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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!

 

 

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!

http://www.7devilsbrewery.com/

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)

Lake Tahoe

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Along Highway 50, Bridal Veil Falls.
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Trail to Fallen Leaf Lake

We rang in 2016 in South Lake Tahoe, California. Growing up in the Bay Area, we were very familiar with Tahoe and its beauty. We knew it would be cold and snowy, but our plans were filled with hikes and more hikes. I imagined picturesque views of the lake where we would play in the snow everyday and take awesome photos we could share with friends on Instagram. Unfortunately, our time in Tahoe was not as eventful as we had hoped. We came down with terrible colds during the holidays and for a family who rarely gets sick, this was a big blow for us. Our immune systems seemed to have taken a toll from the holidays and we found ourselves in very bad shape. So forewarning, this post is short. Our time in Tahoe was mostly spent indoors, wrapped under a blanket indulging in cold medicine and probiotics. But no worries, we made it outside for one hike and of course, food!!

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Jack loved running through the snow.

New Year’s dinner: Latin Soul at Lakeside Inn

168 Hwy 50

Stateline, NV 89449

Bear took a break during this trip since we were able to stay with our friends in their cabin. It was of course a holiday, so they made reservations for all of us to go out to dinner. We were sick and the only ones with a kid, so we offered to stay home so they could enjoy their night out. They insisted and even confirmed with the restaurant that there would be items on the menu to fit our dietary restrictions (we are Pescetarian, the only meat we eat is seafood). It was a thoughtful gesture, so we went ahead and joined them for dinner at Latin Soul.

To our surprise, the restaurant was located inside a casino. One of our friend’s opted for the $35 all you can eat Brazilian barbeque and was disappointed at how dry the meat was. We ordered a vegetable soup and confirmed with the waitress that it was vegetarian. She said yes, but after careful inspection discovered the soup had bacon. On a positive note, we traded in the soup for a chile rellano and it was pretty delicious. Staff was also really nice. Long story short, I wouldn’t return here. But per yelp reviews, the food is good, except the Brazilian barbeque.  

Breakfast: Heidi’s

3485 Lake Tahoe Blvd

South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150

Heidi’s has the most amazing breakfast. It’s one of those restaurants known for their giant portions, but in addition to the big plates, the food is also incredibly delicious. We shared an omelet, home fries and pancakes. The pancakes stood out and I enjoyed every bite. My only regret is ordering juice and getting a refill. Refills aren’t free and that tacked on another $6 to our bill!  My advice: get there early and don’t arrive starving because they have a long wait. And don’t order drinks if you’re on a budget!

Hike: Fallen Leaf Lake

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g28926-d116646-Reviews-Fallen_Leaf_Lake-California.html

It’s a short and easy hike to Fallen Leaf Lake. We were thrilled to be back among pine trees after spending the holidays in the busy jungle of the SF bay area. Along the way, we had a snowball fight and we were in awe of the scenery once we made it to the lake. I would have loved a more challenging hike, but our bodies were trying to beat our colds so it turned out to be just perfect for us. Click on the link to trip advisor above for more details.

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Snowball fight!

Although we spent most of our time indoors, we felt like our time at Lake Tahoe was the perfect transition from the holidays in the Bay Area to going back to our lives on the road. After we left Tahoe, we headed north to Chico since Clayton wanted to show me the town where he spent his first years of college. I was intrigued by Chico, but more so wanted to see the Sierra Nevada Brewery. Unfortunately, Sierra Nevada turned out to be a bust. Minors are not allowed on the tour (we thought it would be similar to the Coors Factory) and their restaurant was closed, so we used that time to catch up with friends in the area. While in Chico, I got word that my grandparents were asking if we were going to visit. We thought “well, we’re this far north, we should just go!” That’s the beauty about this road trip. Next stop, Oregon!

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Next stop, Oregon!!

Yosemite National Park

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news” -John Muir

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It’s not hard to understand why John Muir was so inspired by Yosemite. The deep valleys and massive stone walls are mesmerizing. Everything from the trees, to the flowers, to the waterfalls, to the ability to view wildlife in their beautiful habitat could captivate anyone, even those who don’t deem themselves as “nature lovers”.

Our time at Yosemite was short. After Monterrey, we headed inland towards our cabin in the Sierras where we planned on spending Thanksgiving and the first 3 weeks of December. Visiting Yosemite in the winter seemed less ideal than visiting in the warmer months, but we were in the area and had to take the opportunity.

Let’s just say that our time in Yosemite did not go as planned. The initial site we planned on camping at felt too far from the park, so we decided to drive straight to Yosemite and camp in the park. When we arrived at the park, we found that camping was $16/night. It was cold and getting late so we figured we’d set up for the night and figure something else out in the morning. We took a loop around the campsite and had no idea that taking that loop would change our plans for the rest of the night.

