Since Covid, there has been a dramatic increase in outdoor recreation. From people rushing to buy their first RV to retailers selling out of tents, America (and the world) is on a quest to rediscover the Great Outdoors.
And I love it! I really do. Camping is a great way to save money on hotels and Airbnbs when traveling and seeing the world. What do I not like about 2021 camping?
This past year, I’ve encountered the issue that everyone has decided to take up camping as their new favorite weekend adventure. State park campgrounds are booked months in advance, national park campgrounds are booked within seconds of availability, and even the remote Chickees Huts in the middle of the Florida swamp have become the hottest item for weekend warriors.
My favorite adventure has become everyone’s favorite adventure, and it makes sense. Most countries continue to have their borders closed, people are still timid about Covid, and outdoor recreation just screams “social distancing-friendly”.
And it’s not just me. Campers, Rv’ers, and outdoor enthusiasts all throughout the United States are reporting fully-booked campgrounds and no availability. My family recently did an RV trip across the west, and struggled to find campgrounds that were available or affordable— spending over $100 a night for certain sites.
However, the world of camping has not quite caught-up. Getting permits for a new campground is a long and slow process, so demand is outpacing the supply (and that drives up prices). For us outdoor-lovers, this is a sad fate for our favorite pastime. Campgrounds are at capacity, and there is no sign of this slowing down as we head into the peak of 2021 travel.
For those of us new to Hipcamp, this is booking service similar to Airbnb. However, instead of booking rooms or houses, you can book RV spots, tent spots, cabins, glamping options, or even the random treehouse. It is designed as a perfect solution to the lack of campgrounds problem.
So how does it work? When I say Hipcamp is like Airbnb, I mean it is just like Airbnb. By visiting the homepage (or the app), you can select the area where you want to camp. Put in your dates and number of guests, and you are given an interactive map with a list of options.
Instead of booking a traditional campground, you are booking sites owned by individuals. Sometimes, it can be a full-service RV pad in the woods behind someone’s house or other times, it can be a 1-acre lot of land near a national park perfect for boondocking or primitive camping.
Just like Airbnb, prices range depending on the location, dates, and services. To give you a picture of how awesome this site can be, I put in dates for July 12-14 near Yosemite National Park.
Reservable campsites in Yosemite have been booked for months, however Hipcamp offers great alternative to last-minute planners. 30 minutes outside of Yosemite was an RV site with water and electric going for $40 a night. Seeing that the average campsite in an established campground now ranges around $50 a night, this is a great deal for families scrambling to secure a spot for that brand-new Class A motorhome. This is just an example of several sites available within an hour of the park’s entrance.
If you’re lacking inspiration, you can also cruise available camping options located within certain criteria–such as, pet friendly, lake stays, beach stays, top locations, and instagrammable glamping tents (okay, so I made up that last one).
Why am I pushing this site so hard? Because it saved my butt a few weeks ago when I really wanted to visit Rainbow River State Park, but the campgrounds were fully book and I wasn’t willing to shell out $300 a night for an Airbnb.
Instead of nixing our weekend, we were able to secure a great, primitive campsite just down the road from the park’s entrance. Our site was the bare minimum of Hipcamp stays– just an empty, wooded lot off a county road surrounded by pines and oak trees. For $10 a night, we had a quiet place in the woods to pitch our tent, have a fire, and enjoy the peaceful sounds of Florida’s summer around us.
Hipcamp follows a similar system to Airbnb where you “request” to book a location, and the host approves you. We got instant booking for our site, had great communication with the land owner on the messaging platform, and were able to find our site (relatively) easily, save a lot of money on a hotel stay, and do what we enjoy most– being out in nature.
While I would love to see this site expand even further in the future (host-led trips or experiences?), Hipcamp provides a great solution to our 2021 camping woes. Even if you’re not a hardcore tenter or own an RV, this site has great options for glamping and cabin stays. If you happen to own land and want to make an easy dollar, Hipcamp also is a great option for landowners to easily rent out spaces for us lonely travelers.
And I promise, Hipcamp didn’t have to pay me for raving about how great it is. I’m just a Type-A person who loves knowing I have a place to pitch my tent at the end of a long day of adventuring.
Happy trails, everyone!
Bonus Round: Other great resources for campers/rv’ers/outdoor adventurers
TheDyrt– great site for finding campsites, cabins, rv sites, and boondock locations
FreeRoam– boondock-focused, this is a great app for scoring that free camp spot!
AllTrails– Hiking site (and app) with detailed trails and reviews. Perfect for finding things to do after you find a place to park your camper.
Forest Maps– A comprehensive app with detailed national forest areas. For those new to camping, it is free to camp on national forest lands (maximum 14 night stay).
Everyone loves Moab, Utah. Jeepers flock there as if it was their Mecca. Hippies gather to bathe nude under rock arches and sneak a puff from that joint they purchased in Colorado. Through all the bustle, families try to squeeze their toddlers through the mesh of people for a quick picture at the same rock everyone else is staring at. Smile, kids– before that fat guy gets in the frame! (We’ve all heard it.)
Moab is cool. It has Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park right on its outskirts. The town is a great mesh of the 60’s meets Mormon (looking at you, limited liquor stores), and there is no doubt that outdoor adventure is limitless here.
But with the popularity comes the crowds, and with the crowds come the prices. There are ways to do Moab cheaply (future article idea?), but I’m not a believer in people-packing our national parks. RV sites are hard to find, Airbnbs book up quickly, and a night in a shady hotel is still going to cost you over $100. So while Moab is cool, there are always great alternatives to help disperse crowds and still get everyone out and enjoying the desert.
Cue Kanab, Utah. Utah’s redheaded stepchild of recreation towns.
Located just north of the Arizona border and about 3 hours east of Las Vegas, Kanab is not the easiest town to get to (neither is Moab, but people still find a way). However, it offers many of the same outdoor activities enjoyed in Moab, but with much fewer people. While the town isn’t as charming as Moab (you won’t find endless rock shops and palm readings here), for those of us looking for a great base camp for exploring red rocks and canyons, Kanab cannot be beat.
Below, I’ve listed out my Top 5 Things to Do in Kanab, Utah.
You’ve probably seen countless pictures of Arizona and Utah’s famed slot canyons. Antelope Canyon and Zion’s Narrows are top dogs in this arena. However, the last place you want to be negotiating crowds is in a slender, 3-foot wide rock slot where booties and faces will definitely touch.
Buckskin Gulch is a great day hike for adventurers looking to experience a slot canyon, but at their own pace and in solitude. This 5.6 mile out-and-back trail offers a great sampling of red rock vistas, slot hiking, and open canyon. This is part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, one of the rarest geological sites in the world.
You can access this trail by heading east on highway 89, and turning south on a tiny dirt road called House Rock Valley Road. This turn is easy to miss, but if you make it to the Toadstool Hoodoo Trailhead, you’ve gone a few miles too far. Cell signal is limited in this area, so it is best to download Google maps before leaving Kanab, and bring a back-up GPS. This is always good to have on any hike anyways. Check out some options here.
The road is a rough few miles down to the parking lot, but our Subaru Outback handled it well. Check the weather to see if any rain is in the forecast, because this is not a trail or a road you want to be on in the rain (slot canyons can fill up quickly in a flash flood, even if it is not raining directly above you. Stop at the BLM Ranger Station before heading out to get a full weather forecast).
Buckskin Gulch goes on for over 15 miles, but I like the shorter option from Wire Pass Trailhead to keep the rest of my day open for more trails. Bring cash to the parking lot as there is a $6 per person permit required for day-hiking in this area. You will fill out a pay envelop at the self-service stand (bring a pen too, just in case). This parking lot is also used for hikers visiting the elusive Wave, a famous area with very limited permits. If you’re interested in trying to snag one of these permits to fit in this hike as well, directions for the permit lottery can be found here.
Because this is a technical trail, it is important to review the trail details fully before going. I subscribe to AllTrails, so I have use of the maps and trail directions offline. Click here to access trail details for Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass. (Pro tip: There is a drop into this canyon at the beginning. This may not be suitable for small children, elderly hikers, or people who cling to rock faces when they see heights).
America’s favorite ditch– The Grand Canyon. Chances are this beauty is on your bucket list. Most visitors experience the Grand Canyon from the more popular South Rim. However, this area can easily get overrun with tourists and tour buses, creating hours-long waits at the entrance, packed trails, and no camping availability.
