Eat, Wander, Love: Our journey through Cinque Terre and Florence

When I look back on our Italian vacation, Cinque Terre and Florence are two highlights that bring back fond memories. A vast contrast from our time in Rome, we experienced a slower pace even amongst the crowds of tourists. Maybe it was the fact that I could sit quietly on the streets without a vendor in my face or the amazing food we enjoyed in both places. Overall, I know that if we ever return to Italy, Cinque Terre and Florence will definitely be on the list.

Riley enjoying a red sunset over Ponte Vecchio

Cinque Terre

I’ve learned that a sign I had a great time is when I barely have any photos. I can easily get caught up in the moment and forget to take my camera out. Cinque Terre was a definite “living in the moment” experience. It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of how amazing this place is so my advice to everyone is, you need to experience it for yourself.

I booked our accommodations in Cinque Terre at the last minute and was unable to find a hotel or Airbnb close to the water. Initially, I was concerned when I looked at Google maps because our spot looked incredibly far from the main towns. Turns out, my procrastination was a blessing in disguise. Located in the Cinque Terre National Park, in the middle of the mountains, the bed and breakfast I booked was a small farmhouse with beautiful views. The cold mountain air and the sound of silence was a familiar feeling of home, and for the first time during our trip, I felt comforted by my surroundings.

After a night of quiet and restful sleep, we found ourselves waking up later than expected and forgoing our plans of hiking through the five towns of Cinque Terre. Luckily, it started raining and we were told that the trails are closed when it rains. Despite not being able to hike, there was so much to see and eat within the five towns that we kept busy the entire time. We purchased an all-day train ticket, hopped around each town, ate seafood, and drank cappuccinos. I walked around with my head looking up the entire time. It’s honestly such a pretty place. I kept mentioning to Clayton that it felt like we were walking around a movie set or Disneyland because the buildings looked surreal. Next trip, I’d like to visit when the weather is warmer. The water looked crystal clear in some parts, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to swim in it!

Calamari at La Scogliera in Manarola
Seafood pasta at La Barcaccia in Monterosso
My way?! It was meant to be, I loved Cinque Terre!

Florence

Prior to writing my post on Rome, I came across discussion boards where people hated Florence and loved Rome. I read through these posts of self-described “Rome girls” and realized it must be a personality difference because I LOVED Florence.

The significant difference between Florence and Rome? For me, it was the obvious cleaner streets and the lack of vendors constantly in my face. Those “skip the line” tours that are so aggressively advertised in Rome are non-existent that I was able to sit on the steps in the middle of the Uffizi Palace and read my Florence guidebook without anyone approaching me. It was also refreshing to see the people of Florence take care of their city.  The amount of garbage in the streets was significantly less, almost non-existent, compared to the streets of Rome. I saw a man who was literally vacuuming the streets! The locals were also much nicer and it was easier to find spots that wouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg for a bottle of water.

In addition to the better ambiance, the restaurants and coffee shops were incredible. It was hard not to find a spot for a delicious meal, a good cappuccino, incredible desserts, or even an IPA American style beer.

Here are some of my favorite spots in Florence:

Venchi: I am well aware that this is a chain, but I was first introduced to Venchi in Florence and I truly miss it. Grab a gelato then buy some souvenirs! We purchased a bottle of the Cuba Rum which is a delicious dessert liqueur and a few pieces of chocolate. I was obsessed with the Chocaviar which is a super dark chocolate and the chocolates with pistachios in it.

Caffe Gilli: I LOVED the cappuccinos at Gilli’s! It was so creamy and made to perfection. I went here twice in one day! Just be aware sitting here is really expensive,  I believe about 7 euros per seat so just stand at the cafe and enjoy.

Ditti Artigianale: Another great cafe with a delicious cappuccino. I don’t remember how much it was to sit, but we sat so it must have been cheap. This place had a young/hipster vibe and service was very friendly. Riley also ordered a tiramisu and loved it!

Osterio Santo Spirito: Great food, friendly service and a really awesome outside seating area. It’s a pretty popular place and quite small, so I suggest making a reservation.

Fishing Lab Alle Murate: The fish and chips were delicious, and they have a take-out option which is great when you’re on the go! It’s really nice inside, plus they had an American IPA which was delicious and made me miss good beer at home.

Caffe Liberta Firenze: Cappuccinos were decent, but what really stood out were the pastries! They were so good!

Gelateria De’Medici: The best gelato we had on our entire trip. Many say that it is the best gelato in Florence. They had some really cool, exotic flavors and it wasn’t expensive!

Dragon Fruit, Chocolate Rum, Rum

 

Cinque Terre and Florence were exactly what I imagined when I pictured our time in Italy. Historical sites, friendly people, amazing food, and lots of coffee and wine! If you’re looking for a great time and plan on eating your way through Italy, I recommend starting in Florence and Cinque Terre. Come hungry and enjoy!

