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Historical Cabin at Commons Ford framed by an old fence and orange flowers
Travel

9 Must-See Parks In Austin You Haven’t Heard Of

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

Trees In a Neighborhood Park
Tree branches creating shade at Colorado Bend State Park
Field of Small Yellow Flowers

I saw an Instagram post from a California transplant complaining about Austin’s lack of nature and outdoor activities. I once believed this myth myself and nearly packed my bags for the West Coast, but as my mom has always said, “bloom where you are planted”. In place of a dramatic move to the mountains I set out to explore the best hidden gem parks in Austin and discovered our best kept secret – the city of Austin is home to many nature preserves, endangered species, and pocket parks that make Austin the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to call home.

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Best Parks In Austin City Limits

Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park

Address: 614 N Commons Ford Rd, Austin, TX 78733

Commons Ford is a preserved prairie land that bursts with the colors of wildflowers in the spring and is home to native prairie birds and butterflies year-round. The unkempt trails scare most people away, but the quiet, sparsely populated park is the exact reason Commons Ford should be on your Austin bucket list.

Points of Interest: wildflowers, birding, waterfalls, and walking trails

Dick Nichols And Latta Branch District Park

Address:  7910 Beckett Rd, Austin, TX 78749

Dick Nichols playground and neighborhood pool is just a small part of the Karst Preserve at Western Oaks in South Austin. Trails filled with, green spaces, creeks and waterfalls that connect the Western Oaks Trail, Latta Branch Greenbelt, and Legend Oaks Neighborhood Park; each offering a reason to spend the day in the area. Those who love photographing old and abandoned subjects will love the abandoned vehicle and treehouses.

Points of Interest: abandoned attractions, tree house, waterfall, and trails

Birding Hotspots Near Austin

Milton Reimers Ranch Park

Address: 23610 Hamilton Pool Rd, Dripping Springs, TX 78620

Nearby Hamilton Pool and Pedernales Falls get all the glory, but Milton Reimers Ranch is a favorite among rock climbers, mountain bikers, and fishers. Less known for its hiking, Milton Reimers ranch is quiet hiker’s paradise with over 20 miles of hike and bike trails for all abilities, creek views, rock formations, caves, and wildlife.

Points of Interest: rock climbing, caves, wildlife, and birding

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Address: 24518 Ranch Rd 1431, Marble Falls, TX 78654

A wildlife refuge where a third of Texas’s threatened and endangered species live or stop over, including the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. The short trails around the refuge offer a variety of views from the sweeping hill country views on the 2.2 mile Rimrock trail to the quarter mile pollinator path which offers wildflowers in the spring and hawk sightings in the fall.

Points of Interest: birding and wildflowers

Canyon of the Eagles Resort

Address: 16942 Ranch Rd 2341, Burnet, TX 78611

This Texas style, full service, nature resort gets its name as a nesting ground for the American Bald Eagle spotted in the resort October through March every year. Guests can choose between tent or RV camping or glamping in the eco-friendly cabins with views no matter which room you choose. Spend the day hiking to hill country views, kayaking, and wildlife viewing, then cap the day off at one of the nearby breweries or vineyards.

Points of Interest: kayaking, eagles, and resort amenities

County and State Parks

Pace Bend Travis County Park

Address: 2805 Pace Bend Rd N, Spicewood, TX 78669

Pace Bend is the perfect last minute get away and outdoor relaxation; this hidden gem campground on the Colorado River, 45 minutes from Central Austin, requires no reservations. Though hiking trails are limited, you don’t need to leave your campsite to enjoy cliff side lake views and a blanket of wildflowers. Besides endless views, visitors can also enjoy day use picnic areas, beach side swimming, and boating.

Points of Interest: wildflowers, beaches, and swimming

Palmetto state Park

Address: 78 Park Rd 11 S, Gonzales, TX 78629

Palmetto State Park is a lush tropical forest and birding hotspot named after its signature dwarf palmettos. A hike in the unique, swampy terrain offers sites of wildflowers and historical buildings from the 1930s. Cool off in the humid, Texas summer with a dip in the San Marcos River or challenge yourself with the near by Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail.

Points of Interest: unique terrain, walking trails, kayakin

Lake Somerville State Park

Address: 14222 Park Rd 57, Somerville, TX 77879

What makes Lake Somerville unique is its 26 miles of rolling hills on the out and back trail that connects the Birch Creek and Nails Creek units. This challenging hike takes you through fields of wildflowers in the spring, water crossings, and dense forests, each filled with their own abundance of birds and wildlife. If overnight backpacking isn’t your style, then you can hike a distance you are comfortable with, then spend the rest of the day camping, fishing, and watching the gorgeous sunsets reflecting over the lake.

Points of Interest: hiking, wildflowers, birding, fishing

Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & National Historic Park

Address:  199 Park Road 52, Stonewall, TX 78671

History buffs will love exploring the 36th president’s ranch and historic cabins built in the 1860s and 1870s. The ranch is divided into a Texas State Park where you can immerse yourself in the past at the living history museum and a national historic park which consists of Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home and the Texas White House where he spent 20% of his presidency.