The North Rim offers the same spectacular views– minus the crowds. The only catch? The North Rim is 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, so the winters make it inaccessible. The road to the North Rim is not maintained past Jacob’s Lake in the winter, so the visitor center and services (such as restaurants and lodging) are only available May 15-October 15. If you’re visiting Kanab in the summer or early-Fall, you can take an entire day exploring this area or staying overnight at one of the campgrounds or cabins. Rim trail hikes and hikes into the woods leave from the main parking lot as well as numerous lots scattered along the rim (Check out this blog for a great list of North Rim day hikes). Just note, a day hike down to the Colorado River is not possible from the North Rim. The hike down to the bottom is 28 miles long, with a 6,800 feet elevation drop (and gain for the way back). This is recommended for experienced hikers only.
Being higher, the views (in my humble opinion) are even better. The higher elevation also means this rim stays much cooler than its hot sister in the south (averages stay in about the low 70s for highs as oppose to the upper 80s). So if you’re a friend of cooler days and crips nights, you’ll be right at home here. The road to the North Rim is also prettier than the drive to the South Rim. Highway 89A winds through Kaibab National Forest all the way to the rim, and you are rewarded with spanning vistas of the Grand Staircase Escalante on your way back. Without the crowds, you can take a moment of solitude to truly appreciate the canyon, and get views that few visitors ever get to see.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Kanab in the winter, you can still access the North Rim after the official close date on October 15. While there are no services (or entrance fee), the road stays open until the snow makes it impassible. Check here for road conditions. We visited in late-November, and the road was dry and accessible. Just invest in a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Also be sure to pack a warm parka, gloves, and suitable layers as the wind can drop the temperature dramatically.
If you’ve ever felt like tapping into your inner Lawrence of Arabia (cue epic music), you don’t need to voyage to the Middle East to do so. Just northwest of Kanab lies Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, an oasis of shifting red sand dunes cast in the shadows of Moquith Mountains. Here, you can sit upon a giant sand mound and stare moodily up into the sky, Luke Skywalker-style. Or roll down the hill to recreate the “As You Wish” scene in The Princess Bride (okay, I’ll stop with the movie references now…but I actually did do this).
Whatever floats your sand dune boat, you can find it at this state park. There is an $8 per vehicle entrance fee as you enter through the main park entrance. If you want to avoid the fee, you can also park at one of the many pull-offs on Coral Pink Sand Dunes Road and walk on one of the numerous trails leading to the sand dunes outside of the park.
Inside the park, you can rent stand-up sand boards (real thing), sand sleds (also, surprisingly real), and ATVs to fully explore the park. Nothing says family time like sending your 8-year old flying down a 100-foot sand mountain on a rental board. Rentals are through the park and more information on bookings can be found here. You can even book a rappelling adventure to satisfy those “fun ways to kill me” urges.
If you’re going towards the end of the day, be sure to bring a compass or a GPS. Sand Dunes can be incredibly disorienting, and once it gets dark, it becomes difficult to find your way back to the parking lot. Trails are built into the sand, so they’re easy to follow in the day, but easy to miss at night. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t let the cold scare you off. The site of white snow against red sand is beyond beautiful, and you’ll have the entire place to yourself. Just be sure to layer up and pack a towel to knock off any wet sand when you get back to the car.
Bonus round: On your way back to Kanab from the Sand Dunes, you’ll also pass the Sand Caves. Traveling southbound, you will see them on the left side of highway 89 just past the Moqui Cave attraction. You will park on the west side of the road (Google pin here), then cross the road towards the slab of red rock just north of the caves (don’t go towards the caves, there is no way up). You’ll see other trails from adventurers before you, and you can follow them up as you walk along the edge to the caves’ entrance. This is not a trail for those scared of heights. For those staying behind, there is a beautiful waterfall right by the parking area. Sit there and reflect on how you don’t have the urge to plummet your body down a cliff.
Forget Arches or Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon goes down in my books as one of the most beautiful parks in the NPS. At the top of the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce Canyon is composed of narrow, pinnacles of red rocks known as “hoodoos”. If you’re a lover of western movies, this is a place to live out your John Wayne dreams. It costs $35 per a vehicle to enter the park (unless you have an annual national park pass), and the park is open 24/7 throughout the year. This makes is a great place to go stargazing at night as well. Milky Way over the canyon? Yes, please!
You can easily make the hike down into the bottom of canyon on a day trip to Bryce. One of my favorites is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail. This is a quick 2.9 mile hike down into the bottom of the canyon where you can get up close and personal with the hoodoos. Another one of my other favorites is Peekaboo Loop Trail (5.2 miles). If you’re not looking to stress those calf muscles to hike down, Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is a great rim trail that has moderate elevation gain and amazing vistas. Pro tip: If you’re going October-April, pack a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Once you start sliding, you don’t stop until you hit bottom.
If you just aren’t a hiker at all, the park also runs mule/horseback rides down into the canyon. I did this as a kid and it remains as one of my favorite national park memories to this day! (It’s always fun when your sister’s mule walks right on the edge.) Information of horseback riding can be found here.
I know what you’re thinking. Zion National Park is not an unknown as far as national parks go. In fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Again, I’m not for people-packing our parks, but I recognize that Zion is something special and we all want to see it. Entrance to the park is $35 per vehicle, and the eastern side along highway 9 is always open.
One of the largest dilemmas people face when trying to visit Zion is the fact that Springdale, the town just outside the park, has extremely limited housing and restaurants. Even in the off-seasons, you’re still going to need reservations and there will most likely be a few traffic jams.
By opting to stay in Kanab, you can still easily access the park in a day trip, but you’re not battling the hoard of tourist for a hotel or dinner table. You also get to drive into the park from the east, which provides sweeping views of the surrounding canyons as well as less-visited hiking trails. Most tourists flock to the central canyon of the park (where you have to catch a shuttle to access the interior), but very few explore the eastern edge. Here, the views are just as impressive, you can access trailheads with your own vehicle, and you’re not waiting for the one instagram-girl to stop taking selfies so you can appreciate the view. Here is a great rundown of some trails found on the east side of the park.
The drive along highway 9 towards Springdale ranks as one of the most spectacular drives I have experienced in the United States. The road is a corkscrew of twists and turns around giant, granite boulders and jutting slabs of rock. If you keep your eyes to the sky, you may even catch a glimpse of a rare California Condor (they have been seen nesting in the cliffs of Zion for the past few years).
If you do decide to go into the inner canyon of the park, you will need to drive to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, park your car, and catch the free shuttle that goes into the park. If you’re planning this trek in the summer, plan to get here extra early to beat the crowds and the long line to get on the shuttle. Shuttle information can be found here.
Any adventure out west is always guaranteed to be full of great hiking, spectacular night skies, and cherished memories. From seeing the Grand Canyon to hiding amongst the hoodoos, Kanab offers every adventurer the opportunity to get out there an explore!
While I focused mainly on attractions outside of the town, Kanab also offers a lot for those spending the night. The Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon is a great place to enjoy a hearty meal after a long day of hiking — complete with endless western-decor. Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen offers a great selection of pizzas and beer, with the added bonus of free hiking guides inside by the bathroom. You can drink a beer by the fire while planning your next day’s adventures.
The BLM Visitor Center in town is also a great starting point if you’re looking to get more information on the area, check out the weather reports, or need a permit for hiking or camping.
Beyond that, Kanab offers everything else a traveler requires: ample Airbnbs, affordable grocery stores, gas stations, clothing stores, tourist shops, and liquor stores. (Just remember, Utah liquor stores have limited hours and they’re the only ones that can sell anything over 3.5%. Grab what you need before 7pm or Sunday, and you’re good to go.)
Have a hike or a spot you love? Comment below to share you expertise! Happy trails!
Rainbow River is a great destination in central Florida for lovers of nature and clear water. A lazy day tubing or boating down the river is a perfect way to spend a Saturday, especially if you catch a glimpse of an otter playing on the banks. If you’re here looking for more information about spending a day on the river, click here for my Rainbow River article.
If you’re here thinking about your stomach, look no further! One of the biggest hurdles of floating Rainbow River can be the very strict rules about plastic waste and alcohol. No alcohol or one-use plastics are allowed on the water, meaning your beer cooler and those zip-locked PB&Js have to stay in the car. This rule in in place to conserve the river, but it makes sipping on a margarita while enjoying some Florida sunshine very difficult.
Enter Swampy’s. Located at the end of the tubing route (hour 4 if you are tubing from KP hole), Swampy’s is on the left of the river just before the tube ramp where the shuttle takes tubers back to their launch point. You can tie up your boats/kayaks/giant swans/tubes at the seawall (bring your own rope), and walk right up to the restaurant.