We found a man standing alone next to his car. He was wearing a bright safety vest and had a look of defeat on his face. His name was Darrell and his old Buick was filled with papers and his belongings. Did he live in his car? Was he camping in his car? We greeted him with a “how are you?” and he replied that he wasn’t good and that he needed some gas. He asked us to drive him to the gas station 5 miles away. He explained that he had a leak in his fuel line. He was in the campsite helping a couple from Oregon who had broken down. He said that as he was helping them, all of his fuel leaked out and now he was stuck. We offered to help, so he quickly grabbed his gas can. I jumped out and let him sit in the front seat.

As we went through the gates of Yosemite, he smiled at the rangers and said “hey, it’s me again, just grabbing some gas”. They smiled back and acted as if they were familiar with him. That eased my mind about letting a complete stranger in our car. I mean it was only 5 miles, right?  He was a nice man and everything seemed normal until we started making small talk. We asked him how long he was staying at Yosemite. He said he was just passing through and was very vague about his destination. We asked where he was from and he answered, “here and there” then said he spent some time at a nearby town. His responses were strange. I figured maybe he was living in his car, but was too embarrassed to tell us.

The more he talked, the more I got uncomfortable. You see, we meet a lot of people on the road and often, people are talkative. The conversation usually goes the same direction… we share where we are from and details of our road trip, and the other person usually does the same. The conversation then leads into details about places to camp, places to visit, places to hike, stories about the road. Darrell was unable to have a genuine conversation which made me question his honesty.

Then it got worse. He told us he was working for the park as a campground host. Since we have always been intrigued by camp hosting, we asked about his position and what perks he receives. He quickly replied “uhh yeah, I get a free spot to camp, that’s it”. He then followed that up with “details” about Yosemite to make it appear that he was knowledgeable about the park. As he explained that all of the Visitor Centers were closed for the season, I got a knot in my stomach. The Visitor Center was open and this guy was definitely not a camp host!

In what felt like the longest 5 miles, ever, he then started to reassure us that he was a good person. He promised us that he had never been to prison and that his record is clean. I sat quietly in the back pretending to play with my phone thinking the topic he brought up was awkward and unnecessary. We finally arrived at the gas station and he got what he needed. The ride back was quiet and uncomfortable. Clayton stayed friendly, but I could tell he was giving up on the conversation. There is no point in trying to talk to somebody when everything they are saying is a lie. We continued to nod as he continued to make up facts about Yosemite. At that point, I felt like nodding guaranteed our safety.

After 5 long miles back to Yosemite, we arrived at our campsite to an even more unsettling scene. There were 2 ranger vehicles circling the lot. Our trailer was sitting alone on one end of the campsite while Darrel’s car was sitting alone on the other end. Were they looking for him? Did the rangers at the entrance notify somebody he was with us? We dropped him off and watched him walk towards the rangers with his hands up. We waited for a ranger’s approval to leave and quickly drove away when they waved. After that strange encounter, we decided we didn’t want to camp inside Yosemite alone.

Note to self: If someone needs gas, just grab their gas can and get it for them!

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Pondering with John Muir…. maybe we shouldn’t give rides to random strangers…

Here is what we did instead: Yosemite Lakes RV Resort at 31191 Hardin Flat Rd., Groveland, CA 95321 (same turn as the gas station). Located 5 miles from the west gate entrance to Yosemite National Park. We paid about $40 in December. Many amenities including a club house with showers, laundry, wifi, satellite TV, and a billiards room. https://www.thousandtrails.com/california/yosemite-lakes-rv-resort/

A couple photos from our short time in Yosemite! And yes, the Visitors Center was open and it was amazing. Don’t miss the short movies they have to offer!

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) covers 415 square miles in northern Colorado. The park has 2 main entrances, one in Estes Park and another in Grand Lake. We took our first trip to this famous park in mid September and our timing was amazing. The weather was warm with a tinge of coolness and the Aspen trees were in full yellow bloom. The scenery was spectacular and if we ever make another visit, we’d prefer to return in the fall.

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Some basic info if you plan a visit:

We entered the park through the Estes Park entrance. From Colorado Springs, drive time is about 2-2 1/2 hours.

There are 5 campgrounds in the park and one campground is for tents only. Make reservations ahead of time!! It fills up fast.

It’s a National Park, therefore dogs are not allowed anywhere. Although I saw many people breaking that rule, we kept our dog in the car when we went outside to take pictures. We were unaware of this rule and decided not to hike within the park because we didn’t want to leave Jack unattended.

Entrance fees are the following:

  • Automobile – $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds – $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle. Valid for seven days including the date of purchase.

