Don’t get stranded in Cuba! 8 tips for Americans to help your Cuban vacation go smoothly.

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A beautiful car in Havana

There are a few obstacles for Americans when visiting Cuba. Once you arrive and plant your feet on Cuban soil, you’ll realize foreigners from other countries are having a different experience from you. Not to worry! It’s like a special club where you’ll bond with the few Americans you run into and laugh about the things that have gone wrong.

The biggest issue we had was the inability to use our credit cards and debit cards. It is a scary thing to consider: you’re in a foreign country and you’re carrying all the cash you have for your vacation. How do you know how much to bring? What if you lose it? What if you run out? Well, that happens and it happened to us!

Read my 8 tips below to help you avoid any mishaps on your Cuban vacation.

Tip #1: Bring more money than you expect to spend

When we arrived in Miami, we had $1200 in our pockets with the assumption that we would spend $150 total on visas. A budget of $1000 for 7 days seemed like enough since all of our accommodations were prepaid. But if you read my previous post, our visas ended up costing $300 and that made us a bit nervous.

We headed out of our terminal to the only ATM near our gate and as we attempted to take out $300, the ATM broke. We looked at each other and thought, “$900 should be enough right?” We thought so, but we were wrong. My advice is, bring more than you need.  If I could go back, I’d take $1500 for the week plus $500 in emergency money. Just because you bring it, doesn’t mean you have to spend it, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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I’ll always remember Vinales as the place where we ran out of money.

Tip #2 Exchange most of your money to Euros and leave some American dollars

The currency for tourists is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the exchange rate is 1:1 for Euros. American dollars, on the other hand, are taxed 10% during the exchange, so it is better to exchange your money to Euros prior to arriving in Cuba.

And why keep some dollars? In case you get into a bind. When we ran out of Euros while in Vinales, the line for the bank was incredibly long. On a failed attempt to pick up money from Western Union (long story), we headed to the bank to exchange our last bit of Euros to find that the bank had closed 20 minutes early. Many businesses are also closed on Fridays and Sundays, so we found ourselves stranded and unable to catch a ride back to Havana if we couldn’t find someone to exchange our money.

Turns out, there’s a way to get your money changed and it makes you look a bit sketchy. We found a group of guys who hang out in the town square and offer several services for tourists, one being a money exchange. It’s probably illegal, but we’d be stuck in Cuba if it wasn’t for them. Overall, it was a difficult exchange because all of them wanted American dollars, not Euros. It took a couple minutes of begging until one guy finally stepped in and agreed to exchange 40 Euros. That was enough to get us back to Havana so I was grateful, but I also wished I had kept some dollars to make that whole process easier.

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A church in the town square where I prayed then begged to have my money changed.

Tip #3 Bring EVERYTHING you think you might need

Cuba doesn’t have a corner store where you can buy things you happened to forget. If someone in your group gets sick, gets hurt, or gets a terrible sunburn, you’re out of luck! Try to think of things that might go wrong, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Example of things I brought: suncreen, children’s Tylenol and ibuprofen, Bandaids, antiobiotic cream, aloe vera, bug spray, Benadryl. I felt like a girl scout preparing for a major backpacking trip, but I’m so glad I had these things with me, just in case.

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We almost ran out of sunblock. We also all got terrible sunburn.

Tip #4 Skip the hotels and book a Casa Particular

A casa particular is a private residence that rents out rooms. You can book through Airbnb and it’s significantly cheaper than a hotel. Our first casa cost us $20/night and our last one cost $32/night. When we looked into hotels, $250 per night was the cheapest we could find and the reviews were pretty terrible. At a casa, we were able to mingle with the locals and learn about their culture. We also made friends with other travelers from around the world.

Most of the casas also offer you breakfast for about $5/person (children are usually free). We opted for this since it was cheaper than eating out, and the food was always so fresh and delicious.

When booking through Airbnb, make sure you book with a casa that has reputable reviews and a host you can contact prior to your trip. Long story short, we could not find our casa when we spent 3 days in Vinales. Our cab driver asked several locals for directions and was unsuccessful when calling our host. We ended up in front of another casa where Americans were checking out so we decided to stay there. Side note, this is why we ran out of money in Vinales because we ended up spending 100 CUCs more than anticipated when we booked a new place.

If you book through Airbnb, use my code to get $40 off your first trip! I’m not affiliated with the company, but using my code will get me $20 off my next booking, so help a girl out!

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Our last casa was beautiful! We had a great patio overlooking the streets of Havana.

Tip #5 Use collective taxis to get around

When we needed transportation, we used a taxi collectivo. It’s where you share a taxi with other people going to the same destination. When we needed transportation from Havana to Vinales, we learned it was cheaper and quicker to take a taxi than a bus. The bus cost 12 CUCs per person with potentially more charges depending on the amount of luggage. The taxi to Vinales cost 20 CUCs each and small children are free, so it was a better deal for the 3 of us. On our trip back to Havana, we organized a taxi for 15 CUCs each (again not including children). Your casa host can organize this for you or you can find someone on the street whose job is to organize rides.

*Note: taxi collectivos were not an option going to and from the airport and I’m not exactly sure why.

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We met people from around the world in collective taxis.

Tip #6 Keep street cigars in Cuba, bring sealed cigars home

When you’re a tourist in Cuba, everyone will ask you if you want to buy cigars. We don’t even smoke, but buying a cigar in Cuba sounded like a cool thing to bring home. We bought a box in Havana when we arrived then purchased 10 cigars wrapped in a banana leaf when we did a horse tour on a tobacco farm in Vinales.  The day before we went home, we were informed by a tour guide in Havana that US customs can confiscate your cigars if they do not have a seal of authenticity on the box.