What makes Swampy’s great? It is easy to access from the river, has lots of seating (indoor, bar, and outdoor picnic tables), and it is very reasonably priced (average $10-$15 per plate). The food was delicious, Cajun-style, and had all the staples of Florida: gator bites, fish tacos, and delicious wraps for us unadventurous food people.
I had the Who Dat wrap- filled with blackened chicken, andouille sausage, beans, rice, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It was perfect after a day on the river, hearty and delicious. My boyfriend had the Gator wrap, which also featured blackened meat (this time gator, of course). Both are served with your choice of sides (although you have to shell out an extra $1.40 for sweet potato fries).
What makes Swampy’s really great? The Bloody Mary. Making Bloody Marys is a fine art, and good ones are hard to find. This is by far the best Bloody Mary I have blissfully chugged in all of Florida. There is nothing better than spending a couple hours on the river and then pulling up here to indulge in some good ol’ tomato juice and vodka.
There is a full-service bar available at this restaurant, and every cocktail looked delectable as it passed my seat. We did also try the margaritas but thought they were a bit too sweet to enjoy.
Pro tip: We went on a Saturday around noon, so the place was packed (45+ minute wait). But we were able to grab a seat at the bar instead, order drinks and food, and had a great time watching tubers float by. If you are kid-free, check out the bar as an option to avoid the wait and have great service.
This restaurant has a great river-vibe, good food, and excellent drinks. There are other places to eat in Dunnellon, but I will definitely be stopping in at Swampy’s on my next float down the Rainbow.
Like most people, seeing the northern lights has long been at the top of my bucket list. I would have gone anywhere in the world that could offer me that view. Luckily, I ended up in Iceland, and got so much more than just those dancing ribbons.
If you want to see the northern lights, you’ll have to embrace the cold and pack your parka. The lights are only visible late-Fall through early-Spring. By going in March, we were able to avoid the summer crowds as well as the summer prices. The days were shorter, but it was worth it to stand beneath the endless stars and swirling auroras.
We opted to rent a car rather than book bus tours across the island, and rented an Airbnb in the suburbs of Reykjavik. We were able to base ourselves there to sleep and shower, but didn’t spend that much time there. Instead, we woke up before dawn and drove out to chase the sunrise. (Note: You could plan to stay a night on the southern coast to save time circling back to Reykjavik, but hotel and Airbnb options are limited in the off-season.).
*Pro Tip: If you are traveling by car, you must have a credit card with a pin, since the gas stations are unmanned and only accept pin cards. You will definitely need to refuel during your trip, as a lot of these sights take a while to get to. American credit cards with pins are sometimes not accepted, so take a debit card as a back-up.*
If you’re traveling to Iceland during the winter months, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and traffic reports. The roads tend to close due to inclement weather, and some of the stops that might be on your to-do list will be unreachable. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the glacier crumbles in Iceland, but don’t get discouraged if this happens! There is so much to see here that even if you miss out on some, you’ll still have a full trip. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to go back!
Driving through the southern coast of Iceland is incredible. There’s a definite moment when you feel like you’ve traveled Beyond The Wall, and a lot of the big stops will be familiar from movies and TV shows. You could easily extend this trip to see more of the famous “ring road” (the road that circles around the island), but the northern coast is hit hard by winter storms. Plan to pack plenty of snacks and food for your drive. Restaurants are few and far-between, plus you’ll have more time to see the sights!
If you don’t have a fancy camera and tripod, you probably aren’t going to get that Insta-worthy northern lights picture, but that doesn’t make the viewing experience any less incredible. Let’s live in the moment, shall we? We were lucky enough to get a beautiful showing on our first night (we even saw some on the drive from the airport!), but the key to seeing the lights in all their glory is to know exactly where to go. About 2 hours east of the airport (an hour from downtown Reykjavik) is Thingvellir National Park, a perfect dark sky spot to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. We drove out along Highway 36, just past the Hakið Visitor Center, and simply pulled off the side of the road when we saw a good spot. The pin above is where we stopped to have a view of the lights over Lake Thingvallavatn. Pro tip: you will pass numerous pull-offs where tour buses will be stopped. If you want a private showing of the lights, keep driving further into the park to find you own area.
To guarantee the best showing, access the aurora forecast here. Remember, you’ll need a clear night with no clouds to see the lights. Forecasts are given 3 days in advance, so keep an eye on it while you are visiting the island. Activity ranges from 0-9, with 9 being the most activity (think dancing lights and beautiful colors like below). Anything under 4 will be a muted greenglow.
Day 1: The Golden Circle (With Hot Springs)
Stop 1:Thingvellir National Park (Google Pin here) 40 minutes from Reykjavik
Bursting with history and geographic wonders, Thingvellir is a great first introduction to the magic of Iceland. The area’s name translates to Assembly Plains, and it was the site of assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth period. The assembly was started around 930 AD, and Icelandic leaders met there until 1798 (it is actually the oldest democratically elected parliament that still functions to this day).
Make your first stop at Hakið Visitor Center, where you can walk along the North American tectonic plate and see its Eurasian counterpart. You can also swim in the Silfra fissure, created by the breaking apart of these two plates, which widens every year as they gradually move away from each other. It’s not every day you get the chance to swim between continents! Because the water in the fissure travels there underground, it rarely freezes, meaning that you can snorkel and dive here year-round. Read more about the fissure, and the snorkeling/diving rules, here.
Plan to spend a couple hours here walking along the fissure, seeing the frozen waterfalls, and reading about ancient Icelandic culture.
Along Highway 36 about a half hour from the visitor center is Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake that is over 3,000 years old. There is a small entrance fee to enter this area, but the drive here along the lake is worth it. We spent about an hour walking around the crater, and peering down the 180 feet to the bottom.
Stop 3: Haukadular Geothermal Field (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Kerio Crater.
I love visiting geysers. It’s so funny to watch the crowd as the excitement grows and everyone is anticipating the next burst of water, only to have them all jump, or miss that perfect geyser boomerang for their Instagram story and have to wait all over again. In this geothermal field there are 2 geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. (We actually get the word geyser from the old Norse geysir, which mean ‘rush’.) Geysir holds the record for the largest geyser blast ever recorded, but he’s not exactly Old Faithful, and he’s dormant right now. Strokkur, the kid brother, is more reliable, setting off every 5-10 minutes. Don’t forget to check out the cute store they have at the visitors center! I forgot my hat at the Airbnb that day and it was super cold, so I treated myself to a fancy new one from here. They had beautiful warm socks and sweaters, too.
From here, you can drive an extra 5 minutes further to Gullfloss (Google pin here). This two-tier waterfall is stunning, and makes for a great stop to break up the driving.
No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting some hot springs, and they’re even better after a long day of cold sightseeing. Of course, the most well known of these in the country is the Blue Lagoon, and if you wanted to splurge then by all means, visit there. But if you wanted the same experience at a fraction of the cost, find somewhere else! We soaked in the beautiful Secret Lagoon (the country’s oldest geothermal pool), just down the road from the geysers. It was a lot cheaper (ISK 3000, or $24 USD vs. the Blue Lagoon’s $53), and a lot less crowded (you don’t need reservations!). The springs are open from noon-8pm, so plan to hit this before closing. *Just a note for our first-timers: before you get into the pool, you have to wash in the communal shower- naked. That’s the rule of the club. Some people follow the rule, some don’t, but be prepared to see a lot of skin.
Day 2: The Southern Coast
The southern coast has some of Iceland’s most spectacular sites, but it will require a full day of driving. The furthest location for this day is 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik, and that’s without weather delays. (It took us 6 hours due to a storm.) Plan to wake up early (like 5am early), pack the car with plenty of food and water, and keep an eye on the weather. Winds and storms can be dramatic between each valley (sunny in one, angry Elsa-storm in the next one). Gas stations are sparse, so be sure to take advantage of opportunities to top off your tank. We made it a point not to drop below half a tank in case we got stuck in winter weather.
Stop 1: Skógafoss (Google pin here) 2 hours from Reykjavik
This waterfall is easy to reach (no hiking), and if you’re there in the summer you can actually climb up some steps on the side and catch the view from the top! The stairs are a bit too hazardous in the winter to do this, but the view from the front is just as nice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize the waterfall as (SPOILERS!) Jon and his Auntie Danaerys’ make out spot in the last season. (Here’s a list of all the locations the show filmed in Iceland during its 8 season run.). You will also pass Seljalandsfoss on the way here. You can get a great view of it from the road, so we skipped it to save time.
