures“.  Until the next one…

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9 Day Western Adventure (Death Valley, Zion & Grand Canyon)

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We left Yosemite National Park bright and early on Monday morning to make the 450 mile drive to Las Vegas by way of Death Valley National Park.  Since we didn’t really have any high expectations for Death Valley, the plan was to just drive through, however plans quickly changed once we entered the park.  We were instantly fascinated with the natural beauty of the lowest, driest, and hottest place of North America.  The elevation change in the Valley is simply amazing.  You literally start at 5,000 ft of elevation at some points and descend to well below sea level.  During one downhill portion of the drive we traveled 17 miles without touching the gas (which is good because gas in Death Valley is about five bucks a gallon), and we even had to slam on the brakes a few times because we picked up so much speed!

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We stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to obtain some information and to snap a picture of the famous digital thermometer.  We had woken up in Yosemite just a few hours earlier shivering in sub-40 degree weather and now here we were standing in the middle of the desert at a scalding 118 degrees Fahrenheit (ow oww!).  We got back in the hot car, as they discourage you from running your air conditioner to save your engine, and took a scenic drive around some of Death Valley’s most prominent places.  We ventured down the narrow one-way road through Artist’s Drive where we were amazed by the beauty of the natural pastel landscape that served as the setting for some of the original Star Wars movies.  We stopped at Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, and Badwater Basin, the lowest place in the western hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level.  I was so impressed with Death Valley.  The plan was to just drive straight through but ended up spending a good four hours exploring the various parts of the desert.  The colors were amazing and I honestly have never seen a sky so blue, or felt winds so warm (boy was that wind hot!).

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Our very last view point before departing Death Valley was Dante’s View, a point directly above Badwater Basin almost 2,000 feet up.  The view was breathtaking but the most memorable part of that particular stop was the “Bee Hazard” sign at the summit.  I took a picture and using the infamous bumble bee filter on Snapchat I made a cute little video mocking the sign (which was something along the lines of “I don’t know what the buzz is with all this bee hazard stuff“), ya know, cause why would there be a bee hazard in the middle of the freaking desert!?  Well, we got back in the car after our 30 second photo stop, and my boyfriend started freaking out.  Lo and behold THERE WAS A BEE IN THE CAR!  We quickly pulled over and shooed it out of the car.  We resumed our drive and 30 seconds later he started freaking out again.  THERE WAS ANOTHER BEE IN THE CAR!  They really weren’t kidding with that bee hazard sign!  We laughed for a solid five minutes before cautiously finishing the last bit of the drive towards Las Vegas.

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We made it to Las Vegas, and after a supply/grocery stop at Target (not a Walmart for once), we arrived at the Stratosphere HotelLas Vegas wasn’t intended to be anything more than a good shower and an inexpensive place to stay for the night, and it did just that.  We enjoyed dinner at Fellini’s, an Italian restaurant in the hotel, then gambled a few bucks at the casino before getting some rest.  Party animals, I know, but I’m honestly so much more of a mountaineer than an upscale casino chick anyway.  We started off the next morning with an easy three hour drive to Zion National Park in Utah, another park that I was really looking forward to and boy, did it impress!  We literally only had a few hours at Zion so we chose to do the hike to Angels Landing, one of the most strenuous yet popular trails.  It’s only a 5.4 mile hike roundtrip but don’t let that short distance fool you.  It’s a steady uphill climb to the 5,785ft summit.  We “squiggled the wiggles,” a series of 21 steep switchbacks named after Walter Wiggles (a former park superintendent), before taking a rest at Scout Overlook (which we first thought was the summit), before realizing we had one final challenge: a strenuous half mile up a sheer narrow rock fin with thousand foot drops on each side.

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This hike was every bit of exhilarating and easily one of my favorites of all time!  There are chains anchored into the ground for you to pull yourself up the last half mile to the summit.  It’s a narrow ridge and you must be mindful of people descending.  If you’re afraid of heights this might not be the hike for you but I promise you it is so worth it!  The 360-degree panoramic view makes you feel like you are on top of the world.  After all, Angels Landing is “a place so high only an angel could land on it.”