We were bummed at the idea of our 10 cigars being thrown out, but once we went through customs in the US, our cigars weren’t an issue. Since getting back, I’ve read about Cuban customs detaining Canadians for attempting to bring home cigars that weren’t purchased at a government shop. The information seems to be inconsistent, but to avoid detainment or confiscation in either country, the safe thing to do is enjoy your street cigars in Cuba and bring the legit, sealed cigars back home.

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We bought the 10 pack, then panicked.

Tip #7 Print out important information and buy a wifi card asap!

Internet is not the easiest thing to obtain in Cuba. It’s not everywhere like it is in the US. Prior to arriving in Cuba, I had all of my Airbnb info printed out, along with maps for directions to our casas. I also printed out blog posts on things to do and see in Havana.

It wasn’t until we were in Vinales, running out of money that we purchased a wifi card to contact my mom so she could attempt to send money through Western Union. It was then that I realized, we should have purchased a wifi card at the beginning of our trip. It’s good to have just in case you need info, or if you need to contact someone back home in an emergency. Also, it’s good to just check in and let everyone know you’re okay!

Wifi cards can be purchased at several locations such as the one in the picture. Just find a hotspot (it’s usually areas where everyone is sitting in a random place staring at their phone) and log in.

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A very long line to buy a wifi card.

Tip #8 Learn Spanish

Clayton and I dabbled a bit with the duolingo app thinking we had the basics down and turns out, we knew nothing. Seriously, it was embarrassing.

We were grateful that our hosts were able to speak some English, but that was pretty uncommon when walking around. Be sure you brush up on knowing your numbers and how to ask questions like “how much”, “where is…”, “I need a ride to…”, “where can I exchange money?” Even basics like “where can I find breakfast, lunch or dinner.” One of the housekeepers at a casa had an app that translated sentences. Get one of those and make sure it doesn’t require wifi. Anything that helps will go a long way! I often had a blank look on my face when people spoke to me and the only time I didn’t look confused was when someone offered me cerveza.

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We attempted to smoke our street cigars before leaving. Clayton did well and I got nauseous.

Those are my 8 tips to help your Cuban experience go smoothly! If you have any questions, leave them below.

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Visiting Cuba: tickets, medical insurance, and visas.

As an American, Cuba has always been a fascinating place, a forbidden land of mystery. When the travel ban was lifted, our curiosity got the best of us, so we decided on Cuba for our first international trip as a family.

Prior to our trip, I googled information, read several blogs on tourism in Cuba, and bothered every person who wrote #Cuba on Instagram. I soon found that the information I gathered wasn’t consistent. Confusion loomed over where to purchase a tourist card, what to see, and how much money to bring. My anxiety heightened by the lack of information.

Despite the headaches and the eye twitching that came immediately while checking in our bags, our misadventures became a learning experience and for that, we are grateful. Let me set the record straight so you can leave your headaches in the US and enjoy your Cuban vacation!

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Riley and I strolling through Havana

 

Booking your flight:

There are 8 major airlines that fly to Havana. We booked our ticket with Frontier since it was about $200 cheaper overall including baggage fees. When we booked our flight, we were asked on the Frontier website what our reason was for visiting Cuba. Americans are banned from visiting for tourism so you must choose a reason that makes the most sense. We chose “Support for the Cuban People” because we were spending our money and helping out the economy. For other airlines, such as Southwest, you are asked your reason at the counter prior to obtaining a visa. Please remember, US visitors are required to keep an itinerary of their activities and it must match your reason for visiting. Apparently, our government can ask for our itinerary years after a visit. So keep track of what you’re doing and make sure it consists of more than just hanging out at the beach and drinking rum.

Medical Insurance:

American citizens are required to have Cuban medical insurance prior to entering Cuba. Check with your airline to see if it is covered with the price of your fare. Since we flew with Frontier, our medical insurance was paid through our tickets, so we didn’t have to worry about purchasing it elsewhere.

Cuban Tourist Visa:

The information on obtaining a visa was the most confusing ordeal of my life. The Frontier website had no information other than a link to a company that sells the visa and sends it to you for $110. I was informed by friends who had visited that visas could be purchased at your connecting airport for $50. After speaking with several people, we decided not to purchase the visa ahead of time and waited until we got to Miami.

Here’s the kicker and the beginning of my headaches/eye twitching; when we checked in our bags at DIA, the woman at the Frontier counter asked if we had our visas. When I told her we would purchase it in Miami, she said there was no guarantee they would have visas for us in Miami then said ” well, your bags will be in Cuba, but you might not be. Good luck.” Can you believe that?! She also mentioned how we risked being detained with a $3000 fine for not buying it ahead of time. Thanks to her, I didn’t sleep on the plane and I was sick to my stomach the entire flight to Miami.

But of course, I shouldn’t have worried and should have trusted what I knew. Once we got off the plane, we heard an announcement asking passengers to Havana to come to the Frontier desk. They had visas! Stacks and stacks of visas. And I cursed the Frontier lady at DIA for worrying me for no reason. So here’s my advice: flying with Southwest? Wait it out and buy your visa at the counter because it’s only $50. For the rest of us, it’s $100 per visa although I don’t understand why there is a price difference. I thought I was going to save money by buying it in person, so if I were to go back, I’d buy it online. And please remember, do not make mistakes on the visa. One mistake will force you to fork over another $100 for a new one.