Stop 2: The plane wreck at Sólheimasandur (Google pin here) 10 minutes from Skógafoss
This was a really cool experience. In 1973 a US Navy plane crashed on the beach at Sólheimasandur after running out of gas (don’t worry- everyone survived). Instead of moving the wreckage off the beach, the Icelandic government just….left it there. It’s about a 2 mile walk from the carpark to the plane, but it’s totally flat and easy. (There’s also a shuttle if you wanted to save some time.) I felt like I was on the surface of Mars walking to this plane. You’ll be traveling along a black sand beach, this one a little less magnificent than Reynisfjara visually (we’ll get to that later), but definitely an atmospheric wonder. You can climb in and on top of the plane for some great pictures, as well.
Plan to do this one early in case the weather turns in the afternoon. This never closes, so it is also a great place for a night hike to watch the northern lights over the plane.
Stop 3: Vatnajökull National Park (Google pin here) 2 hours from Sólheimasandur
Vatnajökull National Park is a massive national park encompassing the southeastern edge of Iceland (Think, Yellowstone big…but with a giant glacier). Guides say that to truly enjoy all that this area has to offer, you need to spend a few days here, but if you wanted to make a quick stop, the 5-mile round trip hike to Svartifoss would definitely be the way to go. Svartifoss is a towering, basalt-backed waterfall just a short hike from the car park, whose name means “Black Falls”. Its water comes from the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, and the basalt columns were created by lava cooling rapidly. There are a lot of basalt formations throughout Iceland, and they even served as inspiration for Iceland’s biggest church, Hallgrímskirkja. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can keep going to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier (but please don’t hike on it without a guide- glaciers can be dangerous and the proper equipment and knowledge is an absolute necessity!). This location also serves as a great base for hiking Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Here is a list of all the hiking trails within the park. While adventuring into the park is difficult during the short winter days, the drive to this location rewards you with sweeping views of the glacier dipping down into the valley (you can even walk up to the glacier from the car park pinned above!).
Stop 4: Glacier Lagoon (Google pin here) 40 minutes fromVatnajökull National Park, 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik (This is the furthest location of the day)
What a sight! It’s hard to choose a favorite spot in Iceland, but this one is definitely near the top of my list. The water is a unique blue color, caused by a mixture of glacial and sea water. The ice in this lagoon can be up to 1000 years old, broken away from the main glacier and swept into the water, where the pieces slowly melt down. Occasionally, if you’re visiting the mouth of the lagoon, you can see seals swimming around trying to catch a good meal in the clear blue waters. For you insta-explorers, all of my coolest pictures are from here. It’s just visually stunning in every way. There is a small cafe located in the car park where you can pick up a coffee or a (very expensive) Icelandic snack. In the summer, you can take a boat tour around the lagoon, but in the winter, you’re rewarded with Beyond the Wall-vibes and no crowds.
Stop 5: Diamond Beach (Google pin here) 5 minute drive from the lagoon
A beach covered in huge chunks of ice, twinkling in the winter sun and moving through the surf as if weightless. (Remember the poor grandma that got swept out to sea because of a photo op gone wrong? That happened here!) This beach is close to the Glacier Lagoon, and the chunks of ice are actually pieces that have been swept out to sea from the lagoon, polished up by the seawater, and pulled back to shore by the current. This is another one of those places that makes for an excellent Instagram post, with the bright ice standing out against the black sand of the beach. This is a good place to eat lunch in the car or stretch your legs on the beach.
Stop 6: Reynisfjara (Google pin here) 2 hours and 20 minutes from Diamond Beach
Can I just admit that I thought every site was a standout, so that I don’t keep saying the same thing about each one? Because this place was phenomenal. The black sand beach at Reynisfjara is iconic. I’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, commercials. Visually, as someone who lives in black on black on black, it was heaven. The sand tinkles in the breeze like wind chimes, there are towering rocks sticking out of the surf, and the whole otherworldly place feels like you’re in the middle of some fantasy movie. And maybe you are! Legend says the basalt columns lining the beach are trolls caught out in the sunlight after a night of luring ships to their demise. There is a nice restaurant here to grab lunch/dinner if you forgot to bring food (the Icelandic soup was divine after our parka-bound beach walk).
From here, we headed back to Reykjavik for our final night. Remember, the days are shorter in the winter time, and it’s best to try to plan to have most driving done before it gets too dark (streetlights are not a thing on most of the roads).
Bonus Round: Icelandic Horses
Don’t forget to stop and say hi to the horses! You see them quite often from the road. They’re very friendly and eager to say hello (and serve some Blue Steel looks for your pictures), even if they do like to nibble your clothes a little bit. You can touch them but stay outside the fence and please don’t feed them!
Iceland is expensive, and there’s really no way around that. You’re going to be throwing out some serious cash. However, most of these stops are free of charge! So meals, car, and accommodations can be your only expenses. There are a few reasons why the island is so expensive: They have a short farming season so a lot of the food has to be imported, raising prices quite a bit, the exchange rate is painful if you’re working with the US dollar, and finally, they have some fairly high tax rates. If you’re trying to do this trip on a budget, I would do a big shop at the start of your trip and avoid eating out to save money. We literally ate sandwiches in our car for 90% of the weekend (and they were delicious!).
Overall, Iceland was everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s a popular destination, but one that is an absolute must-see. I had no other hope for this trip besides seeing the Northern Lights, but I quickly learned that this place is so much more than what’s dancing in the sky. Go a little bit off the beaten path and try and see some of the more terrestrial sights. Your eyes will thank you!
Other points of interest:
Fjaðrárgljúfur (Google pin here): A deep, river canyon with hiking trails that you will pass on the way to Vatnajökull National Park.
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool (Google pin here): A 10 meter-wide, hot springs pool from 1928.
Grótta, Norðurströnd Walking Path (Google pin here): An easy place to see the northern lights without leaving Reykjavik. While you still will have city lights disrupting the view, you can catch the lights over the dark ocean.
Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!
Southwest Florida is not typically considered the go-to location for outdoor enthusiasts. Designated as a beach and retiree destination, many visitors make their way down to Florida’s bottom and never leave the sandy beaches.
If you’re like me, after the third day of laying on the sand like a beached whale, you’re ready to explore something new. Fort Myers sits on the edge of many nature preserves with other great destinations easily reached by car. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite outdoor adventures within 6 hours of Fort Myers. Some could be a day trip from your beachfront condo while others are a fun overnight to break up a long week of surf and sand vacation time.
So pack your sturdy footwear, some bug spray, and your sense of adventure, and follow me on a tour through Florida’s wild places!
Located just over an hour from Fort Myers, Big Cypress is a great day trip for travelers looking to get a taste of the Everglades. I recommend taking Highway 41 (Known as the Tamiami Trail) at least on the way down from Fort Myers. This two-lane highway is a great place to see alligators and some beautiful vistas. Just mind the speed limit as Florida panthers, gators, birds, bears, and many more cross this road (especially at night). Below are some of my top picks for a day near Big Cypress!
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park– (While not technically Big Cypress, this is close and I will count it). Located off highway 29 just north of Everglades City, Fakahatchee offers a great destination for those wanting to explore the swamps and get their feet wet (literally). While you can hike alone, guided hikes are available to book through the park. Click on the link above to contact the park office about times and dates. Bears, panthers, mink, and many more call this park home. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a rare ghost orchid in bloom. (Check out this hike to a private cabin. One of the few hikes where you keep you shoes dry in this park).
Gator Hook Trail– This 5-mile, out-and-back trail offers a trip to one of the most beautiful cypress domes in Florida. Be warned, this trail will get your feet wet during most of the year and can be hard to navigate. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, long pants, and bring plenty of water and a compass (or a GPS). Click here for a more detailed run-down of this great trail!
Kirby Storter Roadside Park– This park offers a hike for the whole family. The one-mile boardwalk is stroller-friendly, and provides some of the prettiest swamp views you can get without going fully into the swamp. (And if there are too many mosquitos? You are just a short run away from the car.)
Turner River Paddling Trail– This kayak/canoe trail is a perfect option for water-lovers. About 10 miles long, you can do a portion of it before turning around. You can also continue all the way to the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and arrange a pick-up to take you back to your car. The trail takes you through narrow mangrove tunnels and out into a sawgrass prairie. Plan to spend a full-day exploring this water trail and plan to bring water and snacks. Check here for a detailed account of this river trail. Don’t have a kayak? No problem, outfitters are in abundance here and offer guided tours. Check out this outfitter for rental and tour rates.
