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Seeing Saguaro

March 26-27, 2021

My mom and I decided that we were going to spend her spring break by exploring the National Parks in Arizona. After months of planning we were off and ready to head out west! We landed in Phoenix on March 25 in the evening and finally made it to a hotel (the first hotel that we went to didn’t have our reservation or any rooms despite our confirmation). The next morning we woke up early to go to pick up our Escape Campervan. If you are unfamiliar, Escape Campervan is a company that converts cargo vans into modified campers complete with mini cooler/fridge, coleman stove, and an area that converts into a bed which takes up most of the space in the car, they also have outrageous paint jobs. Once we beheld “Darwin,” or as I began calling it, the “Bug Mobile,” we got ourselves situated, picked up breakfast at In-and-Out Burger (a cheeseburger and fries for breakfast, which was really the only choice we could make!), and we were off to Tucson to go to our first stop, Saguaro National Park.

Upon arriving to the park we were immediately surrounded by a forest of saguaro cacti. We stopped by the visitor center and got all of the information on the hiking in the area and the maps of the park. Both my mom and I were incredibly tired after traveling the day before and adjusting to the new time zone, despite it being only 3 hours behind. Driving to the camping area was simple enough, our campground was in the Tucson Mountain State Park which borders the southern park of the western area of the National Park. We sat in windy quiet as we ate dinner and then decided where we would try to watch a sunset. Before we could leave camp though, I had the misfortune to stick my knuckle directly into a prickly pear cactus and, after picking the spikes out of my knuckles, felt like I had punch a wall my fingers throbbed so much.

Based on recommendations from a most reliable source, the internet, we made our way further into the state park and up the crest of part of the Gates Pass Rd to the first turn off with sweeping vistas of the valley below and the mountains far to the west.

Sunset was spectacular. It was a brisk, partly cloudy evening, the clouds only adding brilliant pinks and oranges to the sky as the sun began its slow descent behind the far distant mountains. After the sun had completely vanished on the horizon we made our way back to the giant bug mobile and there was a young hiker leaning against the vehicle who asked us if we might be able to drive him to a trailhead a few miles away as he underestimated how long the hike he was on was going to take and he would have to walk at least 4 miles in the dark to get back to his car, we obliged. I felt a mixture of satisfaction that we had helped this man get to his car and also a sense of dread at the prospect of having a stranger in my vehicle – thus confirming my suspicion that I could never drive for any type of rideshare service, though luckily, that was never a dream of mine, so I can feel comforted that a dream did not die when we dropped him off.

Sunset from the ridge on March 26, 2021 – Gates Pass Rd

The first night in the campervan passed uneventfully and we were able to get up early the next morning to go to the east side of the park, which is on the opposite side of the city of Tucson. We started on the scenic loop on that side of the park and completed a short nature walk/hike through the Sonoran Desert and the Cacti Forest on the Mica View Trail. I was exceedingly careful not to get too close to any of the plants, still wary of any prickly pear cactus in my immediate vicinity.

We stopped at a few more overlooks along the way. The juxtaposition of seeing the vast expanse of the catci forest and the mountains with the city clearly visible just a few miles away was strange. This is not the first time I’ve seen a park so close to a city, I mean, Hot Springs National Park and Gateway Arch National Park are smack in the heart of their respective cities, but with the mountains and the vastness of the desert it was still an odd feeling. I felt that the city was encroaching on the wild places of the desert, but I also recognize that Tucson feels like part of the park as its ever present neighbor.

After completing the loop road we made a quick stop at the visitor center on the east side and bought the best salt water taffy I’ve yet to try, even if it was flavored from the traitorous prickly pear cactus that still had my fingers throbbing a day after my incident. We went back to the west side of the park and traveled the loop road there. Sadly for me, the loop road on the west side is fully unpaved, and I don’t do well on unpaved roads, for some reason I’m convinced that the car is going to break while it pitches and jumps wildly over the gravel terrain. I’m not sure how so many people can race over those roads with no concern for their tires. After having a picnic at a lovely picnic area, we took a nap in the camper van, an excellent bonus of taking your “tent” on the move with you!

We did one final nature trail, the Desert Discovery Trail, a nice short nature walk through more cacti. We went back up to Gates Pass Rd, but to a higher vantage point, so we could see the sunset once again and then we called it a night. I think had we more time or were we less tired, we might have made an attempt to try more of the extensive hiking trails and explore the park more thoroughly, but we were also looking forward to the next adventures awaiting us in Arizona.

The Greatest Grand Canyon Jaunt

March 30 – April 2

With only a 2 hour drive ahead of us from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon National Park we took it easy in the morning and slept in! It turns out…it wasn’t a great idea to sleep in, we should have gotten up much earlier because that 2 hour drive turned into at least 3 hours as we sat in an hour of traffic waiting to get into the National Park. Spring break was in full swing and with only one entrance to the park open because of closures at the other entrances due to COVID, there was only so much the park service could do to expedite the entry of the hundreds of visitors.