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Piombino: An underrated beach town in Tuscany

Piombino, a charming little beach town located in Tuscany, was hands down our favorite destination during our trip to Italy. We were lucky enough to have our own private beach house with incredible views of the sea right outside of our window.

It was a beautiful sight, every single day.October is considered the offseason, but even with the lack of tourists, there were still places to shop, eat, and grab a beer late at night. During the day, we walked around the shops and strolled around the beaches in total peace and quiet. At night, the streets became lively filled with beer drinking on the patios and singing inside the restaurants. The hospitality was unlike the other cities in Italy. The servers were incredibly nice and welcoming, food and drinks were not overpriced, and most menus were translated in English and German.

Here is a list of our favorite places:

Pictured: Il Gusto Giusto

All natural gelato made with quality ingredients. In addition to being incredibly delicious, it was also not expensive! My kind of place.

Not pictured: Da Rosa Alimentari

 Two doors down from Il Gusto Giusto, on the corner, is a small deli that sells fresh fruit and other groceries. We were able to get 2 large sandwiches, a slice of cake and a liter of water for less than 10 euros. The sandwich was delicious, fresh and introduced me to pecorino cheese! And that was literally the cheapest food we had during our entire trip.

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Pictured: Osteria Da Mamma Carla

We came here for dinner twice and it was definitely one of the best restaurants we ate at during our entire trip. In addition to the amazing food, the owner’s son/our server was incredibly friendly. We felt so at home at this place. Try the pesto lasagna and calamari!

Not pictured: Pizzeria Tonino

We had pizza around 10 o’clock at night and the place was filled with young locals enjoying beer, clams, and pizza! The quattro formaggi was delicious, but be aware, individual pizzas in Italy are really big so either share or come with a big appetite!

Cafes:

I failed at writing down or taking pictures of the cafes in Piombino. I was drinking about 3 cappuccinos a day, so I got to a point where I stopped taking note of every place I got a coffee! Luckily, the 4 cafes we stopped at all had great drinks and desserts, so I think it’s hard to go wrong in the area.

The beach:

October is not a popular time to go swimming. Actually, while we walked around in shorts and spent time at the beach, locals were dressed in their fall attire looking at us like we were crazy. We live in the mountains, so we had to take full advantage of the water. My advice, take a dip even if it’s not in season!

On our way out, we took the train, Trenitalia, back to Rome. It was about a 3-hour train ride and cost 18 Euros each. Prices vary and tickets can be purchased at a machine at the train station.

I highly recommend Piombino to anyone looking for a quiet and relaxing break from the crowds in Italy. If it wasn’t for my long list of places I had to see during our trip, I would have stayed in Piombino the entire time.

Next stop, the bustling city of Rome!

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)

Crater Lake National Park

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Wizard Island

When our time in Ashland ended, we made our way east to Crater Lake National Park. Prior to our visit, I did some research on the lake and found amazing photos of the park during summer. The crystal clear lake, awesome trails and beautiful flowers was an enviable sight, but I had to keep in the mind that our visit would not match the online photos. It was January and cold, so we braced ourselves for a less than ideal setting.

Here are some cool facts about Crater Lake:

  • Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed. Rain and snow filled the caldera and created the lake.
  • Crater Lake is 1,943 feet deep making it the deepest lake in the U.S. and the ninth deepest lake in the world.
  • Crater Lake is the snowiest inhabited place in the United States averaging about 44 feet of snow per year.
  • There are no streams in or out of the lake. The water is maintained by precipitation and evaporation which makes the water clear, blue and pristine.

We were slightly unprepared for camping in the park. The directions we found on freecampsites.net were unclear, so we stopped at Beckie’s Café right outside of the park and had dinner. Beckie’s, by the way, was a good find. The prices were cheap and they had veggie burgers! After Beckie’s, we saw a couple parking lots for sledding areas. There were other RV’s parked and one big rig although there were signs that said a permit was needed for parking. Since the place looked isolated, we figured it was okay to park for the night.

The next morning, we woke up to a few inches of snow covering the truck and trailer. We laughed at how snow is such a quiet intruder. We immediately headed to the park and the Visitor Center which is a good place to watch the orientation video and talk to a ranger about sights to see. Riley loved the orientation video and for a 5 year old, he came out of there with a pretty good understanding of how the lake was formed.

“The volcano goes BOOM and it all fell down to make a hole. The rain and the snow melted inside the hole and made the lake.” -Riley

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed out towards the gift shop located by the lake. We had a snack, purchased a sticker then walked around outside to take photos. For a few minutes, the clouds parted and we were able to get a clear view of the lake. We stood there in awe of how blue and pristine the water looked that we were no longer bothered by the cold air on our faces or the feeling of our boots sinking into the deep snow.

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Our time at Crater Lake felt like a gift. There was a part of me that was afraid of disappointment since the entire park was buried in powder, but we left feeling grateful for the experience. There was so much peace and silence as we looked over the lake; so much wonder and amazement as we walked through the deep snow. We felt like we had the whole place to ourselves and that can be a rare feeling at a National Park.

