Our trip to the Grand Canyon was one for the books. Not only was it one of our favorite National Parks on our cross-country journey, but by far one of the most epic travel experiences to date.
We spent four nights at Mather Campground in the South Rim, which is the more accessible side of the park. The North Rim is harder to get to depending on which direction you are coming from and closes for winter, so it wasn’t an option this time around. We’ll definitely be adding this to our bucket list for our next trip to the big hole in the ground.
After lots of research, this is the itinerary we came up with for getting the most out of our stay.
1. Set up camp at Mather Campground
We were surprised to find that Mather Campground was one of only two options for camping within the National Park at the South Rim. We chose a spot on the Pine Loop, which is one of the quietest loops on the grounds as they do not allow generators. We set up our tent (home away from home) and settled in for the next four nights.
2. Visit General Store for firewood and snacks for tomorrow’s sunset
Unlike many other National Parks, there are plenty of markets, restaurants and private lodges within the gates. Just around the corner from Mather Campground is the General Store, which has a great selection of groceries, souvenirs, craft beer and (expensive) firewood. While it’s definitely cheaper to stock up on food and wood outside the park, it’s was nice knowing we could run around the corner in case we forgot something. We grabbed a block of cheese, a baguette and a fancy beer for day two’s sunset.
1. Make breakfast at the campsite
We were so excited to get up and going to finally see the canyon, but a big breakfast is a necessity before journeying below the rim. If you’re short on time, the General Store has a section for hikers on the go. Be sure to pack lots of salty snacks and extra water.
2. South Kaibab Trail to Ooh AhhPoint
The South Rim has two main trails that descend all the way to the Colorado River — South Kaibab and Bright Angel. We hiked to the Ooh Ahh Point on the South Kaibab Trail, which is just about a mile below the canyon rim. This was a great warm up hike to adjust to the elevation changes and test our endurance going back up. Hint - it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so if you’re feeling up to it head a little further down into the canyon.
3. Make an early dinner at camp
Since we opted for a shorter hike on Day 2, this left plenty of time to head back to camp for an early dinner before the sunset.
4. Head to the Rim Trail to watch the sunset
Going to the Grand Canyon and not seeing the sunset is like going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids. It’s a must! We gathered our cheese, baguette, fancy beer and lots of layers and headed to the South Rim Trail at Mather Point. We walked along the trail until we found the perfect secluded spot to watch the sun sink below the canyon. Pure magic.
1. Explore the history of the park and rest up for tomorrow's hike
Day 3 was all about exploring the history and geology of the canyon. If there was one place to view the canyon to take in its diverse formations, it is the Geology Museum at Yavapai point. We learned about the mighty power of the Colorado River and the different types of rock all with a sweeping 180 degree view. Also, admission is free!
Other sites to see on the South Rim are the Hopi House, Kolb Studio, Grand Canyon Railway and Desert View Watchtower.
1. Bright Angel Trail to Three Mile Resthouse
Now we’re rested and ready for the big hike! On day four we adventured three miles down into the Grand Canyon along the Bright Angel Trail. The views along this path were much more dramatic than the first mile of South Kaibab. If you only have time for one, I would definitely recommend Bright Angel. This path is 17.7 miles to the Colorado River, but it is not recommended that anyone complete the full trail in one day. There are several mile markers along the trail, and we decided three miles in (six miles round trip) was perfect for us.
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Writing about Banff is a very silly thing to do. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe it’s not something you dreamed up. Words just can not capture the beauty of the milky turquoise Lake Louise or the flanking mountainsides of the Canadian Rockies. So I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves and keep it short and sweet.
We spent 4 nights camping at Tunnel Mountain Village 1 in Banff National Park. This campsite was perfect for our time in the Canadian Rockies: central to all the main attractions, free firewood, and hot showers (which we would later learn is a luxury).
Not into the idea of camping? Explore other affordable options here.
Johnston Canyon Upper Falls
Our first stop in Banff after setting up camp at Tunnel Mountain was Johnston Canyon. This is an out and back hike with several options for distance. The shortest distance is Lower Falls, but we oped for the 3.1 mile hike to Upper Falls. There was an even further hike to the Ink Pots, but we were still warming up (this was our first national park after all). This trail was stunning - the hike curved through the canyon along the runoff from the falls.
One of our favorite spots in all of Banff was Lake Minnewanka. We found a private area on the rocky shore to unroll our blanket and take a minute to soak up the view.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
We were surprised to learn that Banff Upper Hot Springs is open late until 11PM, so we decided to catch the sunset to avoid the daytime crowds. Though the Springs was a bit more like a giant hot tub than a natural experience, it was nice to soak and unwind after a long day of hiking.
What can I say about Lake Louise? She truly took my breath away. We created our own route among the trails and cut from the Plain of the Six Glaciers path to Mirror Lake, which also took my breath away - literally. Even with numb legs and a struggle to catch my breath, hiking up the side of the mountain with snowcapped peaks on one side and Louise on the other was well worth the trek.
Explore more in Banff National Park
We are just over a month into our journey across the United States and Canada, and we have been reflecting on our favorite stops, the funniest moments and the toughest times we’ve had along the way. We’ve gone from feeling like we were just on a quick vacation in the first few weeks to settling into life on the road. The first month was filled with discovering new cities, reconnecting with old friends and family, a few really hard hikes and uncovering the diverse beauty of the US of A. Most importantly, we’ve had to fine tune our expectations of what it takes to travel full time. Bottom line: life as a career wanderer isn’t so bad.
Wondering how we're holding up on the road? Want to know how we keep each other entertained on long drives or our least favorite stops? Ask away in the comments below.