Everglades National Park is a massive nature area encompassing the bottom part of Florida. It is a great place to go camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or grab a boat tour. The nearest visitor center to Fort Myers is Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Here you can rent kayaks or hop on a boat tour to explore Ten Thousand Islands.
Two hours from Fort Myers is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. You can bring bikes (or rent them there) to explore the 16-mile loop from the visitor center to a 45-foot observation tower offering 360 views of the everglade landscape. The trail is open 24/7, but the parking lot and center close in the evening (center closes at 5PM and the entrance closes at 6PM). I recommend picking a cooler day for this trip, as there is little shade along the way. (Or do it at night for a bike ride under the stars!)
Another option is do the full 4-hour drive to Flamingo, the heart of ENP. Check out my article on spending a weekend in Flamingo for great tips and tricks for exploring this area!
Overnight Trip to the Florida Springs
About 4 hours north of Fort Myers is an area full of crystal rivers, cool springs, and sweeping cypress trees. Springs are prevalent throughout most of northern Florida, but some of the closest rivers to Fort Myers are Rainbow River, Weeki-Wachee, and Crystal River. Each offers it’s own unique experience, so I’ve given you a brief outline below. You could easily spend a day exploring each one, so definitely plan on spending the night in the area (camping and airbnbs are available throughout the whole area). Remember to also bring a snorkel mask and fins, as the clarity of these beautiful springs will have you drooling to jump in and explore the world below!
Rainbow River: Spring-fed rivers are always a cool, 72-degrees. This means they are a great option for those sweltering, summer days. Rainbow River is a beautiful, clear river that flows from the spring-head towards Dunnellon. The river is full of otters, turtles, birds, and fish. You can rent tubes from the state park and spend the day floating in the current before boarding the shuttle back up to your launch spot. From the KP Hole launch, it takes 4 hours to float. (Hint: No plastic or alcohol is allowed on this river and is subject to a fine. Drinks and food must be in reusable containers. On the weekends, the park will close if it reaches capacity. If going on a Saturday or Sunday, plan to arrive a little bit before 8am to secure a spot.)
Weeki-Wachee: This state park also has a clear, spring-fed river. While tubing is not an easy option, you can rent paddle-boards or kayaks from the state park to enjoy this river. The state park also arranges a shuttle (book rentals and shuttle here). Families with kids can also enjoy daily mermaid shows (yes, that is a real thing), wildlife shows, and boat tours (see here for more info). The best part? In the winter, manatees make their way up this river in search of warmer water and food. Kayaking with one of the world’s gentlest mammals? Priceless.
Crystal River: Crystal River is famous as the place to go to see manatees in the winter time. This is the place where all the influencers go to post those much-sought after selfies with the cow of the sea. While you can kayak or boat the river, you will have to swim into the spring areas where the manatees hang out the most. Three Sisters Springs is the most popular and well-known spot to swim with manatees, but it is closed to boats for most of the winter season (manatees head into the bay once warmer weather hits). Be sure to check the Three Sisters Facebook page for daily closures of the springs (if the weather is too cold, the park will close the springs to swimmers because there are too many manatees in the area). There is also a boardwalk there if you don’t feel like getting wet. While this is a great winter activity, the river is also a beautiful kayak trip in the summer, and manatees can still be seen in the bay.
Local Parks and Nature Preserves
For those looking to get their nature fix but wanting to stay close to home, Fort Myers has a great selection of outdoor areas for all skill-levels. All of these trails are within an hour of Fort Myers, so they make for a very easy day trip or evening excursion. Here are some of my favorites:
CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: A great location for walkers or bikers (this trail is packed-dirt with a small section of boardwalk), the Bird Rookery Swamp is a go-to for bird-watching, gator-sighting, and possible otter encounters. Every now and then a panther will be sighted in the area, so keep your eyes out for one of Florida’s rarest residents. The trail is an oddly-shaped 12-mile loop, but I only recommend doing the full loop if you’re on a bike (Remember, Florida is hot and humid for most of the year). The first 3 miles are some of the prettiest if you want a shorter option. Gators love to hang out on the side of the trail, so be sure to pick up any small dogs or small kids (joking). Dogs aren’t advised on this trail, but if you do bring Mr. Fancy Paws, just stay aware of your surroundings.
J.N. Ding Darling Kayak Trail: Located on Sanibel, this federal preserve is a great place to launch a kayak and explore mangrove tunnels and shallow bays. Stingrays, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, tropical birds, and fish love this area (It is one of the top birding locations in the United States!). It costs $10 per a vehicle to enter (free with a National Park pass), and the park is closed on Fridays. If you don’t have a kayak, you can take a guided kayak tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Located in the heart of Fort Myers, this is one of the easiest to access “hikes” on the list. This elevated boardwalk is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and twists through one of the last sloughs remaining in the area (thanks, overdevelopment). The boardwalk is about 1.2 miles long, and parking is $1 an hour (but entrance to the boardwalk is free). This is a great early morning or late evening option, as the park is open dawn to dusk. Gators are almost always a guarantee at the large lake about 1/3 mile from the parking lot!
This is just a few of my favorite outdoor activities within an easy drive of Fort Myers. Florida is on a constant quest to develop every open area, so it is always important to appreciate these natural places before they are gone. If you love nature, consider also donating to a local conservation group to help beat back the developers (we really don’t need another Wal-Mart). Through our combined efforts, we can continue to enjoy these places long into the future. (Here’s a link to the local Sierra Club).
Have a nature spot that you enjoy in southern Florida? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!
Hawaii. I could write 10,000 words on how much I love this state. From Maui’s Road to Hana to the spectacular cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii is a magical destination. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit in the United States (that’s what you get for being in the middle of the ocean).
Because of the high price tag, many travelers never make it to the islands. They see the price of the fancy resorts and luaus, hug their bank accounts, and decide this is another great year to visit the in-laws (family first…unless it’s Hawaii.)
However, Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank for you to bask in some beautiful waterfalls and dip your toes in crystal waters. Hawaii has seven main islands- most travelers visit Oahu (the island with Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) or Maui (picture golf courses and fancy resorts). Those are the big dogs of tourism, which also means they are the most crowded and most expensive. If you’re looking for adventure that won’t make you have major credit card hangover once you return, the Big Island is the destination for you. This island also offers more as far as eco-diversity and outdoor adventure!
We chose to fly into Kona and rent a car to explore the island for a week. While a car rental may seem expensive (especially in the age of Covid), it is the best way to see the island without having to follow a bus schedule or depend on taxis (Uber is not always available). We rented through Budget, but all the car rentals are just a short shuttle ride from the airport, so pick the agency with the best price.
This itinerary covers 5 days on the island, but you could squeeze it into 3 if you have less time. However, keep in mind that the driving estimates are estimates, so you may have to skip a few items to fit a shorter schedule. (The Big Island is big. It is 95 miles from the northern tip to the southern tip and 80 miles across with the average speed being around 45 mph).
We started and ended at Kona International Airport. If you are flying into Hilo, you could still follow this plan, just in reverse. (Hint: If you are going in reverse, be sure to check the times on some of the attractions because you will be arriving later in the day).
The driving times are actual times on the road and do not include time spent on stops or possible traffic. Use them as a rough estimate as you plan your adventure. If you’re into history or local legends, download the Shaka app to listen to stories about the sights along the way!
Day 1: Kona (1 hour of driving total)
We flew into Kona International Airport around midday and picked up our rental car from Budget. You can catch the car rental shuttle just outside the arrival gate for all rental agencies.
Kona is on the west side of the Big Island, which is also the dry side. You are surrounded by lava flows cast in the shadow of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. This is the side of sunshine, beaches, and lava rock.
From the airport, we headed north about 10 minutes to Kekaha Kai State Park. This is a great place to say hello Hawaii! The park features lava flows, a beautiful beach, bathrooms, coastal hiking trails, and a hike to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone which offers great views along the coast (bring water!) The turn can be hard to spot on the highway, so be sure to have it in your Google Maps before you leave the rental lot (Here’s a pin to put into your navigation).