We drove immediately to the main visitor center at Mather Point. We stopped by the book shop to get our passports stamped and then lingered until we found a park ranger (they were few and far between!), we got some advice about where to park for the next day because the epic plan for the Grand Canyon was for us to hike into the canyon and get down to the Colorado River and then back up to our campsite at the Indian Garden Campground before we climbed out of the canyon the day after. The park’s usual bus routes were on limited operation, they were only running the route from the visitor center to Yaki Point and the bus from the Bright Angel Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest, so our original plan to take the Village Route to the Yaki Route had to be modified. The park ranger gave us a number of options, but we decided that we would drive to the visitor center in the early morning and then take the shuttle to the trailhead, thinking that the three mile hike by the end of the trip would be a sacrifice that we would make so we could get the shuttle earlier to try to watch the sunrise while on the trail.

Mather Point was so close, we thought that a short walk to the canyon’s edge would be in order. Until that point, because of where we had to enter the park, we had yet to see the vast beauty of the Grand Canyon. Naturally the views were stunning and as always, unbelievable. The viewpoints were also incredibly crowded, perhaps not as crowded as they would be in a normal year of tourism, but certainly busier than I think was anticipated at the National Park. We walked a little way down the rim trail, though we didn’t go very far because of the crowds and I think my ever increasing anxiety about our journey the next day. I wanted to get our last minute supplies and get our backpacks ready for our overnight adventure. ***I must note that my anxiety was higher because I did not even slightly train for this trek through the canyon, I kept telling myself that I should work on some cardio or squats or even stretching during the months leading up to our trip after I secured our overnight permit, but I did not – I would 100% not suggest that for anyone attempting to hike into the Grand Canyon, training would have been immensely beneficial.

My mom and I got our packs ready. As neither of us had ever backpack camped before we didn’t really know exactly what we should be bringing. Here is what we packed:

  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Tent
  • Hiking Poles
  • Pajamas & 1 set of extra clothes
  • Basic toiletries (toothbrush/toothpaste, face wipes, sunscreen, body wipes, deodorant)
  • Snacks/food – nothing needing refrigeration or cooking
  • Water, water, and more water

Since the plan was to get up at 4AM to get to the shuttles no later than 4:45-5:00 we went to bed at 8PM. 4 o’clock in the morning came earlier than expected. It was freezing at the Mather Campground where we were staying that night and we bundled up in our hiking gear and set off for the visitor center. When it was time to get out of the car and put our packs on for the first time, I think both my mom and I almost fell over backwards with the weight of the packs, it felt like I was carrying a suitcase on my back…I never thought that any amount of water would be too much water, but I was almost immediately regretting the amount of liquid I’d chosen to put in my bag. – We had to make sure we had enough water because there was no water stops at all on the South Kaibab Trail.

Our original plan to get to the South Kaibab Trailhead (7,200 ft elev.) in plenty of time to be able to see the sunrise was for naught as we didn’t get there until 5:40AM and with sunrise at 6:15, we weren’t going to get a location to see the sun break on the canyon rim. This delay turned out to be a blessing because with the predawn light we could actually see what we were doing and we didn’t need to rely on our headlamps, which was lucky because only a few switchbacks down the trail I fell on unseen ice. We made agonizingly slow progress down the start of the trail because of the ice, which was really the mud refrozen from the day before, so we couldn’t really tell were the dirt ended and the ice began.

We made it to the Ooh Aah Point perhaps around 6:30, and since that point of the trail is just under a mile from the trailhead and with another 6 miles to go until we got to Phantom Ranch, I knew we were going to be going down for a looooooong time. As I suspected, we did not see sunrise break over the ridge of the canyon, but it was still incredibly beautiful to see the canyon vistas spread out before us.

By the time we got to the Cedar Ridge I was hungry and I think perhaps my mom was too, we hadn’t had breakfast yet. We stopped to eat a bagel and go to the bathroom. I also shed a layer of clothes. My fleece came off because while I was chilly standing on the ridge with the wind blowing, during the walk down from the trailhead I had been warming up. We got a few yards down from the Cedar Ridge and we stopped so my mom could also shed a layer (see? I made a smart move to shed in the cold so I didn’t have to take that infernal pack off again).

Skeleton Point was the next stop on the trail. 3 miles from the trailhead we stopped at the crest of Skeleton Point, the top of an intense series of switchbacks. The switchbacks probably made me the most nervous to that point on the trail. After the switchbacks the trail sort of became a blur until the Tipoff Point. We spent a few minutes sitting, resting, and snacking at the Tipoff Point. We finally picked up our packs, which honestly, felt like they were getting heavier despite the fact that we were drinking water and eating some of the snacks.

The trek from the Tipoff Point to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge was grueling. Walking downhill was a nightmare. I think it felt less strenuous than an uphill hike, but far more difficult as you try to control your speed on the steep sloping trail down and watching your footing to avoid any slips (does that make sense?). We could see the suspension bridge getting ever closer and yet still felt it was miles away. We ended up running into a park ranger who was on a hike up the Kaibab Trail and she encouraged us about getting to the Phantom Ranch and our impending hike back to the Indian Garden Campground in the afternoon. What seemed like hours later (probably about 30 mins) we made it to the bridge. We were then crossing the Colorado River!