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For my next post, I’ll outline all the things you need to bring like loads of cash and sunscreen. Did you know Americans can’t use credit cards and debit cards in Cuba? Yes, cash is king. And did you know there is literally no place to buy sunscreen? I’ll outline all of it in my next post on what to bring and how to prepare. Stay tuned and leave any questions below!

Phoenix/Flagstaff/Sedona

A list of our favorite places in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Sedona.

Hopefully, our “best of” list will guide you if you’re not sure where to go in Arizona!

Sedona

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Sedona can be a pricey place to stay and eat while enjoying the red rock views. If you have a ton to spend, it can be a luxurious getaway. But, if you are a budget traveler like us, consider the following:

Red Rock Visitor Center and Ranger Station needs to be your first stop when entering Sedona. Not only do they have educational info about the area, but the rangers are incredibly helpful in finding the best trails to explore. If you don’t stop here, you might find yourself stopping at all the crowded trails waiting for people to get out of your way just to take a picture!

Cave Springs Campground and Pine Flat Campground located between Sedona and Flagstaff in the Oak Creek Canyon. Both campgrounds are very shady and have spots along the creek. Good for tent camping and there are no hook-ups available. There are vault toilets at both sites and Cave Springs has coin operated showers. Be sure to make reservations online since they both fill up fast, especially on the weekends!

Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, only a 30-minute drive from Sedona and away from all the crowds! There is a $7 entrance fee, $15 fee for tent camping and $60/night for camping cabins. We tried out the cabins for a night and loved it! Check out the website for all info on recreation plus it’s also close to Jerome!

My favorite hot dog place in Sedona closed down, so the only recommendation I have for quality food on a budget is Wildflower Bread Company. Since Sedona is a big tourist town, I feel like they lack decent food unless you are willing to spend a ton of money. We usually avoid all of the restaurants on highway 89 because they tend to be overpriced for the quality.

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We had a very memorable hike up to Fisher Point Overlook. The overlook is an intermediate trail that ends at 6, 620 feet where you get an amazing view of the forest. After the overlook, we wandered around the surrounding trails and found beautiful rock formations and caves. It’s also an awesome place to bring your mountain bike if you have one!

After a big hike, I suggest visiting Beaver Street Brewery and Historic Brewing Company. Both places have beer and food. The burgers are awesome at Beaver Street!

Payson

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Near the Tonto Creek Campground is the Horton Creek Hiking Trail. The hike is 7 miles RT but overall an easy trail. At the end of the trail, there is a beautiful gushing creek that is the perfect setting for a picnic.

The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. It’s a short, but slippery hike that brings you under the bridge and gives an incredible view. Also, a great place to bring the family for a picnic!

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I accidentally forgot my bag with my hiking clothes and shoes! Don’t be like me! This was incredibly slippery in boots.

Beeline Cafe, 815 S Beeline Hwy in Payson is a small diner along the highway that offers big portions, delicious food, and good prices. Great for those of us on a budget, just remember to bring cash!

Phoenix

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Bartlett Lake

There are so many amazing places in Phoenix, I could go on for pages giving recommendations on camping, hikes, things to do, things to eat! Instead of rambling, I’m giving you my top favorites. Use my guide if you get overwhelmed by google and yelp!

Food:

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Butterfield’s Pancake House and Restaurant in Scottsdale is Clayton’s favorite place. They offer a traditional American breakfast with big hearty portions. This seems to be a favorite for locals and snowbirds. Clayton recommends the pancakes, German pancakes, benedicts, and omelets.

Butters Pancakes and Cafe in Scottsdale was more of a favorite for me. It’s a bit more trendy than Butterfield’s and has an assortment of omelets, benedicts, and pancakes with interesting toppings. Avoid the fresh squeezed orange juice if you’re trying to save money!

The Breakfast Joynt in Scottsdale has amazing red velvet waffles. And that is the only thing I’ve ever gotten there!

Spinato’s Pizzeria has the best pizza I have ever had in my life. They have 5 valley locations, so there is bound to be one near you. You have to try Mama Spinato’s Signature Spinach pizza. I would fly to Phoenix just to eat this pizza!! But be warned, some people don’t like it because the sauce tends to be on the sweeter side.

O.H.S.O. Eatery and Nano Brewery has 2 locations and has an amazing happy hour!! They are also extremely dog-friendly. You can find free dog treats and pictures of dogs on the walls. I love grabbing an AZ Burger while having a beer or sangria on the patio. They are also gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan friendly!

Postino has 7 valley locations and is known by locals for their $20 Monday/Tuesday deal. On these days, you can grab a bottle of wine and a bruschetta board for only $20. At Postino’s you can be fun, fancy, and cheap!

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We enjoyed some delicious fish tacos and margaritas at So Cal Fish Taco Company in downtown Gilbert. Their happy hour was incredibly cheap and they have a great patio.

Talking Stick Resort has the most amazing buffet, Wandering Horse Buffet. This is not your ordinary casino buffet. Their food is top notch, especially during dinner. They even have a full on gelato bar! If you have an RV, they also offer free parking so you can fill up on food then go straight to sleep in the parking lot.

Hikes:

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McDowell Mountain Regional Park

McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Scottsdale is a family favorite for us. You can have an easy to difficult hike, all within the same area. Pick your trail, spend however long you want, and enjoy the awesome views of the valley. No fee to enter this park!

Usery Park has the Wind Cave Trail that is an easy hike for those wanting to take in awesome views without taking the whole day.

Camelback Mountain is a favorite for locals and visitors. It can get extremely crowded and parking is incredibly limited. I don’t recommend this one for young children. The crowds plus the steep trails might make parents a bit anxious even if your kid is capable of difficult hikes. Many people have fallen at Camelback and have gotten seriously injured. Also, dogs are not allowed on any trails!

Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale is a heart pumping hike surrounded by beautiful desert scenery and awesome rock formations. This one is at the top of the list for us!

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation in Cave Creek has tons of trails for hiking or horse back riding. Make sure you bring cash for the entrance fee!

Lakes:

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Bartlett Lake

Lake Pleasant Regional Park located in North Phoenix has beautiful waters to go boating or swimming. It is also home to a ton of wildlife including bald eagles! $6 per vehicle at the gate.

Canyon Lake in Tortilla Flat. This lake is at the top of our list because the scenery is incredible. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day here.

Bartlett Lake in Scottsdale is beautiful and typically less crowded than the other lakes. This is a popular spot to go camping right along the water. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day or night here.

Saguaro Lake in Mesa is a beautiful place to find wild horses. It is also close to the Salt River where most locals float during the summer. A Tonto Pass is also required here.

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Horse traffic jam at Saguaro Lake.

More Fun:

Catch a Spring Training game for as low at $8! It’s an awesome way to spend the day even if you’re not a baseball fan. Spring Training begins the end of February and usually lasts about a month.

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McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is one of Riley’s favorite places! Catch a ride around the park on their dog-friendly train, hop on the carousel, grab some ice cream, and check our their train museums. It’s a low cost, fun way to spend the day with any train lover in your family. They also have events during the holidays and a summer concert series.

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Arizona is an awesome, diverse state with so much to do! It’s obvious why it’s one of our favorite states to visit. Have fun and comment below if you have any questions.

KOFA

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Off-roading to Skull Rock

 We left the bustling area of Joshua Tree and headed east towards Arizona where we decided to spend time in a state that we love and used to call home. When we lived in Phoenix, our many trips west to California had us driving past Quartzsite without any thought as to what this area of the desert had to offer. Before our nomadic streak, we would pass this little town and think of it as a place with many rock shops, clean restrooms and some fast food. Turns out, Quartzsite is a gem (pun intended!) and it gave us one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

 KOFA National Wildlife Refuge is located between Quartszite and Yuma, and camping in this area is primitive and free. The refuge was created to protect bighorn sheep and covers over 600,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Kofa comes from King of Arizona, the name of a goldmine that used to be active in the area. This area of public land is filled with rugged rock formations, fascinating hikes, endless opportunities for off-roading, and wildlife sightings that left us in awe during our stay.

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Cholla “jumping cactus” got all of us as we hiked by!
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A coyote’s dinner?

 When we arrived in Quartzsite and headed towards KOFA, I noticed most travelers were camped closest to I-10. We drove out about 18 miles south to our campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail. Our area was empty compared to the hundreds of RVs we saw near the interstate. I wondered if people knew they could camp this way? Or did the inconvenience of the road turn them away? As usual, the road less traveled always leads to the best destinations.

 We set up camp not far from the trail to Queen Palm Canyon. It was midday when we arrived. The blazing desert sun right over us as we unpacked and stared down at the cars who quickly drove past us and blew dust in our direction. We didn’t have any neighbors camped nearby, but the dirt road we parked on had frequent visitors who would drive up to the trailhead and quickly turn around.

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View from our campsite.

 By the time we prepared dinner, the influx of visitors had disappeared. The rising rock formations that stood over us glowed a deep red as the sun began to set. I looked at the valley in front of us, at all the tall cacti casting long shadows along the desert sky. Once again, it was that feeling of freedom, that incredible feeling of being small. We were graced with a vibrant sunset then the winter night sky gave us a clear view of the bright moon and stars.

The entire week we were there, we’d start a fire just after dinner. As the coyotes began to howl, we’d spot Venus in the distance and laugh at how we watched the moon and the stars glide past Queen Palm Canyon. As insane as it sounds, every night we danced with Venus. We’d focus on one part of the canyon and move along with the planet. We’d laugh then look silently, and I’d quietly reflect on how amazing this time was with nature and with my family.

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Getting the cholla out of Jack’s paw!
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Home is where you park it!

Our hike up the Palm Canyon Trail:

 A short walk from our campsite was the trailhead to the Palm Canyon Trail. This trail is very short, only about a half mile. The reviews on TripAdvisor are a bit misleading citing the trail as somewhat difficult. It’s a bit rocky and I can see it being a fall hazard for certain people, but for the average person, it’s literally a small uphill walk to view the palm trees in the canyon.

What’s cool about this hike? These palm trees are native to Arizona. Apparently, the theory is certain animals had eaten the fruit of these trees and brought their droppings into this canyon which in turn planted palm trees.

Once we saw the palm trees, it was an interesting sight, but definitely not enough of a hike for us. We decided to continue on, ultimately bouldering up the mountain until we could no longer safely climb up. We did our best to follow the cairns placed by other hikers, but we eventually hit a dead end. We finally stopped and turned around realizing that every inch of effort in that climb was totally worth it. We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was stunning.

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Our week at KOFA was one of the most spectacular sights we saw on the road. I still dream about our beautiful campsite and the feelings of peace I had during our stay. My advice is, take the road less traveled and stray away from the rest of the visitors. KOFA has so much to offer even though it may not be evident at first sight.  I promise you won’t reget blazing your own trail.

Joshua Tree National Park

“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” –Jeannette Walls

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When our time in Slab City had come to an end, we headed an hour north to Joshua Tree National Park. As we picked the spot we would camp in for the week, I looked over at I-10 in the distance and thought about all the times we have passed this area during the years we lived in Arizona. I never gave much thought to the beauty that was hidden along this stretch of highway. It’s funny how much you start to notice when you’re no longer so distracted.