Points of Interest: historical buildings

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The Best Tips And Advice For Solo Female Travellers

As a seasoned solo female traveler, I speak from experience when I say traveling alone is both exhilarating and terrifying. Nothing is more freeing than knowing your bucket list dreams are not tied to the availability of others, but I’d be lying if I said thoughts of safety weren’t invariably in the back of my mind.  If you’re wondering if solo vacations are safe for you, the answer is YES! Stay safe and plan the perfect trip with these tips for women traveling alone.

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Why Every Female Should Solo travel

Young woman in a purple jacket enjoying the red rocks of Antelope Canyon

You Are In Complete Control of Solo Vacations

Whether you are traveling with friends or family, everybody has their own agenda that may not align with yours. In order for everyone to have an enjoyable trip, you may pass on some of your bucket list items to accommodate what others prefer.  Solo vacations give you complete control to do whatever you want whenever you want.

Traveling Alone Builds Confidence

Knowing you can rely on yourself in unfamiliar places gives you confidence that you can rely on yourself for anything, anywhere. I’ve made a lot of embarrassing and naive mistakes while traveling by myself, and I’ve lived to tell the tale. With each new obstacle, you learn something new about yourself and the world, making each new day easier to navigate than the last. 

Solo Travel Opens Up More Travel Opportunities

Gone is the excuse “I wish I could, but I couldn’t find anyone to do it with me”.  If you don’t need to coordinate schedules and budgets with others, you may be able to travel more often.  Not only that, but you can plan unique trips your friends aren’t interested in. Rather than dragging my husband to museums and history tours he won’t enjoy, I plan a solo trip to those places and plan trips we can both enjoy together. 

There are no unwanted opinions when you are traveling by yourself

Have you ever enjoyed an experience only to have someone else’s complaining ruin it? You can’t unsee the flaws they point out and can’t help but feel the same way, or maybe their negativity alone ruins the experience. When solo traveling, you don’t have that problem; the experience is yours, uninfluenced by the opinion of others.

Traveling By Yourself Is a Break From the Chaos

You are not a terrible mom, wife, friend, or daughter if you want to travel alone; solo travel is self-care.  Everyone deserves to make ourselves a priority, and we all deserve a break.  Stepping away to prioritize your needs gives you the strength to be the superhero your friends and family need you to be, so don’t let anyone convince you that traveling alone is not fair to those you leave behind.

SAFE SOLO TRAVEL TIPS FOR WOMEN

Woman in a purple jacket sits on the shore by the vibrant blue Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland.

Change your Perspective on Solo Traveling

Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that women who travel alone won’t be safe, but why? Walking alone in our home cities is a common occurrence; you don’t need an escort to at home to run errands, why would you need one in a new city? Sure, some areas are unsafe, but research areas to avoid ahead of time. Putting off solo travel because it might be risky is silly and hinders your travel opportunities. Go on girl, travel like no one is watching.

Research Safe Places To Travel Alone

You never know what kind of events are in town filling up available rooms, and I’ve seen hotels with no vacancies turn away guests without reservations.  It’s stressful trying to locate a place to stay when space is limited, you waste time, and you could wind up stuck somewhere that’s not safe. Research and reserve a place to stay ahead of time to avoid the hassle. 

Trust Your Instincts

When traveling alone as a woman, trust your gut; if it doesn’t feel safe, then leave. It doesn’t matter if you are right, just do what feels best to you. 

Stay in a Hostel

If you are the type who enjoys the company of others, consider staying in a hostel. Communal areas in hostels are designed to encourage interaction between guests and some hostels host daily group outings or parties, which is a great way to make friends with other solo travelers. Not all hostels host events, so check the reviews and research the hostel’s website.

Book a hostel at Hostelworld.com. Not a sponsored link, just a great resource.

Stay Engaged with Your Environment

Avoid looking at maps or guide books that make you stand out as a tourist.

Join a Guided Travel Group

If you are still unsure about taking a solo trip and don’t have anyone to join you, try group travel.  Not just a guided tour of one site, but the whole trip. Group travel is a great way to travel by yourself, but never be alone, and it comes with the bonus of not having to worry about any logistics. 

Blonde woman travelling alone over looks a small waterfall in a park.

Common Solo Trip Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t Get Solo Travel Anxiety

All this advice on how to stay safe when traveling alone may start to make you feel like you should feel unsafe when you didn’t before. That fear can 

Bring Cash

I’ve made this mistake, and I’ll never do it again. I didn’t bring a debit card or any cash; without cash or a way to get cash, I had to take Lyft’s instead of the bus and I couldn’t get lockers to secure my bags at the museums. I didn’t have another person to spot me, and this simple mistake added significant inconvenience and costs to my trip.

Don’t be afraid of your own Company

“But don’t you get bored being by yourself for too long?” If you’re the type to get bored on your own, then keep busy with things to do, plan out the next day in the evenings, eat meals on the go instead of sitting in a restaurant, and find guided tours. If you stay focused on doing activities it will be harder to get bored of your own thoughts.

 

Best Solo Vacations

Best Places To Travel Alone In The U.S.

Feeling safe is important, interesting things to do is even more important! I’m not going to leave home to explore the backyard of an Airbnb because I’m afraid to leave the front door. Here are six of my favorite cities that are safe and full of amazing attractions.