We made it the Phantom Ranch (2546 ft elev.) around noon and grabbed a snack and a lemonade at the canteen. My mom and I also both bought a small magnet! We relaxed for an hour and ate lunch. After our hour we resigned ourselves to the fact that it was time to get up and start on the next 5 miles of our journey. Our packs again seemed to weigh an extra 10 pounds.

The slow climb to the River Rest house (2,400 ft elev.) on the Bright Angel Trail began. Sadly we had to climb up just to climb back down again. For some reason the trail has the audacity to climb a few hundred feet just to drop lower than the Phantom Ranch after 2 miles. I don’t know what the temperature was at the bottom of the canyon, but I can confirm that with the sun shining brightly it was a million degrees at the river. I was HOT! Just after the River Rest house, perhaps a little under a mile up the trail, I became incredibly warm, nauseated, and weak. I was definitely experiencing some heat exhaustion symptoms and dehydration. We passed through a creek that cut through the trail and found some shade, I dropped my pack and started shedding more layers of clothing. We took a few minutes to drink some water and cool down before we started again.

The Devil’s Corkscrew switchback series was next on our list. We came across another hiker who was moving much faster than us. We asked him if he had an insight on the trail and he told us that after the corkscrew switchbacks we didn’t have too much to worry about and we would be nearly to the Indian Garden Campground (3,760 ft elev.). I’m sure that is true, but with the fatigue and exhaustion setting in, the final 2 miles of the day’s hike felt like the longest, and it probably was. I was ready to drop right there, I felt so ill and tired that I didn’t want to keep going, but I knew if I stopped that we wouldn’t make it to camp. Because of the exhaustion I couldn’t find the motivation to even take more than a handful of photos.

After 4 hours of hiking, we finally made it. When we were almost there we passed two hikers heading down to the Plateau Point and I asked in desperation, “do you know if we’re almost to Indian Garden?” They blessedly said, “oh! you’re so close! you’ve got about 200 yards to go.” I felt immediate relief. We had made it! And, we made it before sunset. We set up camp and I forced myself to eat and drink even though I still felt sick enough that I just wanted to crawl into the tent and sleep, but I knew that my body needed fuel. Well, my body was unsure what to do with the amount of liquid intake, it seemed to say, “Ahh! Water and gatorade! But wait…we aren’t sweating…hmmm…you’ll need to go to the bathroom at least 4 times in the next two hours.” This hydration situation was bit of a problem because I had to keep getting into and out of the sleeping bag, tent, and hiking shoes to walk up the godforsaken hill to the toilet in the utter darkness. Finally I got to sleep.

After picking up camp we started the final part of the hike up the Bright Angel Trail at 8:15AM on April 1. We had 4.6 miles to go until we made it out of the canyon. When we started on this day we actually paid attention to our mileage so we could determine our progress, which was definitely a mistake we had made the first day and made it so we couldn’t get our bearings, we were learning. After a couple of hours we made it to the 3 mile rest house. We stopped and chatted with another family for a while and ate a snack. From the 3 mile rest house to the 1.5 mile rest house it took another couple of hours. We passed another hiker who was taking his time in climbing. We stopped and rested with him for a while on the trail before we headed on our way. Once we made it to the 1.5 mile rest house our hiker friend had caught up with us. We chatted again for a bit and then he left us while we snacked and rested a while longer. Upon the final push for the trailhead we passed our friend another time and wished him luck. Up on the last set of switchbacks there was a lot of ice, which was terrifying, but the focus it took to get through the ice patches took my mind off the pain in my legs.

Finally, at around 14:30, we made it to the top of the trail (6,860 ft elev.)! We were back on the rim. Some hikers who we had briefly encountered on the trail from camp were also at the top waiting for their family to join them and they took our picture for us at the end of the hike. And just as we were gearing up to start our 3 mile journey from the Bright Angel Trailhead along the rim to the visitor center, our hiker friend Dave showed up and offered us a ride to the visitor center. Never have I been so glad for the kindness of strangers and willingly become a hitchhiker.

Once we got back to the bug mobile we took the 22 mile drive out to the Desert View Watchtower and a few viewpoints just to keep moving. Getting into and out of the van and walking even short distances was painful and difficult. We went to the Yavapai Lodge and got a burger for dinner – it was amazing! I scarfed dinner in the van at our campsite in the Mather Campground and then my mom and I went to bed, another early night.

Our final morning we took the shuttle along the Hermit’s Rest route. We got out at the Hopi Point and walked to the Mohave Point, after that .7 mile I think both my mom and I were over it. Of course the Grand Canyon and the views from the rim were unbelievable, but we were both so sore and tired that we couldn’t fully appreciate the rim trail. We took the bus out to Hermit’s Rest, ate a snack, took some photos, and then took the shuttle back to the Bright Angel Trailhead and Village area. We headed out of the park and back to reality.