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It was late-afternoon by the time we completed Angels Landing and we knew we had to get on the road soon but The Narrows sounded too tempting so we took the park shuttle (the only way to get around the park) to the trailhead for this equally popular hike.  The Narrows is a 16 mile hike literally through a river into a slot canyon.  You can hike all the way to the end and camp overnight but due to time constraints we only hiked in two miles before turning around and heading back to catch the shuttle.  This hike was so refreshing and extraordinarily beautiful.  We were thigh deep in water at some points and frequent flash floods can raise the water level pretty quickly.  If you’re hiking all the way be sure to allow ample time as hiking through the river is very difficult against the current on the slippery rocks.

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We left Zion National Park right at sunset and the drive out of the park was absolutely sensational.  We had debated grabbing a bite to eat at the quaint little town of Springdale but opted to just get on the road to begin the 120 mile ride to the Grand Canyon.  Just our luck though, we didn’t pass a single restaurant on the two and a half hour drive (don’t worry, we survived off of mushy apples and melted trail mix).  After a dark and spooky drive of dodging literally hundreds of jackrabbits, deer, and cattle (yes, open range cows) we arrived at the North Rim Campground around 11PM, quickly set up camp and enjoyed one of the best night’s sleeps of the trip.  I don’t know why, but we slept like babies!

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We started a little later than planned for our hike on the North Kaibab Trail.  It was already pretty hot and I know just how strenuous hiking in the Grand Canyon can be, so the plan was to just hike what we felt like we could do. We ended up going about 3 miles in, past the Supai Tunnel to the Redwall Bridge.  The hike back out of the canyon was hot and exhausting but we were treated to a refreshing brief canyon thunderstorm.  I’m constantly amazed by the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon, and it was neat to be able to compare and contrast the North Rim and the South Rim, which I visited last year.  After finishing our hike we took advantage of the clean shower facilities and headed over to the cozy North Rim Lodge to grab something to eat.  We enjoyed Elk Chili (delicious!), a vegetarian “VLT” with tempeh bacon, and some locally brewed beer, of course.  I could have spent hours in that beautiful lodge that literally sits on the edge overlooking the Grand Canyon, but we had to get back on the road to head to our next destination: Bryce Canyon!  Stay tuned…

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9 Day Western Adventure (Lake Tahoe & Yosemite)

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I thought that last year’s Great American Road Trip was a once in a lifetime experience, and while nothing will ever quite compare to that trip, I was determined to plan another exciting excursion out west.  Unfortunately my adventure buddies were busy doing other big boy/big girl things (like living in Ethiopia or becoming registered dieticians and physicians assistants), so my ever-loving boyfriend graciously stepped up to the plate, and although we’ve shared some pretty incredible trips together in this past year, I don’t quite think he knew what he was getting himself into!  We began our 9 day adventure at the airport with mimosas, of course!  We had a long flight to Los Angeles where we had a short layover before taking off over the beautiful Pacific Ocean and arriving in Reno, Nevada.

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After some hassle with the rental car company we were on our way to King’s Beach, North Lake Tahoe, a place I had previously visited on our Great American Road Trip last year.  The drive from the airport was picturesque.  Last year it was so overcast you could barely see anything, but this year I literally cried as we approached the vast 21-mile beautiful blue lake.  We enjoyed a slice of pizza in town before meeting up with our paragliding instructors.  I was so excited because this is something we were unable to do last year due to the dismal weather.  After signing our lives away on the waivers we climbed the strenuous mile up to the launch site.  After some brief instruction, a few steps forward then backward (to let air into the parachute), we took our final steps forward and shot up into the air.  We were flying over Lake Tahoe!  At 1,644-feet at it’s deepest point, Lake Tahoe could cover the entire state of California in approximately 13 inches of water (pretty impressive).  We really could not have asked for a more beautiful day for our paragliding experience!