The tree itself, is an interesting sight. I saw Dr. Seuss in the makeshift structure of Salvation Mountain and the theme continued here in Joshua Tree. The harsh desert creates interesting characters. In the several days we stayed here, we found striking contrasts in our experiences. The days were hot and the nights were cold, we had peaceful days with no one around and we had busy nights with neighbors playing EDM music till 3 AM. We met wonderful individuals then met drunk ones who like to heckle rangers. But in the end, we found a way to balance our encounters, learn to be flexible and walk away with a memorable experience.

Camping details:

Camping ranged from $15-$20/night inside the park. Due to Joshua Tree being located in California and near major cities, the best thing to do is plan ahead and reserve a campsite prior to leaving.We were also unaware until we arrived that it was a holiday weekend. Dates and time often becomes irrelevant when living on the road! So the park was full and every campground was packed during our stay.

Lucky for us, we planned on BLM camping. Free is always better! The area is located just outside the south entrance along I-10. When we arrived, there were several RVs parked in the area so it’s very hard to miss. The downside to BLM camping is that it is completely primitive meaning no toilets! But, if you can dig yourself a deep hole or hold it in until you get inside the park, it’s totally worth all the money you can save. The upside is it’s free and you can gather vegetation for campfires at night.

Here’s a tip: Find dead and fallen ocotillo branches for fire. Take a walk around your campsite and don’t be afraid to venture out. Ocotillo branches are lightweight and long so you can drag a bunch back to your site. Check out the boys gathering wood below.

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What to do:

Day 1: When arriving at any national park, make sure the Visitor’s Center is your first stop. I grabbed a newsletter and brochure that listed all the hiking and off-road trails. On our first day we decided to hike around the Cottonwood Spring area and up to Mastodon Peak.

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We had an awesome time roaming around this area. Riley walked around with his Jr. Ranger booklet filling out the questions and got a kick out of the old mines around the loop. We climbed to the top of Mastodon Peak which gave us an amazing view of the park. The trail up the peak is not maintained, but it’s really short and not difficult.The narrow climb combined with the rocks can be intimidating and caused several people to turn around, but I recommend giving it a try if you have proper footwear.

Day 2: On our second day, we needed to buy groceries so we drove through the park to Twentynine Palms. The south visitor center to the north visitor center is about 40 miles and since we were driving at slow speeds through the park, it takes quite a while to get from one end to another. We stocked up on food and supplies so we didn’t have to make that trip twice.

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Joshua Trees at dusk on our way back to camp

Day 3: We decided to go off roading on Pinkham-Canyon road and bushwacked through a random hill for some exercise. Be sure you have 4wd if you decide to do this! There were a couple areas where our truck worked hard in the sand. It was a bumpy and fun ride, and even for a holiday weekend, there was no one out there! Here is the info from the NPS website:

Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads
This challenging 20-mile (32.4-km) road begins just south of Cottonwood Visitor Center, travels along Smoke Tree Wash, then cuts down Pinkham Canyon, exiting onto a service road that connects to I10. Or you can pass Pinkham Canyon and continue on to Thermal Canyon Road. Sections of these roads run through soft sand and rocky flood plains. Drivers should be prepared and should not attempt travel on these roads without a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle and emergency supplies. “

Day 4: We drove halfway through the park and explored some of the boulders! There was a ton of running, jumping and climbing. A simple day without any plans, and we had the best time.

Day 5: We hiked Ryan Mountain then headed over to some more boulders and jumped around. The trail on Ryan Mountain was fairly crowded, but overall it was a good hike with nice views.

 

Overall, a fun and relaxing 5 days for us at Joshua Tree. If you go, we recommend: camp for free so you can stay longer, talk to a ranger to attend the free events, do some hiking, and don’t be afraid to explore off road away from the crowds. Have fun!

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Jack enjoying the desert views.
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Gorgeous desert sunset from our free campsite!

 

 

Slab City

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“God is Love”

A beautiful message spread over Salvation Mountain that welcomes visitors to the famous yet unbelievable Slab City. This off grid city that resembles a post-apocalyptic movie was first introduced to us on our second day on the road. We met a young couple at a rest stop in Utah who told us about a place in the desert where travelers meet up. Their description was a bit vague and inaccurate, and did not prepare us for what we encountered.
Slab City has made its appearance in popular culture to where even those who wouldn’t dare live on the road or ever visit this place has heard of it. If you have ever read or watched “Into the Wild”, the movie about a guy who leaves his life behind and dies in a bus in Alaska… Slab City was one of his stops.
Our plans to head north to Alaska made a sudden change in December when we realized we were sick of the cold. Alaska sounded awesome, but I needed some sunshine in my life and I was itching to see Arizona again. The sudden change of plans was a bit scary. We were supposed to spend the summer in Alaska to work so we had money to continue traveling. Heading south meant we needed to figure out another way to obtain some income. I had faith we’d figure it out, but in the meantime, we needed a free spot to park and Slab City sounded like the perfect place.
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Wal-Mart Mornings