We’re three weeks into our cross-country adventure and have traversed 3,000 miles up the Pacific Coast, across Canada to Banff National Park and down to Glacier National Park. Of all the cities that we have explored, Seattle has been one of my very favorites. This conclusion might be influenced by all of the goodies that we splurged on in Pike Place market (I admit that I’m easily swayed by food), but I am convinced that Seattle is one of the best destinations for a summertime vacation.
Beyond the perfect summer weather and the abundance of water surrounding the city, there are so many areas and neighborhoods to explore in the Emerald City to suit a variety of tastes. Some days we splurged ($15 coffee at the original Starbucks Reserve and satisfying an insatiable desire for fried seafood at Pike’s Place), but we were also able to find plenty of free and cheap things to do in Seattle.
1. Fremont Troll and walk to the waterfront
,After settling into our home sweet home for the weekend (aka the KOA in Seattle - a story for another time), we headed straight to the Fremont neighborhood to check out the infamous bridge troll. Fun fact: the troll was designed as part of a program to rehab the area beneath the bridge, which had become a place where you wouldn’t want to find yourself after dark. Today, both locals and visitors can be found under the bridge climbing the troll, taking selfies and catching views of the Bay in the distance.
After visiting the Fremont Troll, we walked straight down under the Aurora bridge all the way to the waterfront for spectacular views (also nearby is Fremont Brewing Company if you're feeling thirsty).
2. Gas Works Park
After taking in the views of the bay under the Aurora Bridge, we headed to Gas Works Park (we had a car, but this would have been an easy walk along the water). Gas Works was easily one of my favorite experiences on our trip so far - what used to be Seattle Gas Light Company is now a playground of old gas works equipment. Though you’re not supposed to climb, the big kid in me couldn’t help myself.
Beyond the adult playground of machinery, Gas Works Park offers one of the best views of Seattle’s skyline. This is the perfect place to get your shot of the iconic Space Needle, have a picnic, and watch the sun sink over the best coast.
Fun fact: Heath Ledger fans, you’re in for a treat! Gas Works was the setting of the paintball scene in 10 Things I Hate About You. (My high school years consisted of regularly eating Heath Bar cake while watching Heath Ledger movies. Alex, Rachel and Kate - you know who you are.)
3. Happy Hour at Duke's on Lake Union
Anything involving happy hour, two for one, specials or discounts - you’re speaking my language. Duke’s Seafood and Chowder is a chain in the Seattle area and offers a late night happy hour (the best kind)! At the Lake Union location (just south of Gas Works Park), you can sit outside on the boardwalk and catch views of the boats on the marina and the Space Needle lighting up the night sky. And did I mention they have happy hour?
4. Olympic Sculpture Park
Part of the Seattle Art Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park is an outdoor stretch of some of the most unique sculptures you’ve ever seen. And like everything else, the park is located on the waterfront at the northern end of the Seattle seawall. The park is FREE and open to the public every day of the year.
A stop in Boise, Idaho was a must on our trip for a number of reasons. Beyond the budding food and arts scene that we kept hearing about while doing our research for our expedition, I got to visit with my great uncle and his family, reminisce on fun stories of my time studying abroad in Sharjah with an old friend, and eat purple potatoes.
Boise was a refreshing change of pace from our trip up the Pacific Coast so far. Charming small town vibes, no traffic and free parking options made our visit feel easy peasy. (Can you tell I’m still bitter about the traffic in Seattle and Vancouver?) To top it off, we were able to find many things to do in Boise that fit within our shoestring budget.
1. Hyde Park
Our first stop in Boise was Hyde Park, an eclectic neighborhood known for its mix of shops, eateries, and historic architecture. Though this area is much smaller than we expected (we’re coming from San Francisco, after all), we enjoyed browsing the quirky goods at shops like Hyde and Seek and discovering the killer views from Camel’s Back Park.
Hint: Wear comfortable shoes! You won’t want to miss the views from the top of Camel’s Back. Aka don’t do what I did and hike up in sandals.
2. Idaho State Capitol
When in Boise, eat potatoes and visit the Idaho capitol (try Boise Fry Company to compare the Idahoan varieties). The capitol building is just at the end of 8th Street, the main throughway of downtown Boise. Stop by to admire the architecture and ring the replica of the Liberty Bell.
3. Freak Alley Gallery
Freak Alley Gallery is the most colorful corridor in Boise. Murals of all kind fill the walls - whether you’re looking for art with political undertones, humor, or tribute to the great musicians of our time, Freak Alley will have something that speaks to you.
Once a year, the walls are scrubbed clean to reinvent the essence of the alley. If you’re lucky enough to visit Boise during the Mural Event, stop by to see the artists creating their masterpieces.
8th Annual Freak Alley Gallery Mural Event
August 4 - 11, 2018
4. Julia Davis Rose Garden
Stop and smell the roses in Julia Davis Park (a quick walk from downtown). The garden is home to almost 2,000 rose bushes (at least that’s what the sign said), and entry is $FREE.99.
5. Float the Boise River
Yes, we are on a budget. And yes, we are getting creative with cheap activities to keep us entertained. But take my advice: BUY A PROPER TUBE TO FLOAT THE BOISE RIVER. Our $4 tubes from Target might have saved us a few coins, but the flips in the rapids and the constant ab engagement that the tube required to keep yourself stable will leave you wishing you paid the extra few dollars for days (yes, I was sore).
Otherwise, float the Boise River. It is a beautiful way to take in the nature of Idaho, cool off from the heat of the summer, and spend a few hours on the cheap.
6. Alive After Five
We came all the way from the Bay Area to find the San Franciscan band The Stone Foxes headlining Alive After Five, a free summer concert series in downtown Boise.
Hint: Take advantage of the abundant happy hour options in downtown Boise before the show. Our favorite was 2 for 1 craft cocktails at Mai Thai.