Rattlesnake Canyon in Page Arizona

Portland, Oregon

This big city is perfect for a hybrid vacation of city life and outdoor adventures.

Washington Monument framed by cherry blossom trees

Page, Arizona

Arizona Vortexes are perfect hiking alone and taking epic travel pictures.  Antelope Canyon or Horseshoe Bend. Or take a day trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona.

Travel destination Portland Center For Performing Arts 

Washington, DC

The perfect place to travel alone and save money! You could spend a week in the country’s capital without spending a dime on attractions with the amount of cheap things to do in Washington, D.C.

Downtown Salt Lake City with the mountains a backdrop

Asheville, north Carolina

Amazing fall foliage, the Great Smoky Mountains, and local eats makes Asheville great for adventurous women.

Iron picket fence protect a white building with a brown door and two lampposts.

Salt Lake City, Utah

With 5 national parks in the state, Salt Lake City is great for adventurous women who love hiking alone

Morning Fog As the sunrises of the Great Smoky Mountains

Charleston, South Carolina

It will be easy to stay busy at Charleston’s many beaches, festivals, and American history museums.

Safest Solo Female Travel Destinations Around the World

When traveling abroad alone, it’s important to consider cultural norms and not all cultural norms have your safety in mind. It’s even harder to protect yourself when there is a language barrier. Travel in peace in the world’s safest countries for solo female travelers. 
Sunrise in Icelandic Sand Dunes

Japan

Japan caters to solo travelers with cheap capsule hotels.

A River Runs Through It - Patagonia Chile

Iceland

The crime rate is low and everyone speaks English.

Girl in teal shirt walks the quiet the streets of Japan with Cherry Blossoms blooming overhead

Chile

National parks offer tour guides for hiking so you don’t have to worry about the dangers of hiking alone.

Hofgarten in Munich Germany

Spain

Wear conservative clothing in this catholic country and you will fit in just fine!

View of Florence Italy

Germany

Germany isn’t as prone to pickpockets or tourist scams, also public bathrooms are easier to find.

Sevilla, Spain

Italy

Gelato, coffee, and pizza until the heart’s content.

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Lost Maples State Park: A Taste of Texas Fall

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

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I’ve always said Texas has two seasons – hot and not so hot. It’s almost a stretch to say that we have more than one season, let alone four. But tucked away in Vanderpool, Texas, 85 miles northwest of San Antonio, I discovered an oasis of fall foliage that is Lost Maples State Park. Growing up, my grandparents who lived in the Smoky Mountains would tell stories of the tourists bringing too much hustle and bustle to their quiet town during peak fall foliage season. 

I thought it was silly that people planned vacations around the leaves changing; that was until I laid eyes on Lost Maples State Park. Once I discovered this taste of Texas fall, I was planning my own trips around the changing of the leaves. Over the past few years I have perfected a trip to Lost Maples and I am sharing those tips with you.

Best Time To Visit Lost Maples

It varies from year to year, but you can typically see fall colors in the last week of October through the first two or three weeks of November. For real-time updates, check out the Lost Maples Fall Foliage 2020 report, which is updated weekly with the status of the leaves. The park is busy at this time of year, so be sure to plan ahead and reserve a day pass on the Texas State Parks Reservations site.

Best Places For Pictures At Lost Maples State Park

There are two main hiking trails at Lost Maples State Park and both share the western part of the East Trail. The best fall colors I’ve seen at the park have been on the shared portion of the two trails. The one-mile stretch where the east and west trails merge is an easy, flat trail with a scenic pond at the one-mile mark. This is an excellent route if you’re shooting family portraits and need a route for all skill levels.

East Trail

Distance: 4 miles, 4.7 miles if you include the overlook 
Difficulty: Easy

The trail is mostly flat and easy, but there is a short steep and strenuous stretch that requires climbing up large rocks. Monkey Rock, located on the eastern side of the east trail, usually has some nice fall foliage; even without the vibrant colors, this familiar shape is sure to be a hit anyway. At the north of the loop is a small cove with a bench that’s had vibrant fall foliage every year I’ve gone. The bench and scenic backdrop make this spot the perfect place for a family portrait.

West Trail

Distance: 5 Miles, 7 miles if you include the West Loop Trail
Difficulty: Moderate

Most of the west trail follows along the creek where you’ll find plenty of opportunities to capture leaves collecting in a stream or a canopy of trees. The West Trail is less popular, so this route is perfect for landscape photographers seeking one of a kind photos.

Where To Stay

I discovered Lost Maples RV and Camping after a state park reservation mishap; we stumbled upon this unassuming gas station offering tent camping near Lost Maples. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this business grow from bare-bones tent sites to a community of tent sites with bathrooms and showers, RV sites with hookups, and cabins. I couldn’t recommend this place more!

Images of Lost Maples

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Unforgettable Sites In The Great Smoky Mountains

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  We may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

After months of being cooped up in the house, I needed the mountains more than ever, and the Great Smoky Mountains was this wildlife and landscape photographer’s dream come true. Endless waterfalls, wildlife, mountains, and lush green forests all for the low, low price of free since Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee.

Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States and is infamous for it’s vibrant fall colors.  Those flocking to the park in the fall are missing out on the cascading waterfalls, lush green plants, and animal life found during the spring and summer months. If you are looking for a budget, COVID friendly, year-round adventure, then this is the guide for you!

Waterfalls In the Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains WATERFALL ADVENTURE HIKES

Deep Creek Trail

Location: Bryson City, North Carolina, Distance: 2.5 Miles, Difficulty: Easy

In just 2.5 short miles, this nature trail leaves nothing to be desired as you follow along the creek and listen to the sounds of its three cascading waterfalls.

Abrams Falls Hike

Location: Cades Cove, Distance: 4.5 Miles, Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Graveyard Fields Trail

Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, Distance: 2-5 miles, Difficulty: Hard

The hike isn’t physically hard, but it is unmarked and unkempt so be prepared to get lost and traverse some interesting terrain. Looking at this picture, I think it’s safe to say the views are worth the effort.

Grotto Falls

Location: Roaring Fork Motor Trail, Distance: 3 Miles, Difficulty: Moderate

Cool off in the mist as you walk behind this natural wonder.

Long shutter speed creates flowy water look at Grotto Falls
Small waterfall on Boogerman Trail in Catalooche Valley, North Carolina

Caldwell Fork Falls

Location: Cataloochee Valley Horse Trail, Distance: 1/2 mile, Difficulty: Easy

It’s only a half-mile out and back hike to see this beauty, but you can continue to the Boogerman Loop for a more challenging 7-mile hike.

SMOKY MOUNTAIN WATERFALLS YOU CAN DRIVE TO

Mingo Falls

Location: 6 Miles NE of Mingus Mill

At 120 feet tall, Mingo Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Mingo Falls
Roots of  a tree at the base of Cataract Falls

Cataract Falls

Location: Natural Trail at Sugarlands Visitor Center

Soco Falls

Location: Blue Ridge Parkway

 

Sun Rays Shining Through Dense Trees at Soco Falls
Small flowing falls of Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek

Location: Laurel Falls Trailhead

The trek to Laurel falls is 5 miles round trip, but you won’t have to walk much for some teaser falls at the trailhead.

Motor Trails

Cades Cove

Cades Cove receives rave reviews online and is one of the Smoky Mountains’ most prominent attractions for good reason. The area is known for its historic cabins built in the late1800s and early 1900s and abundant wildlife.

John P Cable Grist Mill - Great Smoky Mountains
Golden Hour silhouette in the Great Smoky Mountains

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national parkway protected and operated by the National Park Service. Starting in the Great Smoky Mountains, the parkway follows the Appalachian mountain range through Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia to Shenandoah National Park. Blue Ridge Parkway is a fantastic alternative to the crowded smoky mountain trails for panoramic views and lesser-known hikes

ROARING FORK

You’re missing out if you don’t visit this secluded loop which contains some of the most serene, breath-taking views in the park.

Tranquil stream in the Great Smoky Mountains lush green forest

Hiking Trails

ALUM CAVE TRAIL

Choose your own adventure with an out and back from any distance to one of Alum Cave’s unforgettable points of interest, or hike all the way to Mt. Le Conte for an 11-mile round-trip.

stream runs through a quiet forest over moss covered rocks
Moss cover trail and trees on Tranquil Trails

SPRUCE FIR NATURE WALK

This pit stop on the way to Clingman’s Dome is an easy half-mile walk with a moss-covered forest floor that smells like Christmas.

BOOGERMAN TRAIL

A challenging hike that requires wading through water deeper than your boots, but the sites and sense of accomplishment are worth it.

Winding Hiking Path of the Great Smoky Mountains

Wildlife

It happened, my greatest fear, I came face to face with a bear. I kid you not; while unloading the car a bear arrived between trips hoping to help himself to a snack from the car and we were within six feet of each other when I noticed him. We were equally scared of each other and each slowly backed away; thankfully my instinct was exactly what the National Park website recommends you do if you encounter any black bears. 

While it is a cool story now, I was terrified at that moment. Wildlife that interacts with humans in any way must be put down, so I want to stress the importance of following the park’s guidelines for your safety and theirs. Thankfully, no bears or humans were harmed in the making of this story.

In spite of my near-death encounter I was still eager to see some wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains; from a safer distance of course. As you may have guessed from this story, wildlife won’t be hard to find and these hotspots will all but guarantee some wildlife sightings.

Great Blue Heron Catches a Fish for Dinner

CADES COVE

The Smokies dense forest makes it difficult to spot wildlife, so the easiest way to catch a glimpse of those majestic creatures is in one of the few open fields. Cades Cove is a one-way road circling an open field which makes it a prime location for spotting wildlife. In a single day I saw, a baby deer and his momma, two bears, a turkey, a heron, and several birds.

OCONALUFTEE RIVER PULLOUTS

Highway 441, which parallels Oconaluftee River, is known for its elk sightings off the side of the road. Though herbivores, elk are still dangerous, so protect yourself and the elk and keep your distance. While you’re in the area, check out the historic buildings in the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Northern American Male Elk Bugle
Small Yellow Pine Warbler Bird through green trees

BIRDING HOTSPOTS

You can purchase a birding guide that contains a map of all the known birding hotspots in the park, a list of common birds, and how to identify them.