The Kekaha Kai State Park road is part road, part lava flow. It makes for a fun driving experience, but take it slow to avoid bottoming out in one of the many ditches. Once you arrive, prepare for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island complete with lava rock that dips into the ocean, great snorkeling, and beautiful walks along the coast. If you have a keen eye, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle amongst the surf in Mahaiula Bay. If you have time, take the coast walk to Makalawena Beach. It’s 2 miles from the parking lot (4 miles roundtrip), but the reward is a beach that can’t be reached by the road, and it is wonderfully seclusive and serene. Be careful if swimming, as rip currents are always a risk.
After leaving the park, we headed south towards the town of Kona (15 minute drive). Warning, Kona does have tight roads, so just drive slowly and be patient when it comes to parking. We went to the downtown area on Alii Drive for some sunset viewing, dinner, and shopping. Hulihe’e Palace is located within walking distance of the restaurant area. You can tour the palace Tuesday-Saturday for $10.
We spent the evening in Kona and had an amazing Hawaiian dinner at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill. Kona is a great place to catch the sunset, so be sure to be downtown for the golden hour to celebrate in the final rays of a beautiful day on Hawaii.
Starting from our hotel in Kona, we headed back north along highway 19 for Day 2 of our Big Island Adventure. Passing the state park we visited the day before, we continued north to Kiholo Bay. This is another beautiful coastal area featuring black sand and rocks. We didn’t have time, but if you’re here later in the day, plan to take a swim into The Queen’s Bay, a flooded lava tube located a short walk away from the small parking lot.
From there, we continued north to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Entrance to the park is free and open from 7:30am-5pm. (While entrance is free, I recommend buying a National Park Annual Pass before leaving the mainland. The $80 fee will pay for itself by the end of the trip and you’ll have free entrance to all NPS sites for the rest of the year!). We spent about an hour walking among structures left from Hawaii’s original inhabitants. There isn’t much as far as a visitor center, but for $2 you can sign up for a guided tour or try your best to go off the details on the map they give you (I had a history teacher with me, so I cheated). We also chose to pack a picnic and have lunch on one of the many picnic tables over-looking the Pacific Ocean (Pro Tip: Picnics save money and time when road-tripping!)
From the historic park, we continued north on Highway 270 along the coast towards Māhukona Beach Park. This portion of the drive is breathtaking as the road rises up along the highlands and gives spectacular views of the ocean. Have your passengers keep an eye on the water as this is one of the best places on the island to catch sight of humpback whales in the winter/spring season (we were there in March). Look for a spray of water above the waves or even watch the whale-watching helicopters buzz over. Just try not to crash when you start squealing with excitement at your sighting (not from experience at all….)
You can stop at the beach park, but we continued onwards to the town of Hawi. This is also a great option for lunch if you’re not a picnic person, as the town is small but adorable with cute little cafes and stores. This is also one of the few places to get gas along this route, so if you’re running low, better fill up. After stopping at a few tourist shops in Hawi, we finished up our northern route at the main attraction of the day, Pololū Valley Lookout. The route between the town and lookout features breathtaking views of waterfalls and cliffs, so take your time and enjoy!
This lookout provides one of the best views on the entire island. Parked at the north edge of the island, you can stand at the view point and see down the eastern coast. With the jungle-covered hills and dropping seaside cliffs, it is a sight that challenges even the most spectacular views on Kauai and Maui. (Read more about the geological significance of this area here.)
If you get here early (or even plan to spend the night in this area), do the hike into the Pololu Valley. It’s only a mile to the black sand beach at the bottom, but that’s a mile with a 350 ft elevation change (think stairs. Lots of stairs). Be careful if you plan on swimming here. The beach is known of dangerous jellies and large waves (this is the windward side of the island, after all).
After enjoying the sights, we headed back towards Kona, taking highway 250 (Known as the “Kohala Mountain Rd”) toward Waimea. This is a beautiful route to take in the afternoon. You’ll be passing Mauna Kea on the left (don’t worry, you’ll get a closer view later on in the trip).
The area of Waimea looks more like a picture out of a western than a Hawaiian island (it’s also a white guy’s cattle ranch…so it makes sense). If you happen to get there when the clouds are rolling through, prepare to feel like you’re on another planet. This is truly one of the best drives on the island.
You can stop in Waimea for dinner (steak, anyone?). We chose to continue on, staying along Route 190 for the entire way back to Kona. This meant we didn’t have to backtrack on 19, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the highland road. We finished up the day with another dinner in the town of Kona before heading to bed.
Day 3: Kona to Hilo (4-5 hours of driving total)
You could easily spend a few more days around Kona, but our time schedule didn’t allow for it. The next morning we woke up bright and early to drive the Coastal Highway 11 from Kona to Pahoa (where we had an AirBnB booked for the week). If you are driving the coastal route from Kona to Hilo, plan to spend the entire day along the route. There’s so much to see and do that you may even want to consider stopping halfway (as we did), and continuing on or going back to places the next day. I’ve listed today’s itineraries into separate stops so you can pick and choose which one catch your interest.
This stop is just south of Kona, so we hit it very early in the morning. Typically, this beach is a great place to snorkel and a great spot to see sea turtles. However, we were there too early to snorkel (and I’m vain enough not to want salty hair all day). We stopped for about 20 minutes to walk around the park, look at some tide pools, and play in the black sand.
20 minutes south of Kona is the town of Captain Cook. Situated in the heart of coffee country, the town has a fantastic view of the ocean. Things start getting greener on the drive here as we leave behind lava fields in exchange for giant ferns, dropping sea cliffs, and twisting roads. We only spent a few minutes in this town, because we had a deadline to meet our Airbnb host. However, if you have more time, stop by and visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (open 10am-2pm, so plan accordingly). If you have even more time, spend an hour walking the 4-mile Captain Cook Monument Trail for some great ocean views and coffee field vistas.
This was a random stop we made on our way to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and it was worth it! Tucked into the hillside overlooking the ocean, this painted church is the perfect stop to stop and reflect on the beauty around you (or you know, repent for sins. I’m not religious but pretty buildings are pretty buildings).
This tiny church has been around since 1899, and the paintings are still vibrant and colorful. Around the church is a gorgeous garden featuring flowers and plants local to the island (ok, there might be a few invasives in there). It’s free to enter the church, but you can donate at the unmanned booth in the front. Or you can purchase a souvenir, placing your money into the donation box (be sure to bring cash!)
This was the second historical stop we made on our trip, and it was by far my favorite. More established, with an actual visitor center, Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about the native Hawaiian culture and history. Estimated to be over 450 years old, this ceremonial site features remnants of a great wall, reconstructed buildings, and cultural demonstrations. Open from 8:15am to sunset, the entrance fee is $20 per a vehicle (or free if you have that Annual Park Pass I mentioned before.)
We spent a couple hours here, but you could spend all day. Just outside the park is Honaunau Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Based on the amount of colorful fish I saw in the water, I believe it! It is also worth it to walk out onto the lava rocks around the park. The waves crashing over the black rocks are stunning. You also get the extra perk of seeing some cool tidal pools (just leave the fancy shoes at home. You’re going to want sturdy sandals or tennis shoes for this outing).
This is the longest portion of the drive so far on this trip, so I like to break things up a bit. This small park offers a great place to have a picnic or stretch your legs. Nestled on the side of Mauna Loa, this roadside park has picnic tables, a two-mile walking trail, and beautiful flora to admire. We didn’t stop due to Covid restrictions, but check it out and tell me how it is! (I’m always looking for a reason to go back). If you’re interested in lava tubes, Kula Kai Caverns is right down the road. You have to pay to tour these ancient caves, so I prefer to do my lava-tube exploring in the national park.
I’m hungry just writing this, so chances are you will be starving by the time you get here (we definitely were!). Located in the town of Naalehu is one of the greatest gems on the island, Punalu’u Bake Shop. If you’re on a diet then consider this your cheat day, and it is worth it. Pop in and grab yourself a chunk of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread (or several loaves…). They also have sweet Malasadas that pair perfectly with that afternoon coffee. I had the apple-filled one, and I still dream about it.
Forcing away a sugar coma, we continued 30 minutes down the road towards Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24/7 and it costs $30 per a car to enter (unless you bought that annual pass. See? It’s mostly paid for itself already). At the time of writing, the visitor center was under limited hours for Covid, so be sure to check the site linked above for hours when you visit.
Because it was later in the day, we only planned on a short stop here. I recommend giving this park at least 2 days in your itinerary, as there is so much to see here and the park is huge. If you only have a day, here are the highlights we hit in about 2 hours:
Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center of the park and a great place to get oriented. You’re going to want to pack a jacket for this part of the day, as Volcano, Hawaii is 3,700 feet in elevation and it gets chilly in the evenings (if you spend the night here or camp, definitely pack some warm clothes).