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We made the hour-long drive from North Lake Tahoe to the Fallen Leaf Campground in South Lake Tahoe, our home for the next two nights.  We took the eastern route around the lake and were provided with spectacular sunset views.  After stopping for dinner, groceries, pillows, and a blanket, we arrived to our campground around 10PM, well after dusk.  We quickly set up camp and went to bed, although we woke up several times worried about hypothermia (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but that mountain air is chilly!).  We enjoyed peanut butter and banana sandwiches for breakfast before heading towards Mt. Tallac for our first official hike.  The original plan was to do a popular 10 mile hike to the summit but our paragliding instructor had suggested a less-travelled alternative route.  He neglected to tell us that this route was actually 17.5 miles, almost twice as long as we had planned for, but minor detail, right?

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This was by far one of my favorite hikes I’ve done.  The snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees really gave an authentic alpine feel.  We started early so we didn’t see too many other hikers, and surprisingly didn’t encounter any bears.  We rested and refueled with trail mix by Cathedral Lake before beginning our final ascent.  It was honestly exhausting at the high altitude but the 9,735-foot summit was more than worth the struggle.  Lake Tahoe is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  From the summit, Lake Tahoe provides a backdrop for the much smaller Fallen Leaf Lake, and in the distance behind you stand the even taller snow-capped peaks.  After a nice long rest at the summit we began the long downhill journey which was much easier than the climb.  Needless to say though, we were beat.  I had blisters on every toe, our muscles were exhausted, and I was burnt to a crisp (remember your sunscreen, kids!).  We may have been overly ambitious for our first hike of many on this 9 day road trip, but it was actually an amazing feeling.  We were famished so we headed straight to enjoy a delicious and well-deserved BBQ dinner at Sonney’s BBQ before relaxing in our tent for the evening after a perfect day of exploring.

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We started the next morning with a quick trip to Lilly’s Tire Service because, believe it or not, we had a flat tire (seriously!?).  After what was luckily a quick fix, we began the 5 hour drive south to Yosemite National Park, one of the country’s most famous National Parks, and the one that I had looked forward to visiting the most.  The drive through California was beautiful.  It’s honestly hard to describe just how amazing the landscape is out west.  As incredible as all of the destinations are, there is also something to be said for the time you spend in the car and the amazing things you get to see while driving to each new place.  Upon entering the park there were plenty of pull-off spots and we chose to climb on some rocks at Olmstead Point.  We knew that Yosemite is notorious for traffic so we decided to stop and do Bridalveil Falls on our way to the campsite.  We had to wait a few minutes for a parking space but it’s a quick walk to the falls and a great photo op.  We then arrived at the Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley where the park ranger informed us that there was a bear at our campsite that morning.  We set up our tent, keeping the bear spray within an arms reach (okay, and wine too), and called it an early night.  This was my favorite campsite I’ve ever stayed at.  The views of the giant granite walls through the tall pine trees provided a majestic backdrop and the sound of the Merced River flowing in the distance was a beautiful lullaby to fall asleep to.

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“Long-time Yosemite naturalist Carl Sharsmith was once asked what he would do if he only had a day to see Yosemite. “Madam,” he replied, “I’d sit by the Merced River and cry.”  Since this was a quick trip, and we only had one full day in Yosemite National Park, I had done extensive research on the best possible hike to do in one day.  I had originally chosen the Four Mile Trail but because they all looked so amazing (and we’re a little overly ambitious), we decided (at the last minute) to make the most out of our day and combine a bunch of trails to do a big 15 mile loop to see as much as possible (because 17.5 miles two days before wasn’t enough).  We began our hike on the Mist Trail, which was located conveniently just across the woods from our campsite.  It’s about 5.4 miles to the top of this trail and you are treated to spectacular views of Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall along the way.  Once again, we began early and avoided the crowds.  This was especially important because the 600-step granite stairway gets pretty slippery with all of the spray from the waterfalls, and navigating around other people could get tricky.  We had no problems and were fortunate to get some beautiful pictures before it got too crowded.