  • Cades Cove
  • Laurel Falls Trail
  • Alum Cave Trail
  • Metcalf Bottoms
  • Maloney Point Overlook
  • Spruce Fir Trail

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Saguaro Cactus in Arizona's Saguaro National Park
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2 Week Arizona and New Mexico Road Trip

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Stay safe in the post pandemic era with a cross country road trip that focuses on national parks, state parks, gardens, and zoos. With all outdoor actives and no airports, it will be much easier to control your environment and stay healthy. This two week road trip from Austin to Arizona and New Mexico was one the vacations I had put on hold when COVID-19 hit, but is at the top of my list once we open back up. Enjoy the road trip itinerary I planned for myself!

*Situations change by the minute these days, so please research ahead of time for closures or reservation requirements.

Start In Austin, Texas

Take a hike in one of Texas’ amazing hill country parks or explore the city like a local. Austin to New Mexico is a long drive so break it up with an overnight stop at Monahans Sandhills State Park.

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Though the caverns of Carlsbad Caverns National Park may be closed there is still plenty of unique activities in Carlsbad Caverns to make it worth a stop on your road trip itinerary. The Night Sky program is still offering star walks, moon hikes and meteor shower viewings through the summer, dawn and dusk bat viewing is available from the visitor parking lot, and a long list of hiking trails with panoramic views of the Guadalupe Mountains. The drive alone is worth it.

If you are traveling through southern New Mexico a drive through White Sands National Park is a must! Be sure to save time for some sand sledding which is free if you have your own sled or you can rent one from the visitor center for about $20. 

TUCSON, ARIZONA 

No southern Arizona road trip is complete without a stop at Saguaro National Park. There’s a debate on whether East Saguaro or West Saguaro is the best, but I say do both! If you’re a fan of Old Westerns the Old Tucson Theme Park has preserved old western movie sets that take you back in time. For a change of scenery out of the old, dusty south head over to the Biosphere 2 for an unexpected Oasis. 

Saguaro National Park
Pink Thorned Flowers

Phoenix, Arizona

The Desert Botanical Gardens hosts a variety of plants native to the desert which provides a unique perspective from more traditional botanical gardens.

Step back in time with hourly reenactments, museums, and various tours at the Goldfield Ghost Town – a preserved gold mining town that prospered for a mere 5 years in the 1890s.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

There is enough to fill an entire day at the ABQ BioPark; a botanical garden and zoo, If you prefer something more unique to Albuquerque then hike one of the three petroglyph viewing hikes at the Petroglyph National Monument, one of the largest Petroglyph sites in the country. Finish off the day with a scenic sunset view on the Sandia Peak Tramway.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO 

Drive the Turquoise Trail scenic byway from Albuquerque to Taos for a scenic and unique view of New Mexico with eclectic shops and towns along the way. The art town of Taos is about an hour from Santa Fe and is full of history and hiking. The Taos Pueblos are a World Heritage Site built between 1000 and 1450 A.D and is a must see!

Earthship Biotecture is a home construction company that builds self-sustaining homes using natural and reclaimed materials. While you may not be able to afford one of these eco-friendly homes, you can fantasize about it on one of their tours.

Earthship Biotecture

Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon is known as The Grand Canyon of Texas and is absolutely the best canyon in Texas. Visit the Texas State Park website to reserve a day pass or campsite. Fun fact about Palo Duro Canyon; in addition to traditional accommodations, such as tent camping and cabins, there is an equestrian campsite for your horse. Only in Texas! Before leaving Amarillo, don’t forget to check out the roadside attraction, Cadillac Ranch.

Fort Worth, Texas

The Big D gets all the attention, so why not go to the FW in the DFW? I was raised in Dallas and still have family there, so there’s no need for me to go to Dallas. But, somehow I’ve never made my way to Fort Worth. One the most Texas things you can do is visit the Forth Worth Stockyards which is full of shops, restaurants, and history, Other outdoor activities in Fort Worth include the Botanic Gardens, Japanese Gardens, the Fort Worth Zoo, and the Nature Center & Refuge. In all my years as a Dallas resident, how I have never been out here?!

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Field of Texas Wildflowers In Spring
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5 Texas Hill Country Hikes with the Best Views

Texas isn’t exactly known for its panoramic landscapes so it might surprise you when I say that the Texas Hill Country has no shortage of hikes with jaw-dropping views. From landscape to wildlife to wildflowers I’m always finding new places to capture great photos with a short drive from Austin. These 5 parks are the best hikes with views in the Texas Hill Country and are sure to satisfy all the outdoorsy types.

1. Colorado Bend State Park

You’ll start to see the lush green trees 30 miles from the park and feel as if you are about to leave the flat, barren, dry state of Texas. Located on the Colorado River, I like to think Colorado Bend State Park is our little borrowed piece of Colorado as the park offers views of waterfalls, grasslands, rolling hills (or as I like to call them “Texas Mountains”), creeks, canyons, wildflowers, and wildlife. That’s a lot of words to say Colorado Bend has it all!

2. Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Balcones Canyonlands

Home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped video, Balcones Canyonlands is a bird watchers paradise with sweeping views of the Texas Hill Country. With over 245 bird species, Balcones Canyonlands has been designated an important bird area by the National Audubon Society. While small with only 7 miles of hiking trails, it’s packed with a variety of wildlife and plant life that you’re sure to keep coming back for more.

3. Pace Bend

I could stare at the cliffside lake views all day and basque in the Texas wildflowers in the spring. In fact, I love Pace Bend so much my husband and I held our private wedding ceremony here. Camping is first come first serve but there is never a shortage of sites.

4. Lost Maples

Texas isn’t known for its four seasons – I often say we have two seasons: hot and not-so-hot. While most of the US is starting to bundle up in October and November, Texans are still barbequing by the pool. But there’s a little secret tucked away in Vanderpool, Texas with reliable fall colors and no cell phone signal. Lost Maples has become a yearly tradition to satisfy my need for that beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves.

5. Balcones District Park

Ok, the word “hiking” is a stretch on this one, but this little neighborhood park offers a small oasis trail, is a starting location for the hike and bike trail leading to Walnut Creek Trail, is an official wildflower area, and great for bird watching. It’s probably my favorite place in the whole city.

These are some of my favorite places to hike and they’re so gorgeous you’ll almost forget you’re in Texas. Watch out for that Texas summer sun though, you’ll definitely remember where you are when you fry in our 100 degree summers! Bring water, wear sunscreen, and take lots of pics.


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1-Week Itinerary: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, & Sequoia

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  We may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

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It’s been a while since I posted a travel guide because it felt weird promoting travel while most of the world was in quarantine. As the world begins to reopen I’ve been thinking about the safest way to travel in a time of uncertainty, Hopping on a plane seems premature so road trips and outdoor adventures will be moved to the top of my bucket list for a while.

You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks while visiting Yosemite. My strategy for extended hiking trips is to alternate days with hard and easy trails to give my legs a break between the tough hikes. With that in mind, I have put together the perfect itinerary for enjoying all three parks in one week.

Day 1: Travel Day

Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport offers the best combination of affordable airfare and reasonable drive time. With a rental car, it’s still 3 hours to Yosemite, so the first day is dedicated to travel.

We stayed in an adorable little Airbnb 15 minutes outside the gates of Yosemite. Terry was the most hospitable host who cooked us dinner, served us wine, and gave great advice. It was exactly what we needed after a long day of travel. I cannot recommend this Airbnb enough!

Yosemite National Park

Day 2: Mist Falls

More like drenched falls. You WILL get wet so come prepared with waterproof gear and moisture-wicking clothes. Mist Falls is gorgeous and is the adult version of running through the sprinklers.

Difficulty:

Moderate to hard – the climb to Mist Falls is moderately hard with lots of wet stairs, but doable. For an extra challenge, make your way up to Vernal Falls.

Length:

Mist Falls out and back: 3 Miles
Vernal Falls Loop: 7.5 miles

Please enjoy this short video featuring Mist Falls’ namesake! This video was taken with a phone as my camera was packed safely in my Osprey Daylite Plus which kept my pride and joy bone dry.

Pro Tip: Don’t know how to tell if your gear is 100% waterproof? Create a seal around the material and your mouth and blow. If you can feel the air on your hand on the other side, it’s not 100%.

Day 3: Quick Hikes

Each of these hikes are flat and a mile or less (except Mirror Lake which is a flat 3). I recommend utilizing Yosemite’s very efficient bus to drop you off near all the main points of interest, If you don’t manage to hit all of these lookout points, just add them the morning you leave for Kings Canyon. You won’t need all day at Kings Canyon, so that morning is a great buffer zone for fitting in the things you missed.

Mirror Lake | Swinging Bridge | Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point | Bridalveil Falls | Glacier Point | Tunnel View

Day 4: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

Upper Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls is a tiered waterfall; the bottom half of which you’ll see on the Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point and is a much less strenuous way to see the iconic falls. If you’re looking to amp it up a bit, try the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. Though steep, you’ll be rewarded with views of Yosemite Valley and mist from the falls.

Difficulty:

Hard – Very Steep Incline

Length:

  • Columbia Rock: 2 miles round trip
  • Base of upper falls: 4 miles round trip
  • Top of the Falls: 7 miles round trip

King’s Canyon National Park

Day 5: Drive the King’s Canyon Scenic Byway

The drive from Yosemite to Kings Canyon is about 2 hours and is equally as stunning as the parks themselves. Without stopping, the scenic byway (from Grant Cove to Copper Creek Trailhead) takes about an hour each way. How long you stay at each of the 25+ lookout points is the real deciding factor in how long this highly underrated detour will take.

Sequoia National Park

Day 6: Giant Forest Trail

Start on the Giant Forest Trail and meander your way to various points of interest in the area – Bear Hill Trail, Hanging Rock, Moro Rock, Auto Log, and Tunnel Log. The trails in the area converge several times so it’s not critical to stay on the same path.

Difficulty:

Moderate- There are steep inclines to access some of the view points, but there are also long periods of flat terrain.