I can confidently say that our trip to the Grand Canyon is one that I’ll never forget. After a much anticipated and painstakingly planned camping expedition, I learned a lot and had a lot of takeaways. I think I’m ok to not attempt another 1 night trip into the canyon again anytime soon, I’ll either have to wait for the chance to get a permit for multiple nights or actually train and do some cardio before attempting this insanity again! The many times I welled up and a couple of times I cried from the sheer beauty and magnificence will not be forgotten anytime soon. ***And now 5 days later, my legs are still sore, but I can move up and down stairs without wincing, so I’m making progress***

Petrified Forest

March 28 -29

After our time in Saguaro National Park, my mom and I made our way to Petrified Forest National Park. Somehow I didn’t think about the fact that it was a 5 hour drive from Tucson to Holbrook…I deluded myself into thinking that it was only a 3 hour drive, I’m not entirely sure why. We threw everything into the back of the bug-mobile and set off to the next adventure.

We arrived mid-afternoon and only had 2 hours to explore because the park was only open from 8AM-5PM. I’m not sure if this is a COVID specific time schedule to assist with physical distancing and maintenance of the park or if the park is normally only open those hours, unless you have a back country camping permit or special nighttime ranger program. We hurried through the entrance gate and made our way to some of the first overlooks in the northern part of the park nearest to the Painted Desert Inn.

At the Painted Desert overlooks you can just sit and stare, the quiet of the desert below you and the wind rushing by. The idea of sitting for hours to take in the splendor of what’s before you, the red rock eroding into badlands and nothing but blue sky to the horizon, is not an absurd one. We rushed through some of the view points knowing that we’d be back to take everything in the next day when we could get to the park as early as it opened.

We did one short nature walk the evening of March 28 through the Crystal Forest, a .75 mile paved walkway through a large concentration of the petrified wood. As we walked the sun glinted off the fossilized trees showing the sparkling quartz and beautiful array of colors. After completing our nature walk we drove to our campground for the evening and got ready to get rest to get up early the next day.

In the morning we got back to the park just after 8AM and went to the Rainbow Museum and did the Giant Logs trail. We then drove the Blue Mesa loop and did the short 1 mile hike to walk through the park’s unique badlands. Mom and I took a quick stop at Newspaper Rock and the Puerco Pueblo. Our final “hike” was to walk the half-mile rim trail from the Painted Desert Inn to the Painted Desert Overlook and then back again.

By the time we were finished with our short hikes and our loop of the park road it was 1PM. We were supposed to camp one more time near Petrified Forest, but decided that, while we could relax at camp, it might be a better use of our time to get closer to our next stop, Grand Canyon National Park. We booked a night at a campground near Flagstaff and started our drive.

Starting Solo

The Vegas Disaster

I landed in Las Vegas on March 28, 2017 at 9PM. I was ready to start my National Park adventure. I went to the rental car counter. I had completed the online check in and went to pick up my car, the attendant said that I was unable to rent a vehicle because of an outstanding billing problem. Imagine my confusion because up until the point of my arrival the only communication I received from the company was reminding me of my upcoming rental. I said to the employee that I would just step to the side and call the billing department to get it straightened out and he said, “they are only open during normal business hours.” I’m not sure how to describe my face, since obviously I couldn’t see it, but I’m not sure the employee appreciated my disbelieving stare. I said “well can you refund me then?” He had the audacity to ask, “you want to cancel the rental reservation?” And he was truly genuine in his confusion. Sir, you won’t let me have a car, why on earth would you think that I would want to keep a car rental and pay for it if I can’t have the product being paid for?

I went to another car rental counter and paid for an available rental, which of course was incredibly expensive. My car was upgraded to a large SUV, it was a 2017 Ford Explorer, I was thrilled since I was secretly planning to sleep in my car instead of actually making camp in each park where I had a campsite reserved. I left the airport, finally, and did my shopping for all of my supplies for the week. 

I arrived at the Statosphere hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. I waited in line for check in and had a thought, I didn’t get any reminder emails about my hotel reservation like I did for the flight and the rental car reservation. I frantically looked through my emails and didn’t see anything, then I started checking my credit card statements and had a horrible realization, I didn’t have a hotel reservation. I had booked one, but then cancelled it because I found a better price for the same room, but I forgot to actually rebook the hotel. I got to the counter, sort of defeated, and explained that I didn’t think I had a reservation, but could they check. Surprise! No reservation for me. I left the hotel and booked a quick reservation at the Excalibur Hotel just down the road. I was exhausted and finally got to bed at I don’t even remember what time. 

The First Park – Joshua Tree

I woke up early on March 29 and started the drive to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. I took the scenic route partly driving through the Mojave Desert and on a portion of the historic Route 66. I got to the national park in the early afternoon and didn’t even know where to begin. I parked in the visitor center parking lot and immediately saw a roadrunner, I was so excited!

Going into the visitor center and bookstore I looked around to see what souvenirs I wanted to take home. I made my first purchase, a set of magnets and a National Park Stamp Passport. The passport would become my constant travel companion and a goal to fill. I asked the attendant what suggestions he had for my first visit and what I should do with only a few hours to experience the park. I had directions to visit Skull Rock and to take some time to go on some short hikes.