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From the top of Nevada Fall we took the Panorama Trail another 5 miles to Glacier Point, a touristy viewpoint that most people choose to take a bus to.  The Panorama Trail provided us with spectacular views of Half Dome (which we will definitely be back for), and Illilouette Falls, one of the may waterfalls of Yosemite.  There’s a nice concession stand at Glacier Point so we enjoyed ice cream to celebrate “National Ice Cream Day”.  We took the steep Four Mile Trail back down to the Valley where we were able to catch the “standing room only” park shuttle back to the campsite.  My blistered feet definitely enjoyed the relief of sitting down on the bus after hiking over 30 miles the past three days.  Totally worth it though.

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After a refreshing shower we enjoyed an amazing dinner at the “Pizza Deck,” an adorable outdoor open-seating restaurant at Half Dome Village right in the Valley.  Seriously, any place where I can sit outside in my pajamas eating pizza and drinking beer, under the granite cliffs, enjoying the heavenly mountain air is definitely one to rave about!  We sat at a picnic table with a young German couple who were on a two week road trip across the United States, visiting several of the places I have been between last year’s road trip and this year’s.  It really was an incredible experience and an amazing atmosphere, honestly a highlight of the trip for me.

 Our 9 day adventure was off to an absolutely perfect start.  The free-spirited and active vibes of Lake Tahoe and the rustic, natural beauty of Yosemite make these two of my all- time-favorite spots.   Everything that we were able to accomplish in just the first four days between the two places was impressive.  We had driven over 300 miles, camped four nights in a tent, climbed over 15,000 feet in elevation during 30+ miles of hiking, and we were blessed with the most beautiful weather we could have asked for at some of the amazing places we had ever been.  This was just the beginning of an amazing adventure.  Stay tuned for Death Valley and more…

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Great American Road Trip [Part 4]: The Best for Last

We left Vegas bright and early to drive about 3 hours to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Although it wasn’t part of our original itinerary, we drove right past the Hoover Dam so we stopped for a few pictures.  We didn’t spend too much time there (because it was so hot that our cell phones turned off) but I was amazed with the beautiful colors and the contrast between the blue sky and the neutral tones of the rock.  I’d recommend looking into tours if you find yourself near the Hoover Dam.

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We made our way to the West Rim for a tour that we had purchased online ahead of time.  This $80 ticket includes a free meal and a bus ride to three breathtaking viewpoints along the West Rim, where you get a chance to test your fear of heights on the Skywalk, a 4,000- foot-high glass bridge that extends 70-feet past the edge of the canyon.  The feeling of being on the Skywalk is pretty neat but unfortunately they don’t let you take pictures; instead, they have “professional” photographers that charge a ridiculous amount of money for a snapshot.  My personal opinion:  Save the money on the photo.  There’s plenty of other spots on the canyon to take perfect pictures!

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We spent quite a bit of time exploring the West Rim before realizing we should probably start our drive to our campsite in the South Rim.  Just to give you an idea of how grand the Grand Canyon is, it took four and a half hours to drive from the West Rim to the South Rim.  I found that to be pretty impressive!  We accidentally took a wrong turn after the sun set and ended up in Williams, Arizona, the cutest little town on the infamous Route 66.  We had dinner at Station 66, an chic Italian Bistro with rooftop seating, fire pits, and live music.  We did a beer flight and I sampled a variety of Bruschetta.  My favorite was the Apple & Brie Cheese with Fig Jam (absolutely delicious!).  We all purchased souvenir growlers from the bar before browsing some of the other cute shops in town.  This might sound weird, but that was one of the most memorable parts of the whole trip for me.  We made a wrong turn, we got behind schedule on our itinerary, we weren’t going to get to our campsite until midnight, but we discovered an incredibly charming western town that I otherwise would know nothing about.  To me, that’s what an experience is all about.