We spent out first night in the desert in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Brawley, California. Brawley is where civilization is at…they have a Starbucks, a Wal-Mart, a hospital. We headed into Slab City the next day carefully watching the homemade signs that directed us to the right place. We were greeted by a small building that was painted with several messages. The message that stuck out the most was “The Last Free Place” and boy, does that make you think.
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I could probably write a book just on our two weeks in Slab City. Our time there was an experience that can never be duplicated. We met some cool people and some strange ones too. Actually, one of the strange guys was traveling in a brand new Airstream so always keep in mind to never judge a book by its cover!
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“campsite”
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We set up the big tent so we had indoor standing room.
Here are some highlights:
Salvation Mountain: This “mountain” built with straw and adobe on a hillside and covered with multicolored paint reminded us of a page in a Dr. Seuss book. As we walked around and admired the colors, there are messages about God and Love. The messages are beautiful and could speak to anyone, of any denomination. As I walked around, I thought about the man who dedicated his life to building this mountain and spreading the message of God’s love. I usually find my connection to God in nature, among the trees or on a mountaintop. But this… this colorful structure visited by thousands of people… this felt spiritual and I felt love.
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East Jesus: An interesting collection of recycled artwork that conveyed messages about our society. My favorite was the display of televisions with short phrases as to how the media controls our thoughts and relationships. We also climbed and played on some things. The guys running the place were more than happy to show us around.
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The Range: Every weekend, the stage is set for performers to show their musical talent in front of a large crowd. We showed up with no expectations and again, an open mind. The acts ranged from really talented to really terrible.  The crowd consisted of a diverse group of people from Slab City residents to people who were obvious tourists. There were also several children present which eased my anxieties about bringing Riley along. We bought a soda, kept away from the smoke and made conversation with several people. It was a good time for all of us.

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I tell everybody that “The Last Free Place” needs to be experienced by everyone. We get so caught up on what is “normal” in our society that we have found ourselves among people who would panic over the inability to have a smart phone, cable and internet, or a latte every morning. We have become a society of instant gratification and convenience that we have lost our basic instincts. Being among people who had no running water or electricity, things we consider very basic and often take for granted, helped me see the possibilities of a simpler life.
I remember looking around The Range and watching the interactions between people. Everyone was filled with joy. You could see it illuminating from their faces and it was kind of beautiful. And they were all so friendly and welcoming, even though I was different and I was an outsider, they allowed me to feel like I belonged. What an incredible feeling that was when the world I know is full of labels and criticism and exclusive groups that look down on those who are different.
Would I ever give up my comforts to live in Slab City? That’s a definite no! But, they have something figured out, an inner light filled with peace that I admire and that I felt while I was there. I try to hold onto that feeling while I’m here in the real world.
My advice is, get out there and learn something from Slab City. Open your heart and open your mind and you might come away with something incredible to bring home. And while you’re doing that, stay away from the Slab City hot spring! It’s more like a mud hole and I warned you…

GoodBelly Probiotic Juice

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Happy, healthy GoodBelly family 🙂

Three years ago, my family and I went through a major transformation with our diet. I was a steak eating, milk drinking, I love to eat anything with a face kind of girl until my health started to deteriorate. It was hard for me to understand why I felt so lousy when I exercised pretty regularly. I’ll leave my condition nameless to stay on track, but one day I had a wake up call and decided to make changes in my lifestyle. Beef and poultry were the first to go, then it was dairy. Within 3 weeks, all of my symptoms had vanished and I was changed forever. That’s when I realized, I really need to be careful about what I put in my body!

As my health continued to improve, there was still one reoccurring issue. I was constantly getting a cold! I kind of accepted this fate due to my line of work. I was a social worker who conducted homevisits for a child abuse prevention program. My clients were from birth to five and when one household got sick, my whole caseload somehow had the same sickness. Consequently, I would catch it then bring it home to my family. Loading up on Vitamin C and cold medicine never seemed to help and in the midst of my whole diet change I thought, “there has to be something I can eat to keep me from getting sick??”

And that’s what lead me to the wonderful world of PROBIOTICS! I read countless articles online about how they worked and basically got the jist: good bacteria in gut, helps with digestion and immune system, good to take when on antibiotics and so on. Sounds legit, but which one do I take? I was familiar with Activia: my mom used to buy it when I was in undergrad and my only memory was having to run to the bathroom after eating it. Also, yogurt was not appealing since my stomach couldn’t handle dairy anymore. Yakult was another name I knew, but that was dairy too. I thought, “oh crap, are probiotics only in dairy??”

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My discovery of GoodBelly may have been serendipitous. I was perusing through Whole Foods when I saw the cute colorful cartons that said “Probiotic Juice Drink.” I was excited, yet a part of me thought “I bet this doesn’t taste good.” I purchased only one carton as a trial and went with the mango flavor because that felt like a safe bet. When I got home, I poured myself a tiny glass and the rest is history. It was DELICIOUS. It just tasted like juice… like normal, regular, have this with my breakfast kind of juice. I was hooked.

I didn’t even have to do the 12 day Belly Reboot as the carton suggested. I noticed a difference in my regularity within a week, and I kept drinking it to boost my immune system. I also discovered the Plus Shots which include the daily amount of probiotics plus vitamins. Whenever one of us starts feeling like a cold might be coming, I stock up on the Plus Shots and I swear it’s helped with preventing a serious cold. Another plus side is, our 5 year old loves this stuff. Whenever we go to the store, he’s grabbing one of each flavor and putting it in the cart.

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You can find GoodBelly pretty much everywhere now. During our travels, it’s a necessity to have this stuff in our fridge and we’ve been able to find it in every state we’ve visited and several stores like Safeway and Kroger in addition to stores like Whole Foods.

It’s been a good couple of years with GoodBelly and it’s a product we stand by and recommened to everyone we know. Now go on with your healthy self and pour a glass of Good Belly!

 

Redwood National Park

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I’ve mentioned several times on this trip how the feeling of insignificance constantly emerges whenever we go sightseeing. I can still say that the most intense feeling of insignificance was definitely during our trip to see the Redwoods in northern California.