Walk from the visitor center to the Sulphur Banks and SteamVents. You can also drive there to save time. Plan for about 30 minutes to walk through this area, admiring an active volcano scene and sweeping vistas into the Kīlauea crater (an active volcano!).
Drive down Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook for another great viewpoint.
Turn around and head past the visitor center to Thurston Lava Tubes. There is limited parking at the tubes so park here and walk the 10 minute trail to the lava tubes (you’ll be rewarded with some great views along the way). Plan to spend about an hour exploring this amazing geological feature. Be warned there are stairs and some dark spots, so talk with a ranger at the visitor center if you have concerns.
From here, we left the park for the day, with plans on coming back the next day. You can chose to stay in the park, stay in Volcano (the town), or continue on to Hilo or Pahoa and circle back. Our AirBnB was in Pahoa, so we were only about an hour away. (Check out the link if you want an awesome place to stay!) We finished up our long day of sightseeing by picking up groceries in Pahoa’s center, making dinner at our AirBnB to save money, and wrapped up the day by drinking wine on our gorgeous porch overlooking the ocean.
Day 4: Volcanoes National Park (at least 2 hours of driving in the park)
We went back for more the next day, and I definitely recommend planning to spend a full day in the park. Beyond the stops mentioned above, some of my other favorite things to do in the park include:
Chain of Craters Road: 19-mile park road that goes past numerous craters before ending at the ocean. Plan on spending a couple hours for all the stops and photo ops available. Check at the visitor center for any road closures. (Full list of stops can be found here.)
Hōlei Sea Arch: The end of the road at the ocean (it used to go further, but then lava covered it). Take a minute to admire the arch, breathe in the ocean air, then head back the way you came.
Day 5: Hilo to Kona (4 hours of driving with side trips)
Hilo is on the wet side of the island, so it’s the polar opposite of where we started in this journey (pack a rain jacket and bug spray for this day). Instead of lava fields, you are rewarded with lush rainforests that make you feel like you’ve traveled back into the Jurassic period (original idea, I know). The drive back to Kona is an hour and a half, so you can have a full day exploring this side of the island.
We started our day with a stroll through Hilo’s Farmers Market (open 7 days a week from 6am-3pm. “Big Market Days” are Wednesday and Saturday). The market is a great place to pick up custom-made Hawaiian jewelry or blankets, sample some locally-grown fruit, or grab more of that delicious Hawaiian bread you keep thinking about. Check here for more information on the market. As you munch on the yummy things you bought, spend some time walking around downtown (located right by the market). There are plenty of quirky shops and cozy cafes to dip into should it start to rain.
Next, we grabbed our hiking shoes and headed to Akaka Falls State Park. This .4 mile loop leads to a 442-foot waterfall, and you can instantly cause instagram-jealously with the endless photo ops here. (Parking is limited, so get there early or be prepared to walk up the road).
From the falls, we continued up the windward side of the island toward Laupahoehoe Point. It’s only 30 Google Map minutes from Akaka Falls, but we spent over an hour on the drive there. The road is one of the prettiest in all of Hawaii, and hugs the coastline the entire way. Once you get to the sharp turn down to Laupahoehoe, you are rewarded with vistas spanning the entire Hilo coast. At the bottom of the road is a beautiful beach park with picnic tables, old trees, surging waves, and lava rocks (this is not a beach for swimming). We had a nice picnic here and enjoyed the sound of crashing waves on the rocks. There is also a memorial here for 1941 tsunami that struck this coast, destroying a school that was here. Looking up at the towering cliffs, it’s a chilling reminder of nature’s power.
After getting our daily dose of morbid, we headed back towards Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. At $25 a person, this is an expensive stop, but a must-do for any orchid-lovers out there. Even if you don’t want to stop at the garden, take the turn off of 19 onto Old Mamalahowa Highway. This narrow, winding road goes through beautiful lush forest and over crystal rivers. Stop at the small bridge for a great photo op along the route.
From here, we went back into the heart of Hilo to Wailuku River State Park. This 80-foot waterfall park is easily accessible for everyone, and the waterfalls are right by the parking lot. From here, you can continue onto the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. Due to Covid, these sights were closed when we visited (so, go check them out and send me some pictures!)
After finishing up in Hilo, we headed back towards Kona on highway 200. If you have extra time and an itch for adventure, check out Kaumana Caves on your way out of town. If you have sturdy shoes and a flashlight, you can descend into these massive lava tubes and explore away (no admission fee into this state park).
Along highway 200 towards Hilo, we drove between Hawaii’s main landmarks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you have extra time, plan to do this drive in the early evening so you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory and catch a truly spectacular view of the night sky (this is one of the darkest and clearest observation points in the world!). The Visitor Information Center offers astronomy talks, stargazing tours, and science-nerd galore. Be on the lookout for the endangered Nene bird on your way up Mauna Kea, as they can usually be spotted along the road or in the surrounding fields.
While this itinerary does hit some highlights of the Big Island, there is always more to see. I like to focus on outdoor activities and sightseeing on my adventures, but there is something for everyone on the Big Island.
If you’re a major beach goer, you could end this itinerary with a day of sun-soaking at Hapuna Beach State Park. If you enjoy shore diving, Beach 69 is a great location to grab a tank and dive under the waves. All of these adventures are fun, memorable, and affordable. If you have more time in Kona and a bit of extra cash, opt for a whale watching tour to get a closer sight of these beautiful mammals.
Hawaii has a reputation for being incredibly expensive, saved for those special honeymoons or retirement trips only. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By being flexible in your island-selection, willing to opt for outdoor adventures over shopping (perk, outdoor stuff is usually free), and skipping the restaurants for picnics and airbnb-cooked meals, you can enjoy a beautiful location without counting every dollar going out.
Have a location or a tip I missed? Drop a comment below about what you love about Hawaii’s Big Island! Like, share, and spread the love so we can all get out there and explore. Aloha!
Travel can be amazing, but it can also be stressful. There is so much planning, coordination, and “what-ifs” that go into every trip. International trips can add even more stress.
Fortunately, technology has grown to help relieve the stresses of travel and make a lot of things way easier. My favorite companion on every trip is my smartphone (and it’s not just for the endless photos I can take), but because a smartphone (or tablet) can be a great tool to use when jumping from sight to sight.
However, there are a surplus of apps out there to aid in travel, and it might be a tad overwhelming for a new adventurer to navigate each one. I’ve made a list of a few of my favorite applications to use on an adventure to help make things a bit easier. As a bonus, I chose to feature not only my favorites but also the free ones (because who doesn’t like free stuff?). Onwards!
Okay, so we all know about Google Maps (the superior alternative to Apple Maps and I’ll argue that to the grave). Whether it is the tested and true app of choice for getting you around those pesky traffic jams or alerting you when there might be a trooper so you might want to lay off that lead foot, Google Maps is a master of navigation. But it is also a great tool to use when traveling (and not just to get from one waterfall to the next).
One of the best features this app offers is the option to download maps to use offline. This allows you to continue to access maps for navigation even if you do not have a phone signal (or you’re trying to limit data usage in a foreign country). This also allows you to access your saved locations for those fun-filled days of sightseeing.
Before every trip, I spend a couple hours researching what I want to see and planning my routes. To make everything nice and seamless for my trip, I save each location onto Google Maps with the title of the location and a small note about what to see there/price. That way when we jump in the car at 4am to tour the southern coast of Iceland, everything is already planned out and we waste no time looking up each location. This saves time for those fun side-adventures that may pop up along the way!
Budgeting and money is always something to consider for every trip, especially if you’re traveling with a group. In the US, we all got comfortable using Venmo to split bills at restaurant or hotels. However, Venmo doesn’t work in every country (something I found out the hard way), and many foreign restaurants do not split checks. So, how do you travel with friends and keep track of what everyone owes? Splitwise.
Splitwise is money-sharing app that keeps track of what each person owes. You can create separate lists for different trips, with different people in each list. As you go about your adventures, each person logs what they pay and then inputs how much each party owes. At the end, you have a nice tally of the overall balance. It is user-friendly, and a great way to keep track of everything! No more exchanging euros over each transaction or getting mad because that one friend never paid for anything (no one likes sending “pay requests” on Venmo over and over again).