With full bellies and happy hearts we completed our drive to Mather Campground in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  By the time we arrived and set up camp it was close to midnight.  We had planned on waking up at 4:00 AM and doing a 21-mile hike to the Colorado River but after doing more research we decided that that was probably not the best idea in the middle of July (in fact they specifically tell you not to do it in one day).  We ended up sleeping in a little, which was good because it was thundering off in the distance.  We spent some time shopping around in the camp store while we decided which hike we should do.  We chose the Bright Angel Trail; one of the parks’ most traveled trails.  It has restrooms and potable water along the way and has more shade than most of the other trails.

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Hiking into the canyon was definitely an amazing experience.  Most of the hikes I had done up to this point involved ascending a mountain to a summit then having a nice and easy downhill return trip.  A canyon is so different because you have an easy walk down in the canyon and then you look up and think “Oh shoot, I have to climb up there!?”  We all are in relatively good shape but wisely opted to only do three miles.  During our ascent out of the canyon we experienced a Grand Canyon thunderstorm, which was absolutely amazing.  The thunder echoed through the canyon, cloud-to-ground lightning struck in the distance, and the huge raindrops quickly soaked the dusty trail.  The rain felt amazing during a hot afternoon hike and we even saw a double rainbow.   From the moment I first saw it the day before, the Grand Canyon instantly became one of my all time favorite destinations.

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After another good night at Mather Campground (minus one strange and creepy animal noise I will never forget), we made a two and a half hour drive north to Page, Arizona where we got to see some of Mother Nature’s most beautiful creations.  Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend.  An easy less-than-a-mile hike brings your right to an edge for a spectacular view of the Colorado River.  This highly-photographed lookout point has a 1,000 foot drop and the view is beyond breathtaking.

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Our next stop, just a few miles from Horseshoe Bend, was Antelope Canyon in LeChee, Arizona.  Since it is located on Navajo land, you are required to take a guided tour through the canyon, which involves a safari-style Jeep ride to the entrance of the canyon.  The tour itself is $40 plus an additional $8 cash-only Navajo Parks and Recreation fee but it is more than worth the money.   Due to its marvelous colors and textures, Antelope Canyon is one of the most-photographed slot canyons in the world (I only had my cell phone with me so make sure you bring a good camera).  Learning about how the canyon was formed and how the rain affects the canyon is fascinating.  You could see shrubs overhead that were wedged in between the narrow canyon as they were swept in during a flash flood.  Since Antelope Canyon is known for its incredible photo opportunities, the tour guides give you tips on how and where to take pictures for the best results.

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After our approximately hour-long tour we made the three and a half hour drive to our Best Western Inn in Cortez, Colorado.  We were suppose to stop at the Four Corners Monument, since it was directly on our route, but we unfortunately got there about 30 minutes after it closed for the evening (they closed at 8:00PM).  This was a bummer but it was really the only thing on our itinerary that we didn’t make it time (which is pretty impressive in my opinion).  Now it just gives me another reason to go back!  We enjoyed our night in the hotel, got our free breakfast in the morning, and continued four hours to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Mosca, CO.

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We did a quick hike to Zapata Falls where we enjoyed climbing around on the slippery rocks in the freezing cold water.  The 25-foot waterfall is pretty impressive.  We then made our way to the Pinyon Flats Campground in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where we were very amused to find a food storage locker and signs that said “Beware of Black Bears.”  It’s funny because we thought we were “out of the woods” with bears by now (literally, we were at the sand dunes, there couldn’t possibly be bears, right?).  Well, the Great Sand Dunes is a magical variety of landscapes, something like I’ve never seen before.  The Sangre de Cristo Mountains provide a lush backdrop for the vast dunes and gentle river that trickles beneath the sand.  The 750-foot dunes make The Great Sand Dunes the largest dunes in the country.  We watched the sunset on the dunes where a beautiful double rainbow provided an even more mystical atmosphere (just bring bug spray because we got eaten alive).  The next morning we tried sand-boarding, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  Although it was much more difficult than snowboarding, and having no “ski lift” made climbing the 750-foot dunes extra exhausting, we all had a great time (even Danielle, who turned into a sand monster!).  Make sure you start early because the dunes heat up to 115 degrees in the afternoon.  Also, make sure you have jugs of water available.  There are no showers in the park and you get pretty sandy on the dunes, so you might have to shower in the woods with a jug of water (just saying).