I explored the area around Skull Rock and walked around some of the trails in the immediate area. Then I began the drive to Black Rock Campground, essentially the opposite side of the park then where I entered. It felt like the drive took hours, but I was also exhausted after having flown and then dealt with my Vegas fiasco. I stopped a few times to take some photos, but didn’t stop for any more hikes. I wanted to get to the campground to get the lay of the land and set everything up before it got dark.

I set up camp, but really didn’t plan to sleep in the tent. I was too nervous to sleep alone without doors that locked. I made a little bed in the back of the car with the seats folded down, I left the moonroof slightly cracked so I could have fresh air and went to sleep. In the early morning I heard what I imagine were coyotes or something else that made howling or barking noises…so maybe just some birds? As the sun began to lighten I packed up my camp and hit the road for the next park!

One day I’ll go back to Joshua Tree National Park and actually experience it properly. Hopefully next time I’ll have more rest and more time in the park.

To check out what Joshua Tree has to offer, you can visit the NPS website here:

https://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm

The Start of an Obsession

The Perfect Gift

For months after my trip to Everglades National Park I contemplated buying a real camera, other than the one that came equipped on my phone, it was an iPhone 4S after all, an ancient relic even when I was using it. I researched and read reviews, I shopped online and went to the store to hold different cameras to see which ones I liked the most. A Nikon D3300 was where my searching landed. Perhaps not the most advanced or fancy camera, but one with removable lenses and some beginner style preset functions, but a camera that would still make me feel like a real photographer. I put the red model in my cart online and let it sit there for over a year. 

For Christmas one year my parents asked my what was on my list. I knew the camera was too expensive, but it was the only thing I was asking for and I knew it would be a big ask. It was Christmas of 2016, I opened my gift and it was the camera that I had been longing for and all of the crazy accessories that went with it. I received not only the camera, but a tripod, additional flash attachments, screen protectors, and everything I could think of needing for a fancy new camera. 

I spent the rest of the time I was home visiting my family playing with my new toy. I took so many photos trying all of the settings of the camera and even started reading Nikon D3300 for Dummies. I didn’t master the camera in the few days I was with my family, but I was determined to find a way to take photos. 


Planning the Perfect Picture

After taking my photos testing the settings of the camera I thought, ‘how do I take beautiful photos?’ The answer came to me – go to a beautiful place and the pictures will take themselves. I went back to work after the holidays and during any downtime I started researching places that I wanted to visit. I found a random week at the end of March 2017 that would give me plenty of time to plan some sort of epic trip to be able to use the camera. 

My first idea was to go somewhere ancient, somewhere in Europe, a place where I could see ruins and historic landmarks. I quickly realized that I did not have enough time to travel internationally. Since I wasn’t planning to travel with anyone else, it would be a solo trip. Originally I tried to have a friend come with me, I started to become desperate, any friend would do, but no one seemed to be able to take the time off. 

It became clear that I would need to find somewhere to travel in the United States. I spent weeks deciding where I was going to go. Would I go to a big city to take photos at museums or to a battlefield to take photos of monuments and memorials, but then I started to look into the National Park Service’s website to discover what options I had available to see some beautiful natural places. First I wanted to explore Yellowstone National Park and went to the site and saw a beautiful photo of deep snow on a mountain in the park and saw the caption “March 2016,” I balked. There was no way that a Florida transplant would be able to survive a week in the deep snow with no prior experience and no appropriate gear for an entire week alone. I looked into Glacier National Park, foolishly not realizing that the park was even further north than Yellowstone and would surely be as harsh and unforgiving as any experience in Yellowstone would be. 

I took a look at a map and decided that the Southwestern United States would be the perfect place for me to visit, but which parks would I be venturing to? I picked Las Vegas as a starting point and went from there. My itinerary was to land in Vegas and then go on a whirlwind adventure where I would be in a new park each day the week.

Leading up to my trip I experienced so many emotions, anxiety, fear, excitement, and elation. Two of my managers at work had been hearing me talk about the trip and they were very excited for me, but it wasn’t until the day before I would be leaving that they realized that I was going into the wilderness alone. Both of my leaders told me I had to check in with them each day so they knew I was alright. I also had a plan to check in with my parents and my girlfriend. I was nervous and did a lot of research on murder in the National Parks (there really aren’t that many random acts of violence in National Parks, and now I’m usually more afraid of wildlife). After all of my research and preparation there really wasn’t much else to do except pack for my trip and go.

Finally a Floridian

March 2014

After graduating from university I moved to Central Florida to pursue a career at the Walt Disney World Resort. I sort of floundered after college and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I was good at customer service and I had a passion for the Walt Disney Company. For a few months I thought I’d move on and go get a “grown up job” as I called it, only to find myself making a career at the Walt Disney World Resort.