Standing at the foot of these trees and looking up a couple hundred feet with the knowledge that many of these giants existed before Christ is a mind-blowing experience. Seriously, I just stood there several times and couldn’t wrap my head around it. Our existence as human beings is nothing compared to these trees. As we walked around, we talked about the changes of humanity since these trees made their first appearance on Earth. How many human beings have passed the redwoods, looking up in amazement as we did? It’s a crazy concept.

Our first stop was at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Upon entering, there are signs that warn visitors against entering with towed trailers and RV’s. Lucky for us, Bear is small and has big tires so we were able to ride on through without any issues.

Our plans to camp while exploring this area changed when we arrived in Crescent City, CA after dark. We headed to the local Wal-Mart and saw several people camped out in the parking lot, even people with rooftop tents! They were open 24 hours and had a coffee shop inside so ultimately it was an easy decision to make Wal-Mart home for a couple days.

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The following day, we drove over to Trees of Mystery in Klamath, a private park with a gondala ride that takes you through the trees. We saw our first billboard for this place around central Oregon and Riley would not stop asking about it. The billboards continued and Riley kept asking, so we promised to take him. When we stopped at the Visitor Center in Crescent City, the lady who worked there said it wasn’t worth visiting, but I disagree.

You can’t miss this place. It’s right on highway 101 and there is a giant Paul Bunyan and Babe at the entrance. The price of admission wasn’t outrageous, but it also helped that Riley got in for free. They are also pet friendly so Jack got to go inside the gift shop and ride the gondola! Overall, we thought it was a fun, touristy place to visit. We enjoyed seeing some of the strange trees and Riley loved the gondola. I think it’s a fun place to check out especially if you have kids.

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Next stop, “The Last Free Place” Slab City, California.

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Oregon Coast (Part Two)

Florence

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After we left Newport, we had no idea where we were spending the night. Driving along I-5, we had so many rest areas to choose from, but highway 101 had nothing. Well, nothing free. We stumbled upon a campsite along the highway that had a few RV’s parked. Initially, we thought we got lucky then saw it cost $30/night. It was really hard to justify spending $30 for a place to park when we just spent $40 on a motel room. I said to Clayton, “I’m pretty sure there’s a casino in Florence, let’s just drive there and see if we can park.”

My parking senses must have been tingling because yes, there was a casino and yes, they offered free RV parking.

We found ourselves at 3 Rivers Casino located a couple miles down highway 26. The casino offers 4 nights of free parking for RV’s and if you obtain a player’s card and gain 100 points, you can have an additional 4 nights. Initially, we thought this was awesome. They offered free coffee, hot chocolate, hot water, and soda. They also had free Wi-Fi and charging stations in the lobby.

When a business offers free parking, we will spend our money there as a way to say thank you. Our first night, we dined at the World Market Buffet. Sounds legit, right? It was a Wednesday and dinner prices were $13.99 per adult. Verdict? The food was terrible. Like fast food, frozen dinner terrible. We probably should have taken a look at the food first, but it was too late to get our money back so might as well get our money’s worth! So I ate, I ate a lot and paid the consequences the next morning.

Our second night, we wanted a beer with dinner so we decided to grab food at the Blue Bills Sports Bar and Taproom. It was around 6:20 when we approached the door and saw a sign that said minors are not allowed inside after 6. We thought that seemed a bit early, but rules are rules, so we headed over next door to Sunset Grille.

The hostess informed us there was a long wait for Sunset Grille then suggested we head next door to Blue Bills. We ask the hostess about the sign and she says “oh they don’t really enforce that unless the band is playing. You can still eat in there”. We returned to the Sports Bar and Clayton went inside first to double check and was given the green light by 2 more employees.  We went inside and it was pretty dead. I looked around and noticed that about every patron was over the age of 65. Everyone appeared to be a local since the only waitress chatted with them and asked how their families were doing. The setting looked more innocent than an Applebee’s.

We sat down and I noticed that we weren’t immediately greeted. Clayton walked around to see if we could find a menu somewhere. Finally, our waitress approaches and says “you know you’re past the time limit” and points at Riley. I was taken aback by how rude she was, but we explained that the hostess from Sunset Grille told us to come in and that we double checked with her co-workers. She responds, “well, they told you wrong. I just want to let you know that.” WTF? Should we leave then? We sat there in silence, but she goes ahead and asks about our drinks. I assume at this point, it’s okay for us to stay. Since I wanted a beer, I ask what beers they have on tap since they advertise craft beers. She quickly rambles off a list of 5 beers, “coors, coors light, bud light…” and doesn’t even mention the craft beers. I let out a laugh because she was obviously not in the mood to help us.

We ask for water and time to look at our menu which subsequently turns our bitchy waitress into Flash Gordon. She immediately brings the waters and asks what we’re ordering. We ask again for more time and not even kidding, I read 2 items off the menu and she’s back! I can’t even tell you what kind of food this place serves if you asked me.

It was obvious we weren’t welcome there and she was making it clear that she wanted us out. I order the fish and chips, and mac and cheese for Riley. I tell Clayton that we should just share because I was no longer in the mood to spend money there. Clayton gets up to look at the craft beers on tap and I tell him to buy beer at Safeway and to get our food to go. I don’t appreciate people being disrespectful to me and my family.

We had dinner in the trailer and I hate to say it, but the fish and chips were delicious.