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Our next move was supposed to be an eight and a half hour drive to the Great Plains State Park in Oklahoma, which was really just an overnight stop to break up the driving.  We weren’t overly attached to the Great Plains so we decided to just drive the 21 hours nonstop to Nashville, Tennessee.  This would give us a few extra hours to explore Music City, which little did I know, would soon become my favorite city!  We enjoyed a few drinks on Broadway Street and checked out all of the cute boot shops before heading to our Ramada hotel, (where we all enjoyed a much needed, real shower).  We spent the last evening of our Great American Road Trip line-dancing the night away at the Wildhorse Saloon, one of Nashville’s most lively three-story bars, where they have a variety of alcoholic beverages in souvenir glass cowboy boots.

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It was a solemn 12-hour drive back to Maryland on Sunday, as I felt one of the greatest adventures of my life was coming to an end.  In all reality though, I realized that this great adventure was the beginning of an even greater life adventure.  I discovered my passion for traveling and was exposed to so many positive experiences that gave me a new outlook and appreciation.  I had never been off of the East Coast and I honestly thought that the United States didn’t have much to offer.  But, after having the opportunity to travel coast to coast, I am positive that I live in the most beautiful country in the world and I am so inspired and motivated to see as much of it as I can.  I urge you to do the same.  I couldn’t have had better friends to experience this journey with.  Four people squeezed in a jam-packed car for 18 days can be a true test to friendship (and we were definitely tested at times), but I wouldn’t change a thing!  Our Great American Road Trip was really an experience of a lifetime and I am so thankful for the memories!  Until the next adventure…

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Great American Road Trip [Part 3]: Cali

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Since the weather was cold and rainy in Lake Tahoe and our paragliding session got cancelled, we decided to drive to San Francisco earlier than planned.  We were able to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge while it was still daylight, which was not part of the original plan.  We stayed in a La Quinta Inn in the outskirts of San Francisco, closer to the airport, because it was a little less expensive than staying downtown.  We were able to order pizza and do our first load of laundry and just simply relax.  July 10th was our day to tour San Francisco so we got an early start and fueled up with our free hotel breakfast (a must, remember?).  We headed to Fisherman’s Wharf to window shop before our tour of Alcatraz.  As you can see, we experienced your typical San Francisco fog, but the sun came out in the afternoon and we eventually had beautiful blue skies.

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The $30 Alcatraz tour is more than worth every penny (but be sure to reserve your tickets online ahead of time).  You enjoy a scenic boat ride to the island, which provides unbeatable views of the city.  We arrived on Alcatraz Island and were immediately greeted by an enthusiastic park ranger.  I was very surprised and interested to find out that Alcatraz Island is a U.S. National Park.  A tour guide escorts you around the parts of the “island” and provides very informative insight about this historical landmark.  The tour of the cellhouse was quite an experience.  It is an audio tour available in 10 different languages.  Basically you get a personal audio device and the tour takes you to different places in the cellhouse on your own.  We spent about 3 hours at Alcatraz but you can spend as much time on the island as you want as long as you catch the last ferry boat back to the city.  I’m honestly not much of a history person but I really got a lot out of this tour.  It was pretty eerie yet fascinating!

After our tour we made a quick stop at the famous Boudin Sourdough Bakery and got a huge $20 sourdough sea turtle, which was pretty much my favorite thing ever.  This famous bakery makes bread in just about every shape and animal you could imagine.  It’s a must try in San Fran!  We were starving and devoured the bread with the peanut butter that we had stowed in the car, as we made our way down Lombard Street, past the popular “Painted Ladies” (featured in the TV show, “Full House“), and headed south to Manresa Beach Campground, our destination for the evening.