After so much time in Florida, I had to acknowledge that I was becoming a Floridian. I spent my time going to work and visiting with friends, but I remember while growing up my mother saying things like, “I can’t believe people who have lived in *insert town here* haven’t been to all of the famous tourist destinations!” She made a point of having us visit important areas in whichever city we were living in so we didn’t miss out on anything. Of course Central Florida is famous for its vast array of theme parks, many of which I made sure to visit. I was began to feel like a tourist however and not like a local. After living in Florida for two years, in 2014, I decided that I wanted to see the Everglades National Park. Florida is famous for having alligators, but I had yet to see one in the wild and I knew that the Everglades would probably be a good place to start. 

On a March day I messaged a friend, Samuel, and when I found out his days off coincided with mine I started planning a day trip to the Everglades National Park. I asked my peers at work if they had ever been and if they had, if they had any suggestions of things that we should see. None of my peers had ever taken a visit to the Everglades, even the people who had lived in Florida all of their lives. I couldn’t understand why no one had made the four hour trip to one of the closest National Parks, and then I knew I was becoming my mother. Without any advice to go on, Samuel and I planned to visit the Shark Valley region of the park. Shark Valley was only four hours from Orlando and was the closest area of the park we could reasonably visit for a day trip. 

At 5 o’clock AM I drove to Samuel’s house to pick him up and start our journey. We arrived at Shark Valley by late morning and immediately we saw alligators in the waterways near the road, I was overjoyed. We went to the visitor center and made a plan for the day. The Shark Valley area has a loop road, however it is not passable by personal vehicles, it is only used for the park trams that ferry visitors from the visitor center to an overlook halfway around the 15 mile loop, or you can choose to bike the loop. Samuel and I decided to forgo the tram and thought that cycling the 15 miles would be a better way to see the park as we’d be able to stop whenever we chose. Renting the bikes was simple enough and we had a couple of hours to make the trip without being charged for using the bikes for additional time. We foolishly thought that making the 15 mile trip in 2 hours seemed reasonable and easy. 

We set out on our bicycling adventure and stopped as soon as we saw an alligator near the path. There were so many alligators sunbathing because the water is still cool in mid March so the alligators sunbath to keep warm. We eventually stopped being intrigued by the alligators and simply ignored them. We got to the overlook structure, parked our bikes, and made our way up to the top of the tower. There were so many alligators in the small pools near the path to the tower that gators were seemingly stacked atop one another, but they were not at all bothered by the visitors that were gawking and photographing them. 

Samuel and I began our journey to return the bikes. I’m not sure what happened because even though the lookout tower was the approximate halfway point of the trail, the second half of the trip was a nightmare. It seemed that the return trip was twice as far and took twice as long (it’s only 1 mile longer). We saw roseate spoonbills in the marsh on our return trip and as we approached the visitor center there were a number of baby alligators that Sam and I stopped to watch, though we made sure not to linger too long as we didn’t want to attract the attention of a mother alligator. Even though we didn’t quite make the trip in the allotted time, I think the rental employees too pity on us being 30 minutes late and didn’t charge us, which was good because neither Samuel nor I wanted to pay the additional fee. 

We left the National Park and made our way to Big Cypress National Preserve, which was to the west of the park. Somehow I let Samuel convince me to take a back road to get to the highway and we ended up on a rough dirt road in my tiny Honda Civic. I think I would have strangled him except I was white knuckling the steering wheel. We passed a group of people who waved, and we waved back but kept driving because all I could think was, ‘we’re in a remote area of the Florida swamps and if I stop I’m going to be murdered.’ (You may think that’s dramatic, but have you heard about “Florida Man?!”). Eventually we were back on a paved road and on a highway. We stopped briefly at the National Preserve Visitor Center and then we began the four hour journey back to Orlando.

I was happy that I made the effort to visit the Everglades National Park. Even though many think that the Everglades is just a swamp it was a special adventure that made me feel like I was part of the special club of Everglades visitors. This visit to the Everglades would be the first, but not my last visit to a National Park as an adult.

***Bike rentals it seems are done by day now and not limited by a time frame
You can visit the site for tram reservations or bike rentals https://www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/

Find out more about Shark Valley https://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/svdirections.htm

Fancy Footwear

I’ve made some questionable decisions when going on trips. As the years have gone by I’ve learned the hard way that shoe choice is definitely something that matters. Some of you may think, ‘Of course, that should have been obvious.’ And you wouldn’t be wrong in that thought, but I was naive and later, just foolish.

The first time I went on a solo trip I was extra budget conscious. For the trip I made investments in a new tent, camping gear, and some appropriate hiking clothes, but I decided that my old and tired running shoes would suffice. It was when I nearly slipped down a muddy trail at Bryce Canyon National Park that I thought perhaps I made a mistake.

After that trip I bought a pair of hiking shoes to be more prepared. Those shoes lasted a respectable length of time, though they still weren’t the best quality. Before my first trip to Yellowstone National Park I decided to buy a pair of hiking boots since there was a threat of snow and ice, I figured boots would be a better choice than the shoes and I didn’t want a repeat of my near fall the last time I hiked in snow. It was the first time I bought the right pair of shoes before a trip rather than after learning a hard lesson. I still use those hiking boots, so clearly that worked out for me.