The next day, we headed over to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and checked out the beach. It seemed like a cool place to ride the dunes in the summer time. We just ran around and took pictures until it started to rain. fl5editfl2editfl4edit

More info on the dunes: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/siuslaw/recarea/?recid=42465

Coos Bay

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Coos Bay was such a memorable part of our Oregon adventure. We found free camping at  Bastendorff Beach and it was unbelievable. Seriously, we had a million dollar view for free. There is a bit of a downside to this area: it is rarely patrolled and there are many permanent residents here aka homeless folks. But really, we didn’t have a problem and found the homeless people to be pretty nice. We even left our stuff unattended and no one touched it! I think this is an amazing spot for scenic boondocking.

I’ll just let the pictures tell the story:

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One of my favorite photos! The color of the sky was perfect in this moment.

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We also stopped at a brewery called 7 Devils Brewing Company. They had vegetarian poutin with giant pieces of cheese curds. I still dream about this dish!

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Continuing south on Highway 101….

I can’t remember the exact town or beach we took the following pictures. It was really south, going back towards California. On our drive, the rain stopped and when the sun peaked through the clouds, it created the most beautiful golden light. It was too good not to photograph, so enjoy the ending to our Oregon adventure…

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Next stop, Redwoods National Park!

Need to go back? Click below

Oregon Coast (Part One)

Oregon Coast (Part One)

Our Oregon Coast adventure was such a whirlwind of events that I had to split it up into two parts. I took about 400 photos and had to narrow it down to a special few because “ain’t nobody got time for that!” I’m starting to think I need to treat my DSLR like an old camera with film to limit the amount of pictures I take. But really, who could blame me? Oregon is so beautiful!

After Crater Lake, we headed north on I-5 and made our way towards Corvallis then McMinnville to visit family. Touring Oregon’s wine country was on our to-do list, but the rain was relentless so we scratched that idea and headed towards the coast where we planned on taking highway 101 back to San Francisco.

(Quick Tip: Oregon rest areas allow 12 hours of parking so we didn’t have a problem finding a place to park for the night while we drove along I-5, wohoo!)

Depoe Bay

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Depoe Bay was our first stop along the coast. The nonstop rain was hard to deal with so I asked Clayton if we could treat ourselves to a nice motel room for the night. A hot shower sounded like a dream.  He agreed, so I got on Hotwire and booked a room at the Four Winds Motel for $40. The motel was clean and fairly old, but we had an amazing view of the ocean so the price was a steal compared to other places in town.

The next morning, there was a break in the rain so we walked along the 101 and checked out the little shops. Since it was winter, it was quiet and many of the stores were closed. We found amusement in the waterholes shooting out massive amounts of ocean water onto the sidewalk. We learned that Depoe Bay is also a big whale watching destination. There weren’t any whales while we were there, but if you visit during the right time of year, apparently it’s a great place to go. I guess we’ll just have to come back in the summer!

More info: http://visittheoregoncoast.com/cities/depoe-bay/

Motel info: Four Winds Motel, rated 2 stars 356 US-101, Depoe Bay, OR 97341

Newport

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We headed south on the 101 towards Newport to visit my grandmother’s grave and walk along Newport’s Historic Bayfront. I know I already mentioned how relentless the rain was, but seriously, by this time we couldn’t remember the last time we saw the sun. The color of the sky is gray, right? Although we struggled with the lack of vitamin D, there was a part of me that had hope for sunshine that day.

As we entered Newport, Riley had no idea that we had a special treasure hunt planned for him. This wasn’t a random idea, it was actually a request he made after crossing the Oregon Border. My son LOVES The Goonies and he kept asking if we were going to the “Goonies beach”. We had no intention of traveling all the way north to Astoria, so we figured we’ll just tell him the Goonies beach is in Newport and have a treasure hunt. (Hey, we still plan on taking him to the real place when he’s older!)

The treasure hunt was a success. We pulled it off by buying a tiny bag of “pirate gold” from one of the shops in Depoe Bay. Clayton ran ahead of us, buried the bag under a pile of rocks and made an “X” out of sticks. He was super pumped when he found the treasure. His genuine smile and excitement almost brought me to tears. A simple idea turned into a memorable event for all of us. These moments are what I love about this trip.

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Riley picked the colorful flowers!

Remember that hope I had about the sun coming out that day? After the treasure hunt, we headed towards the cemetery to visit my Grandma Flo. You see, my grandma died when I was only 6 months old, but I’ve always had a very strong connection to her… a connection that I’ve never fully understood. When I was a child, I always felt her presence and talked to her almost everyday. I was like that weird kid from The Sixth Sense.

I don’t feel connected to my Grandma anymore, but that day I spoke to her. I actually didn’t hope the sun would come out, I knew for a fact it would. And behold, the photo above, as soon as I placed the flowers on her grave, the sun peaked through the clouds and stayed in sight for the remainder of the day. Once again, I got emotional. Thanks for looking out, Grandma!

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These guys kill me!

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We drove to the Historic Bayfront and since it was mid-week, we were able to find close parking for the truck and trailer. This turned out to be a wonderful afternoon for us. At the pier, the sea lions hanging out by the docks were super entertaining. I think we could have stood there all day watching them bark at each other while trying to secure a spot to sunbathe.

We decided to have lunch at Port Dock One which had a big window where we continued watching the sea lions. We also had this amazing view of Yaquina bridge and Riley had a blast watching the fishing boats go in and out. We shared a bowl of clam chowder and it was ah-mazing. (I just checked Yelp and apparently this restaurant has closed down! But no worries, there are plenty of other places on the same street to find clam chowder)

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Ready to continue the adventure? Click below.

Oregon Coast (Part Two)

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Living the Life of Riley

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