Manresa Beach Campground is a small, family-friendly state beach.  It really was just a place to sleep for the night but it was my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean up close and it was a beauty!  We were able to set up our tent and made a short walk to the beach to watch the sunset.  I can definitely see why they call California the “Golden Coast.”  We experienced our first “quarters only” showers and unfortunately I only had enough change on me for about two minutes of freezing cold water (needless to say I started saving my change after this).  We got a good night’s rest in our humble abode (our tent) and got an early start as we made our way south down the coast of California on the breath-taking Route 1.

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The Pacific Coast Highway is an absolute must on any trip to California.  There are so many incredible towns along the way that you could easily make a week out of it.  The scenery is honestly like nothing I’ve seen before:  blue skies, sheer cliffs, winding roads, extraordinary bridges, and several spots to stop along the way for amazing photo opportunities.  McWay Falls was BY FAR the most beautiful stop we made!

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We braved the Los Angeles traffic and finally picked up Danielle, the fourth fabulous person on our Great American Road Trip.  (She could only take a week off of work so she flew out and did the second half of the trip with us).  One of my friends Malia, who was an exchange student at my high school sophomore year, is a flight attendant for an international airline.  We occasionally chat on Facebook and she happened so see that I was posting pictures of California and asked if I would be in L.A. at all because she had a layover.  Well it just so happened that we were going to be in Los Angeles at the SAME EXACT TIME!  We instantly made plans to meet at the Griffith Observatory and hike to the Hollywood Sign together.  It was honestly one of the coolest moments of my entire life.  I hadn’t seen this girl in like seven years and here we are in L.A. hiking to the Hollywood Sign together and chatting like we see each other every day.  It really was amazing.

After our incredible yet exhausting hike we finished our drive down the coast to San Diego where we indulged in authentic Mexican food before staying the night in the Best Western South Bay Inn, just 5 miles from the Mexico border.  The next morning we had surfing lessons booked but the high rip current threat prevented us from doing so.  We were definitely bummed but we still got to enjoy a few hours on the beach and even took a dip in the Pacific (before they kicked us out for a rip current).  We enjoyed some San Diego sushi before hitting the road for our 5 hour drive to The Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  We got to Vegas later than expected so we had to opt for $80 worth of room-service Nachos and Mac & Cheese while showering and getting all dolled up for Hakkasan, a world-class night club on The Strip.  Let’s just say, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”  Until the next adventure…

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Great American Road Trip [Part 2]: Yellowstone & Lake Tahoe

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We woke up bright and early on July 7th, enjoyed our free breakfast at our Gillette, Wyoming hotel, and began our scenic six hour drive to Yellowstone National Park, one of the most-anticipated destinations for me and the country’s first national park.  This national park is known for it’s desolate wilderness, extraordinary wildlife, impressive geysers, colorful hot springs, and it’s traffic.  Okay, maybe there’s not traffic all the time but they were doing some construction on the roads in the park and it definitely slowed things down a little bit, so be prepared.  Nevertheless, several buffalo greeted us as we entered the park and made our way to the Yellowstone Falls and Canyon for a brief photo op.  This wasn’t really on our itinerary but it was a quick and easy stop.  I have been told, though, that you should definitely take the time and do the hike down into the canyon to get a closer look of the falls.  That’s definitely on my list for next time!

Next on the agenda were Old Faithful Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring, two of Yellowstone’s most prominent features.  Despite the myths, Old Faithful does not erupt regularly on the hour and it is always best to check the board in the museum for a prediction of the next eruption time.  Allow yourself enough time to get to a good spot to watch the eruption because it gets crowded pretty quickly.  It’s amazing that one minute the geyser appears dormant and the next minute it’s spewing hot water 150 feet in the air.  Midway Geyser Basin Trail is a 0.8 mile boardwalk-like loop that circles through the multiple, impressive hot springs, including the infamous Grand Prismatic Spring.  The pictures really don’t do the magnificent colors of this hot spring justice.  It’s something that you really have to see for yourself.  Just make sure you wipe your sunglasses off because the hot springs are sure to fog them up!