Length:

This is a “choose your own adventure” kind of hike. It can range from 3-7 miles depending on how many points of interest you include.

Day 7: General Sherman and Big Trees Trail

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park

General Sherman is the world’s largest tree by volume and it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of that until you see it yourself.

Difficulty: 
Moderate – The way down is easy, it’s getting back up that’s the problem.

Length: 
1 mile

Big Trees Trail is a leisurely stroll around a meadow with an abundance of wildlife. As someone that loves capturing photos of wildlife, I could have stayed there all day!

Difficulty: 
Easy – Completely flat

Length: 
1 mile

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National Parks Pin with images of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia
Chihuly Glass Art frames Seattle Space Needle through glass ceiling
Travel

How To Enjoy Seattle In 3 Days

Seattle has been on my bucket list for years and every attempt to visit has been thwarted. On a whim, I decided I would use an upcoming 3-day weekend to finally mark Seattle off my bucket list.  Well sorta. A 3 day weekend is simply not enough time to cross off all the items on my Seattle to-do list. I kept this trip to the city slicker style and saved the outdoor adventure activities for a longer trip.

Seattle has an amazing public transportation system and everything on this list is easily accessible without a car or taxi. First on the itinerary: Chihuly Garden and Glass. I grew up with an appreciation for glass art so naturally, Chihuly’s was on the top of my list and I headed straight there from the airport.

Heart Shaped Foam in Morning Coffee
Close up of a morning beverage with impressive foam art.

But first, coffee. With a 3am wake up call to make my flight, I was in desperate need of coffee and Seattle is the perfect place for such desperation. Just a few blocks from Chihuly’s I made a pit stop at Citizen Coffee for some Koreixan (Korean and Mexican Fusion) Tacos and a cappuccino.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

Best for: Art lovers

Chihuly Glass Art Museum

You’ll begin the tour in a dark room where only the light from the glass and its reflections illuminate the room.

You’ll marvel at the details in each room containing bowls, aquatic life, flowers, and abstracts. There will be fixtures hanging from the ceiling, eye-popping reflections, or installations filling the entire room.

Chihuly Glass Art

As you make your way through each room, you’ll begin to wonder how one man was able to make so much art in only one lifetime.

Chihuly Glass Art
Chihuly Glass Art
Seattle Reflections

Step outside to the garden and experience the essence of Seattle in one spot – art, The Space Needle, and of course, a little rain.

Pike Place Market

Best For: people who love shopping, antiques, trinkets, or fresh produce

Pike Place Market - Seattle Washington

No Seattle bucket list is complete without Pike Place Market. Listen up early birds, this is a case where you don’t get the worm. The farmer’s market hours are 9-6, but many of the shops and stalls don’t open until 11 and close around 6. To ensure you don’t miss a thing, the best time to head to Pike Place Market is around lunch.

Pike Place is 6 stories of antique shops, souvenir shops, art exhibits, and restaurants. Surely, there is something for everyone.

A better name for The Gum Wall is Gum Alley as gum decorates the walls, windows, and pipes of a small alley. It’s quite impressive and a sight to see if you are in the area.

Seattle's Elliot Bay at sunset

Even if shopping is not your style, Elliot Bay provides great views and is an important part of Seattle’s history. If you love birds as much as I do, then Elliot Bay is a great place for endless bird watching.

Starbucks Roastery

Best for: Coffee Lovers

Starbucks Reserve Roastery
Light, medium, and dark roast coffees stored in hoppers at the main coffee bar. Starbucks Reserve Roastery – Seattle, Washington

Delicious food, coffee, and cocktails all under the Starbucks Roastery’s roof. Once you’ve had your cup of joe and filled your belly with food you can roam the store admiring the roasting machines and roasting process. 

At the specialty bar, you can have the option to try different coffees with one brewing method or see how the flavor of one coffee changes with different brewing methods. For an extra dollar, you can try a premium coffee such as Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. 

Kubota Japanese Gardens

Best for: People looking to escape the crowds, hidden gem seekers, photographers, & budget travelers (entrance is free!)

Escape the crowds and enjoy one of Seattle’s lesser-known gardens. Even in January, this place is gorgeous! I can only imagine what spring brings to this place. 

I spent hours in Kubota Garden and still did not see all it had to offer. It’s sprawling with ponds, waterfalls, and flowers, but my favorite was the moss-covered trees.


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3 Day Weekend in Seattle
Seattle Pin

Chicago's Cityscape View by the Bay
Travel

The Perfect 3 Day Weekend in Chicago

Table of Contents

I have to admit that Chicago was not on my list of top places to visit, but we had a perfect weekend in Chicago! I had let the mafia-ridden reputation of the 1920s influence my opinion and I couldn’t have been more mistaken. We stayed at an adorable Airbnb in The Ukrainian Village, the weather was ideal, the pizza was on-point, and the activities were enjoyable. 

Lou Malnati’s Pizza

You can convince me to do anything as long as Pizza is involved.  “But there’s pizza in Chicago” are the exact words my husband used to convince me to go – and Lou Malnati’s was the ultimate taste of Chicago-style pizza. I have a bottomless pit when it comes to pizza and the medium-sized Lou was more than enough to feed 2 people. 