Over this past summer I hiked part of the Narrows at Zion National Park and I wore a pair of hiking sandals over a pair of neoprene socks. I would 1000% recommend buying or renting neoprene socks for that hike, they were fantastic, the shoes I wore though…YIKES! They were okay for the first part of the hike while I was fighting with the current, but when I was struggling to stay on my feet while the river was pushing against the back of my knees, the shoes were not good, they kept threatening to slide off my feet despite my continual tightening of the straps.

Trust that, after years of hard lessons, I now have a pair of Columbia hiking boots that I love, a pair of Salomon trail-running shoes that are fantastic, and a pair of Keen hiking sandals that are adorable. I feel I’m all set with footwear. Anyone have any other suggestions?

A Necessary Experience

When my family was living in California we went on a lot of family trips on the weekends. Despite not really wanting to leave Colorado, I’m so happy that our family had the chance to live in California for the year that we did. I was able to see so much beauty and nature, though I will admit that I did not appreciate it at the time, being the angsty teen that I was.

Living in Monterey Bay there was much to do right at home. We went to numerous state parks, explored the city in which we lived, took full advantage of the aquarium, and spent a few weekends going up to San Francisco. There are, however, two experiences that really stand out to me as particularly memorable, the first was a visit to Año Nuevo State Park and the second to Yosemite National Park.

February 2003

Año Nuevo State Park was one visit that I remember very well. It was a foggy and gloomy sort of day, which honestly it seemed to be more often than not while living in coastal California. I, a nearly 13 year old, was dragged on a family trip to the park with family friends. Little did I know that we would be going on a guided hike to beaches covered in elephant seals. Some coastal areas of California are natural mating habitats for the giant and strange looking animals and we were privy to quite a wildlife show. It felt like we were in the middle of a National Geographic documentary with hundreds of elephant seals, some pupping and taking care of young, while others were fighting for a chance to mate. I was enthralled. I’ve always loved nature documentaries, specifically about wildlife (as evidenced by my knowledge of moose), and the experience that day is one I will never forget.

Ano Nuevo SP – Elephant Seal Tour

April 2003

During our time in California I also made my first trip to Yosemite National Park. My parents were part of a retreat in Yosemite so we made the trip as a family. I remember little from the trip except the moment when we did the short trail to Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley and we were able to scrabble around and find a rock to sit on as a family. The next day we went to a forested area, and I think even then I thought we were in a completely different place, it is only now as I compare photos that I realize that the giant trees we visited were in the Mariposa Grove in the southern part of Yosemite. We ran along the path and climbed onto trees that we most certainly shouldn’t have, there were even signs telling us not to climb (I’ve seen the pictures), but we were kids just having fun in a National Park.

My mother and I were walking behind a couple in Grand Teton National Park last year espousing the idea that taking children to National Parks might be wasted on them because they can’t fully appreciating the experience. I must admit, that I don’t remember many of my experiences in the National Parks as a child, but the opportunity to go to these places and play in the parks instilled in me a desire to visit those parks and others as I grew into adulthood. When I recently returned to Yosemite National Park and walked through the Mariposa Grove I was struck with a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity, I felt a great sense of peace while there. It wasn’t until I was looking at old family photos that I realized that we did visit the grove in 2003. I could see how the paths had changed into boardwalks and there were more barriers for the protection of the magnificent giants, but the grove of trees remained much the same on both of my visits. I am already excited to go back to Yosemite for a fourth time, I just have to plan the trip! – And next time I’ll be sure to explore and enjoy Yosemite for more than just a weekend.

Abandoning Camp

When planning for a trip, generally one would check the weather to ensure they have the proper gear. I can confirm that I am typically one who completes this vital task. What I was not prepared for on a recent camping trip was the fact that my sleeping bag was not rated for cold weather. I didn’t know! I was so convinced that my sleeping bag was good for any weather that I did not bother to actually check it’s rating. Typically I’m usually an obsessive over packer and over planner, I’m sure I’ll have an entire post dedicated to that, but this time, I did not plan well.

The first time I realized I might be in trouble was when I was camping in Crater Lake National Park in late August 2020. I’m not sure why I didn’t think it through, the low was going to be 45 F (approx. 7 C) – so it was probably going to be pretty freaking cold overnight with no sunshine to warm me and me only in a tent, not really a secure or warm shelter. After one night in the tent I abandoned camping and decided the backseat of the rental car was an excellent shelter option for the rest of my trip. It was at that point that I looked at my sleeping bag and found that it was rated for, at lowest, around 45-50 F.

An ounce of anxiety settled over me upon the realization that one day after I returned home, to Florida no less, which is almost like the surface of the sun, I would be jetting off to Yellowstone National Park. Even in the second week of September the lows were going to be all the way down to 27 F (approx. -3 C). Below freezing…I didn’t have time to buy a new sleeping bag that I would like or could easily travel with. I had some good wool socks, a sleeping bag liner, and a nice fleece, I figured I was as prepared as possible (spoiler I was wrong).