It was mid-afternoon and our plan was to drive the 45 minutes to the Backcountry Permit Office to get our backcountry camping permits for the night, then quickly make our way to the trailhead where we would be backcountry camping so we could hike the three miles in and set up camp before dusk.  For those who don’t know what backcountry camping is, it’s not like a typical campsite where you pull your car right up to your site and have neighbors all around you.  You leave your car at the trailhead, take all of your supplies with you (food, water, tent, etc.), and trek through tall grasses three miles into the wilderness to your assigned spot.  There is a fire pit, a hole in the ground (in case Mother Nature calls), and a food storage pole to hang your food out of the bears’ reach.  It’s just you and the wildlife and there’s no one to call on for help.  There are no other people in the vicinity and there are no lights other than your flashlights.

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Well, on our way to the permit office we saw dozens of people pulled over on the side of the road, pointing at something in the field.  Our curiosity caused us to pull over and the park ranger notified us that there was a grizzly bear and her cub out in the field.  After spectating for a few minutes, we continued on to the permit office we had to watch a 10 minute video about grizzly bear attacks.  Although we all know that you’re likely to come across bears in their natural habitat I think the three of us realized then that we were slightly in over our heads, and might not be as experienced as we should be for this backcountry camping excursion (even though we had come armed with “bear spray“).  After a mild disagreement (which now all we can do is laugh about), we decided to skip the backcountry camping and research hotels in the area.  Unfortunately, the only available hotels were either $400 a night or 100 miles away so we decided we would just sleep in the car when the time came.

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We enjoyed dinner at a pizza place in West Yellowstone, a small town we drove to just over the Montana border.  We may not have gotten to experience backcountry camping, but I can add a new state to my list (which is always pretty cool).  We enjoyed a little shopping (where I bought my favorite stuffed animal moose) before driving to the trailhead where we would sleep in the car for the night.  Although I’m pretty sure it was illegal to park and sleep where we did, and it was slightly uncomfortable being squished against the steering wheel in the driver’s seat, we made it through the night.  In the morning we still wanted to hike Big Horn Peak, the 12 mile trail, along which our backcountry campsite would have been located.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints we didn’t make it to the summit but it was the most gorgeous and desolate hike I have ever been on.  In the 9 miles that we covered we did not see a single other person.  We did see what resembles a bear paw print though!

Yellowstone was a great learning experience!  Although I’m bummed we didn’t get to do the backcountry camping I know there will be plenty of other opportunities.  Yellowstone National Park is huge, extending into three different states, and you could easily spend a week here.  I definitely look forward to planning another trip and spending more time in this great national park.  It was a long ten hour drive from Yellowstone to our next hotel in Fernley, Nevada.  We arrived in the middle of the night but definitely appreciated the warm shower and good night’s rest on a comfortable bed.  The next morning we enjoyed our free continental breakfast (a must on a road trip), and made the quick hour and a half drive to North Lake Tahoe.  (Our favorite part of the drive was the “Agricultural Inspection” as we crossed the border into California).  Our plan was to hang out on the beach at Lake Tahoe then go paragliding at 4:00 PM.  Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy and thunderstorms were in the forecast so paragliding was a no-go.  We were disappointed but still enjoyed some beach time, amateur acroyoga, and shopping in the cute little coffee-drinking, yoga-practicing, good-for-your-soul town of King’s Beach, Lake Tahoe.  Needless to say, I was obsessed with this perfect little peaceful place.

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These few days in particular of our Great American Road Trip were some of my favorites.  I am so fortunate to have gotten to see some of the most beautiful and extraordinary parts of the country and to really spend some up-close-and-personal time alone with nature.  We went to this unique family-owned Thai décor shop in King’s Beach called Jai Yen Treasures and I stumbled across this pendant that really puts everything into perspective:  “The journey is the reward”.   Although we didn’t get to do the backcountry camping and we didn’t get to paraglide, I’m not dwelling on what we missed out on; rather I am just so lucky to have this amazing experience and in my opinion, that is the ultimate reward.  Until the next adventure…

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