Splitwise does have one fatal flaw. It currently does not allow for you to actually pay your friends (such as Google Pay, Venmo, or PayPal). So at the end of your trip, you will need to settle-up in cash or simply wait until you’re back in the US to Venmo them.
If your travel buddies are the same adventurers for every jaunt across the globe, you can also simply carry over balances for the next trip. That way you just keep a running tab on who owes who.
Tip: Google Pay and PayPal do work overseas. However, you would still have to do a transaction after every bill, which is very inconvenient when you’re splitting multiple bills a day.
This is another well-known app, especially for those of us who teach English Language Learners when we’re not adventuring. Google Translateis a great app to quickly type in a question when you need to communicate with your Uber driver or AirBnB host. It also allows for individuals to speak into the microphone so it can translate what they are saying.
I use Google Translate the most when it comes to reading menus and signs. The app has a handy feature that lets you go into camera mode. Simply click the camera sign, point it at the menu, and it will translate the words on the screen (be sure to hold your phone steady for this to work). It has saved me many times from ordering the wrong thing! (I don’t care what people say. I am not eating cow tongue.)
See? I only translate the important things.
While it is not always perfect, the translation gives you a close enough guess. I wouldn’t use it to flirt with that handsome German at the bar, but in a pinch, it is a great app to have!
MyCurrencyConverter is a must-have if you’re going international. There are hundreds of currency apps available online, but I’ve found this one to be the simplest and most user-friendly.
The app has a very simple platform. All you do is select the country you’re visiting and input the amount you want converted. This is an amazing service when visiting countries where the currency doesn’t match up easily to the US dollar (The Hungarian Forint is currently worth 0.00351824 dollars. No one wants to do that math.)
The app also works on airplane mode, but the conversion won’t be exact (it will go off the rates when it was last connected to wifi or data). However, it still gives a great ballpark estimate and is a great accessory to use with Splitwise.
Most people are familiar with the TripAdvisor website. It is a great place to go when starting to plan a trip or posing a question on one of the forums. The site allows for you to book tours, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants. It also allows for you to look at reviews for all of these services, as well as find lists of things to do at each destination.
The TripAdvisor App offers the same services, only on a convenient mobile interface. You can easily access the “Things To Do” for quick planning on the go, or book that river cruise while drinking wine on a balcony over looking the Danube.
Alternatives: While I love TripAdvisor, I also use other sites with similar services. VisitACity is a great app for offline city guides. You can download city maps and attractions over wifi/data before you leave, and use the app to navigate your way through cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Prague.
Local city apps. Many cities will have their own apps to use to book tours, find information, or buy transportation tickets. It’s worth taking a few minutes before you board your flight to investigate. Many of these apps also offer discounts on dining and bus/boat tours.
Spotted By Locals is also a great city app, offering guides to over 80 cities. The information here is for people looking to get out of the tourist loop and into more “local” attractions and restaurants. Each guide does cost about $4, so it is not my favorite, but maybe something to consider.
Uber is an obvious favorite. For the countries and cities that allow Uber, it is a great choice to catch a ride easily around town. However, Uber is not offered everywhere, so it is worth researching other travel options. Many cities have their own taxi apps, which make hailing/paying for a cab easy and safe. (Check out this app for Budapest’s taxi app, Bolt).
You will also want to download the app for whatever train service will be in your area. For example, while living in Scotland, I depended on Scotrail to get me around. This app allowed for easy booking for trains, access to timetables, and updates on delays.
Many Americans are familiar with the rail app, Eurail. While you can book train tickets for all of Europe on this site, you will be paying a premium for that convenience. For those looking to save money, you will need to go to the specific countries website/app to book the cheapest tickets. German’s rail site (Bahn.de) also offers a great app to use (just be sure to click the “EN” at the top of these sites for the English option).
Trainline is also a great option for trips that go across country lines.
Mobile Passport is one of my favorite apps for international trips. You will need to set-up your free account before you board your flight back to the US, but you will only need to do this once (if you keep the app loaded on your phone).
This app lets you bypass those long lines at US customs. Instead of filling out one of the customs forms on the plane, you complete the questionnaire on the app once you touchdown in the US. Once you get off the plane, you will then head towards the “Mobile Passport” lane, which is much faster and shorter than the typical route. This is an easier and cheaper alternative to Global Entry.
While not every Port of Entry utilizes Mobile Passport, most international flights will have this option. Be sure to download this app before your departure, and enjoy the blissful feeling of painlessly navigating through Border Control on your return.
These are just a few of my favorite apps to use while traveling. I’ve found that they really help me enjoy a location without stressing about the smaller details.
Have a favorite app you’d like to share? Drop a comment below or send us an email. I’m always looking to expand my app-ertise (see what I did there?).
Ah, Amsterdam. I always get funny looks when I say it’s my favorite place in the world. From the Red Light District to the famous coffee shops (that don’t sell coffee!) it certainly has a reputation to those who only know the basics. But Amsterdam is so much more than those things. One day, I’ll hit the lotto and buy myself a houseboat, spending the rest of my days parked on the side of an idyllic canal, gently rocking back and forth sipping coffee and people-watching to my heart’s content.
Despite it being a favorite destination for raucous bachelor and bachelorette parties, I think Amsterdam should be enjoyed as a quiet vacation. The city has a stillness and a comfortableness that is ideal for someone who wants to unplug and just exist in a new place. It’s a place of history and literature, art and philosophy. There are things to do and see, and it has lively (and sexually uninhibited) nightlife, but the charm of Amsterdam is its cheerful, easy existence. Sleep in, stroll slowly, and enjoy.
I’ve been to Amsterdam at different times of the year, and each season has its perks. In winter, the city is quiet. The tourists have opted for warmer shores, the days are shorter, and the streets a little emptier. In spring and summer it’s a lively, colorful place, filled with partiers, outdoor diners and drinkers, and a never ending tide of bicycles.
The glory of Amsterdam is the atmosphere. There is a joy permeating the air, no matter the season, a feeling of pride and love for the city from the locals, a feeling of awe and excitement from visitors. This isn’t the place to go to have an adventure. It’s the place to go to have a rest.
One thing you should be adventurous about is the food. Eat at the restaurants, but also stop in to the little shops that have hot food vending machines- a fun novelty experience as well as a delicious meal. Pick something with a completely unfamiliar name and take a bite. Enjoy the most popular pub food in Amsterdam, bitterballen, little fried balls of meat that were crunchy on the outside and soft and delicious on the inside. Enjoy a cone full of freshly made fries, steaming hot and smothered in any sauce you choose. And don’t forget to end your meal with a stroopwafel, warm and gooey and so, so good.
It’s hard for me to choose my favorite food, my favorite book, my favorite TV show. I like too many of them too much to be that specific. But if you ask me what my favorite place to travel is, I’m always going to say Amsterdam. I’ll always choose to visit here whenever I can, whether it be a budget trip in a cheap hostel or a splurge trip in a nice canal-side apartment. I’ve written poems about it. I’ve read novels specifically because they were set in Amsterdam. I have pictures of it on my wall. I’ve spent hours talking about it. It’s a place, for me, that never stops being magical.
It’s a place where I can take a deep breath, in and out, and just live.
Of course, there are things to put on your to-do list when visiting Amsterdam. Here’s a few that I would recommend:
A canal tour: Yes, it’s a cheesy touristy thing to do, but there’s no better way to see the whole city than to hop on one of these tour boats and listen to your audio guide discuss the history and architecture of the place.
The Anne Frank House: A somber and humanizing experience that will stay with you long after you leave. Make sure to book tickets well in advance- the tickets sell out quickly and you most likely won’t be able to get a spot the day-of.
The Van Gogh Museum: What can I say about the Van Gogh museum that isn’t obvious? It’s a shrine to one of the greatest artists and minds in history, and walking through the halls of this museum, you’ll find he was so much more than just Starry Night.
Visit a coffee shop: Ok, here’s the deal. The cafés in Amsterdam are just that- cafés. The coffee shops might sell coffee, but their main fare is different variations of THC. It’s an experience that will soon be commonplace as more and more places legalize weed, but it’s still something you should experience if you go there. (But hurry up- soon, only locals will be able to spark up!) Do your research, and take it slow.
Bloemenmarkt: If you’re looking for something that is quintessential Amsterdam, look no further than this floating flower market. If you’re staying in an AirBnB, buying some tulips or sunflowers from the market is a great way to make your place feel more home-y, but you don’t have to buy anything to experience the magic. If you’re there in the winter, you won’t find any fresh tulips, but there are wooden ones to buy as a souvenir!