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We left Colorado Springs around 6:00 PM on a Friday night. Since we planned our trip last minute, per the reservation site, there was no availability in any of the campgrounds in the park. We decided to take our chances and try the Olive Ridge campground which is about 30 minutes outside of Estes Park and in the Roosevelt National Forest. Olive Ridge is located on Highway 7 along mile marker 14. Reservations are not required, so our tip is to get there early before the weekend campers get in. A camp host is available to pay the $16 fee and several vault toilets are spread out around the campground. It is bear country, so be aware of what you bring and how you are storing your food.

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When we arrived around 9 PM, we drove the loop around the campsite and found that there was no availability. This came as no surprise since it was a Friday night and campsites in Colorado tend to fill up quickly. As we exited, we did not find any signs that indicated parking along the road was prohibited. We didn’t have a tent to set up, so we parked in front of the information sign and quickly jumped inside of Bear. Falling asleep was an easy task and before we knew it, sunlight was beaming through the windows waking us up for the day.

We woke up around 7 AM and opened up the back of the trailer to make breakfast. While we grubbed on freshly made breakfast burritos and hot coffee, a camper on her way out stopped by to let us know that she was leaving for the day and that we should snag her campsite. I grabbed Riley and we quickly ran over to the vacant campsite while Clayton headed over to the camp host to pay for the spot. As soon as we arrived at the site, a car pulled up and asked if we were taking the spot. I apologized to the woman, but I was also thankful we got there a minute before her! Sprinting to the campsite sure paid off!

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Where we parked for the night.
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Breakfast burritos with “meat” and eggs in a spicy tortilla.

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Once we got settled, we met our campsite neighbor who told us there was a back entrance to RMNP that has access to several trails. We decided to head that way and found there was no entrance fee. We found a full parking lot of hikers and tourist, and a couple rangers that welcomed us into the park. When we talked to the rangers, they informed us that dogs are not allowed in the park and that we had to leave Jack in the car. That sure put a damper on our plans.

We decided we didn’t want to leave Jack, so we drove back out to the highway and found a trail just outside of RMNP. The Tahosa Valley Trail followed right along the National Park boundary and unfortunately, the National Park had the better trails and views. As beautiful as the scenery was, the trail followed right along Highway 7 which didn’t make for ideal hiking conditions. The last thing I want to hear while hiking is cars passing by.  As we hiked for about an hour, the trail eventually turned away from the road and began to incline towards the mountains. By this time, I had lost my motivation to continue on and the idea of a nap sounded better. We headed back to Olive Ridge where I immediately headed over to the hammock and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was time for dinner and smores by the fire. The day didn’t turn out as we had planned, but it was still a very good day.

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Since we were forced to change our hiking plans because of Jack, we decided the following day would be dedicated to sightseeing through RMNP. We woke up around 9, ran around the campsite and rode our bikes. We left the campground around 11 AM and drove to the Estes Park main entrance into RMNP.

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Some points of interest to look out for when heading towards Estes Park is Chapel on the Rock and The Stanley Hotel. Chapel on the Rock is located in Allenspark right along Highway 7. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the chapel. There were pictures of the Pope located inside and we found that pretty exciting. As we drove through Estes towards RMNP, we passed the famous Stanley Hotel which is known for it’s paranormal activity and inspiring Stephen King to write “The Shining”. Although everyone told us we had to visit The Stanley and do a ghost tour, there were just too many people! I asked Clayton to pull over so that I could take a quick photo of the hotel. A tour of The Stanley would have to wait for another day, preferably on a weekday!

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The Stanley

We spent the next few hours driving through the park on Trail Ridge Road (one of America’s most scenic drives) and stopping at the various pull outs to look at the view and take photos. The park was extremely packed because it was the weekend. We often found ourselves behind a long line of cars and having difficulty finding parking at the pullouts and at the gift shops. As we started to make our descent through the end of the park, we also started getting really hungry. Luckily, we found a large picnic area that was completely empty. Since we had the whole parking lot to ourselves, we parked and set up our chairs. It was so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. Just the perfect place to have lunch.  After about an hour, we packed up and continued our way out of the park. Lucky for us, just as we approached the exit, we saw elk grazing in the field. When we exited, we found ourselves in Grand Lake. We were in complete awe by the lake and the Aspens. How lucky were we to experience the “gold rush”. Fall in Colorado is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had!

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Grand Lake

Overall, a scenic and relaxing weekend. Although our plans for strenuous hikes and exploration through the forest didn’t go as planned, I actually enjoyed the change of pace. I was grateful for the beautiful views, and the opportunity for quality time and relaxation with the boys. My advice if you plan on visiting RMNP: make camping reservations, visit in the fall, and leave the dogs at home.

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