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza

Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the best zoos I’ve been to, and we didn’t even pay to get in – admission is free! Parking, however, costs $35, so I would recommend taking a Lyft or public transportation. There are a variety of species, each with an exhibit tailored to their needs. There were many animals I had never seen before including a bald eagle, vultures, snowy owls, storks, polar bears, a baby rhino, antelopes and kangaroos. Birds and primates are my favorite animals and Lincoln Park Zoo definitely delivered! 

Believe it or not, you can actually take pretty good pictures of zoo animals. If the subject is far enough away from the fence you use a large aperture (low f-stop number), and the fence will be out of focus enough that it will hardly be visible. 

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The cost to get in is a little steep ($40/adult, $30/child), but I’ll gladly give money to an organization devoted to improving animal care and conservation and reducing plastic pollution. Besides, with 4 floors of more aquatic species than I can name, the Shedd Aquarium exhibits are sure to entertain for the entire day. Jellyfish, starfish, crabs, sharks, dolphins, whales; the list goes on. There were so many seahorses, you had to drag me away! Did you know seadragon is a thing?! Am I the only one who sings “under the sea” to themselves while at an aquarium? Maybe it’s because I watched the Little Mermaid on repeat as a kid (sorry mom!)

**NOTE: The health and well-being of animals is a top priority which is why I only visit zoos and aquariums with a World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) accreditation. WAZA and its members are committed to high standards for animal care and welfare, environmental education, and global conservation.

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Frederick C. Robie House

As the daughter of a residential construction foreman turned realtor, I was born with a love for architecture stored in my DNA. I have been fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright since 6th grade when I built a model of his renowned Falling Water. So, there was no question that the Frederic C. Robie Tour was on my must-see list. I enjoyed learning how the Robie House interior is filled with Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature touches and how the prairie school style continues to influence today’s architecture. I couldn’t believe the house was 109 years old because parts of it still felt so modern.

Chicago is where you go to break into the comedy scene, so there is no shortage of quality laughs.

*The Second City

*Laugh Factory

*IO theater

You can’t go wrong with any comedy act in Chicago, but I highly recommend Improvised Shakespeare; an improvised play in the language and style of Shakespeare. The theme spouted out at the beginning was “The Real House Wives of New Jersey”, as events unfolded it turned into a backstabbing murder mystery of wives trying to overtake the thrones of all the “new” states (New York, New Mexico, etc.). We laughed until we cried and then we laughed some more.

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Gold from the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle
Travel

Seattle’s Exciting and Unexpected History

I’m not usually one for chasing sites of once important locations that look nothing like its historical reference. If it hasn’t been preserved and has since been replaced by a high rise, what is there to see? I was skeptical of the attractions in Pioneer square for that reason. In fact, it was on my “if I have time” list, but I went and started with the Underground Tour. It ended up sparking an interest in Seattle’s history and I added more historical stops to my itinerary!

The aptly named Pioneer Square is preserved and marks Seattle’s founding location which was situated at sea level. High-tide and mudflats made for some unexpected side effects as the founders learned to make do with the only piece of land not already inhabited by Native Americans. Exploding toilets, potholes filled with sawdust and gold sniffing beavers are among the surprising facts of Seattle’s history you’ll learn at these must-see museums in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour

Best For: History lovers and hidden gem seekers

Abandoned bathroom from the Underground tour

The tour guides at Bill Speidel’s Underground Tours missed their calling as comedians, or maybe Seattle’s blunderous origin story is just that comedic. You’ll uncontrollably laugh as you learn how high tide and The Crapper don’t mix.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is the official name for the latest and greatest line of toilets from the 1880s.

Photo Tip: If you are taking photos in low light settings such as this one, you’ll want to consider using a longer shutter speed.

Tellers Cave
Underground tour

“Watch the purple!”  our guide said as we walked from one location to the next, pointing out the stained glass at our feet. As the underground tunnel tour progressed, I learned the stained glass sidewalks were skylights for Seattle’s hidden city. When the skylights were installed, manganese dioxide was added to decolorize the glass and give it a clear appearance. As the glass was exposed to UV light from the sun, the manganese turned purple. 

Photo Tip: If you love the blurred background, try opening the aperture.

Skylight Sidewalk

Women outnumbered men by more than 2:1 and some women realized there was a profit to be made…as “seamstresses”. The Underworld Tour tells the raunchier, more accurate, and not safe for children version of life underground in the 1890’s.

Klondike Gold Rush Museum

Best For: Museum Lovers, National Park Lovers, and Budget Travelers (entrance is free!)

Gold from the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle
Newspaper Headlines - Klondike Gold Rush Museum

“GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” headlined the news as one journalist convinced the world that Seattle was the final and best pit stop before striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush.

Klondike Gold Rush Museum - General Store
Klondike Gold Rush Museum - General Store

Learn how selling supplies to the victims of the 1800’s version of a lottery ticket launched a town recovering from fire and depression into the prospering city it is today.

If history is not your thing, what about learning the origin story of one of the nation’s favorite fashion retailers? I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but you won’t be disappointed with what you learn at the National Park Service’s Klondike Gold Rush Museum.


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Seattle History