My friend and I set off to Yellowstone with hopes that everything would turn out alright. We made camp, which was a mess on all on its own, and when we were finally set up with our individual tents the sun was down and the temperature was dropping dramatically. We built a fire and roasted marshmallow and tried to keep warm. We settled in for bed and the reality of the cold set in. I fell asleep relatively easily, but I awoke multiple times because: 1. my feet were unbelievable cold, 2. my air mattress kept deflating and the cold from the ground woke me up, 3. my face was cold from where my sleeping bag was open, 4. all of me was cold, 5. I had to decide if I wanted to partially emerge from my sleeping bag to blow up the air mattress to get off the ground, but then expose myself to the cold, or suffer the discomfort of the hard packed earth.

The next day we made sure to stop at the Yellowstone General Store to pick up blankets to shove into our sleeping bags. I’m not sure the exact feelings that my friend had about the temperature, but we were both 100% ready to buy 6 blankets each if that would make sleeping easier, we each bought 1 fleece blanket. We essentially repeated our nighttime performance from the first night, save camp set up, and somehow the night felt better. The third night felt much the same as the second night, I was actually sort of comfortable overnight, though it was still colder than I would have liked.

The fourth night was the breaking point. I got ready for bed in the same way, layered myself into my blankets, my fleece, and my sleeping bag – it was awful. I woke up prior to sunrise and could not fall back to sleep because of the cold. I started to search for hotel options near us because there wasn’t a chance that I was going to be getting back into a tent on our trip. I got out of my tent when it seemed an appropriate hour and stood next to my friends tent.

“Megan,” I said, “we have a problem…”

“Okay.” She replied from inside her tent, clearly confused about where I was going with my conversation.

“I can’t do this anymore. We have to stay somewhere with walls,” I declared.

She replied without hesitation, “Thank goodness. What did you find?”

We found a hotel for the night and changed our next campsite at the Grand Teton National Park to a rustic cabin. I also found out I had enough reward points to book 2 nights at a hotel instead of 1 for our foray to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve never been so excited to abruptly change plans (planning might be almost as much fun for me as the experience).

In conclusion – make sure that you are actually fully prepared and have the proper equipment for camping and hiking. I’m working on being more prepared for my next adventure.

A Move to Remember

May 2002

When we left Colorado in 2002 to move to Monterey Bay, CA my parents took us on a roundabout trip. The first stop we made was to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument (a couple years before it officially became a National Park). As a middle school student in Colorado we learned about some of the geological areas in the state and how unique they are, so I couldn’t wait to visit the dunes. I remember we parked the car mid morning along the side of the road because the park was so busy, I don’t even remember there being a parking lot, but that could have been 11 year old me not paying attention to driving conditions. We all piled out of the car to see the dunes. We climbed up the mountainous dunes with the dog, got about halfway up, ran back down, and then left to continue our journey.

I knew the next place we could stop was Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado. I was so excited to see the Ancestral Puebloan city that I learned about in my 6th grade social studies class. I was ready to see the abandoned places carved and constructed into the sides of the mountains. I saw the exit coming up and excitedly told my dad who was driving that we would reach the turn soon, and then I saw us go past the exit. I alerted him that he had missed the exit and he said, “Whoops.” But we did not turn around, we kept driving to our hotel near the Four Corners area.

Now as an adult who has gone on many road trips I understand that at 5pm after a full day of driving and a stop for hiking, that with up to two hours left to drive, my father was not about to stop that car so I could see the cliff dwellings. As an 11 year old who was very excited to see a National Park that had so much to do with history and the story of the Ancestral Pueblo people who helped shape the American Southwest, I was very disappointed. I would not have the honor of seeing the remains of this ancient civilization for nearly 20 years.

The Four Corners Monument

Alas, with the disappointment in my heart from having to bypass Mesa Verde National Park, we went on and made our way to the Four Corners where I placed one appendage in four states at once. After our brief foray to the Four Corners we drove to Grand Canyon National Park. I remember going through the ranger checkpoint at the entrance of the park and thinking that it wasn’t very impressive, it looked like a scrub forest, but we hadn’t seen the canyon yet. Our first stop was at the Desert View Watchtower. As a child I was excited to be able to climb up to the top of the tower. We saw the canyon, but I was not moved or concerned with the splendor that is the Grand Canyon. We then went to the Bright Angel Trail and walked partway into the canyon. There was a park ranger standing near a ledge and perched on it was a very large bird, the ranger was excitedly telling us that it was a California Condor the largest bird in North America and critically endangered, we were able to see it perched on a cliff close up and not far off in the distance in flight. Of all the things we saw in the park that day, seeing the California Condor was by far the memory that replays in my mind as if it was yesterday.

As we left the Grand Canyon I still did not fully appreciate the absolute privilege it was to have seen it’s unparalleled beauty, but I know that I will be forever grateful to my parents for taking me to this National Park. When we arrived in Monterey Bay a few days later we were thrust into a completely different world.

How was your first visit to the Grand Canyon?

Highway 1 north of Monterey