Until we meet again, Crater Lake. Next stop, Oregon Coast!

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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!!

Conundrum Hot Springs

Our very first hot springs experience was at Conundrum Hot Springs in Aspen. Conundrum Hot Springs is the highest elevation natural hot springs in North America sitting at an elevation of 11, 200 feet. The only way to access the hot springs is by hiking the 8.5 miles up through the Maroon Bells-Snow Mass Wilderness. With an elevation gain of about 2,700 feet over 8.5 miles, we figured what an amazing way to experience our first hot spring! A challenging hike paired with camping and relaxing hot water sounded like a dream.

We left Colorado Springs at 11:00 PM and started our 3 hour drive towards Aspen. As usual, we had no idea where we were spending the night. Our hope was to find a campground or a parking lot by a trailhead where we could park Bear (our teardrop trailer) and sleep. Around 1:30 we started to pass several campgrounds and decided to turn in to Lostman Campground in the White River National Forest. We saw a sign stating that a bear canister was required, but we weren’t planning on renting one until the next day. We pulled into a campsite and snuggled Riley in his sleeping bag while I gathered all of the food we had and did my best to hide it from any potential bears. In the pitch darkness with only one flashlight, I gathered the apples, cereal bars, apple sauce and granola, and tightly wrapped it inside a reusable grocery bag. While trying to fit the bag under the seat of the car, I decided to also throw in a little prayer and asked God for some protection. Since we came to the campground unprepared, I didn’t want us to be the reason our campground got a visit from some hungry/curious bears.

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Falling asleep was an easy task since both Clayton and I had work the day before. We must have had amazing sleep because as we struggled to wake up, we checked our phones to find that it was 8:45 in the morning. We slowly got up, changed our clothes, and packed our backpacks while Riley sat in the truck and ate a couple cereal bars. It was past 10 o’clock when we arrived in downtown Aspen and looked for a store to rent a bear canister from. We found Ute Mountaineer, rented the canister for $13, and headed towards the trailhead for the hot springs.

We left downtown, headed towards the mountains, and drove down the narrow Conundrum road. The parking lot at the trailhead was very small, so Clayton parked towards the end where the truck and Bear didn’t intrude on anyone else’s parking space. We carefully packed our bear canister with food, put on our backpacks, and headed towards the trail. This was the first time I carried around 20 pounds on my back. Typically, I rely on Clayton to carry everything while I carry a small bag with snacks and water. For this trip, I had to carry my own weight and once I put my pack on, I knew this was going to be the hardest 17 miles I’ve ever done.

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The first half of the hike started off pretty smooth. There were slight inclines here and there, then we’d reach a long stretch of flat ground in a valley filled with wildflowers. We crossed a couple bridges, crossed streams and creeks, and encountered a few animals. While we were walking through one valley, I looked to the side of the mountain and saw a black bear about 100 yards from us, lying in the grass. The only black bear experience we’ve ever had was a drive through Bearizona, so this was epic. I felt the bear was in a safe enough distance so I started yelling “bear, look it’s a bear!!” That’s when the bear perked up, looked in our direction, then started running the other way. I felt a little bad for ruining the bear’s relaxation, but boy, Riley was so excited to see him.

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As we continued on, we encountered a large boulder field that was a big pain in the ass to cross over. I found it difficult to maneuver around the rocks while carrying a large pack and holding the camera. I watched Riley cross over the boulders with no assistance and my anxiety began to rise as I pictured him falling between the rocks. As I yelled over to Riley reminding him to be careful, we looked up and saw 2 moose grazing in a field about 30 yards from us. They were amazing and so large, and they didn’t pay any attention to us. As we passed the moose, I stood on a log sitting in the creek we were attempting to cross, and tried to get a picture. I didn’t have much luck zooming in, but it was definitely exciting to see.

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Without any mile markers or signs, we started to wonder how much longer we had to go. Every person we passed had a different sense of how far they had travelled. We soon realized we couldn’t rely on the estimate of others, so we trekked on watching the hours pass and feeling like we were not making much progress. When we had about a mile to go (we didn’t know we were that close at the time), Riley started to give up. It got to a point where about every 10 minutes, he would force us to sit and he would lay on our laps and close his eyes. I welcomed the breaks since the weight on my back was starting to take a toll on me, but we nervously looked at our watches and realized we were racing daylight.

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Riley was frustrated with us because we refused to carry him. As much as I wanted to relieve my child of his tiredness, it was physically impossible for us to pick him up since I had 20 pounds on my back and Clayton was carrying over 40 pounds. We continued to empathize with Riley when suddenly Clayton slipped and fell on mud covered rocks which in turn scared Riley who was holding onto Clayton’s hand. Riley burst into tears and I announced to Clayton that we had to let our little guy rest. We consoled Riley and agreed on 15 more minutes. Wherever we were in 15 minutes, we would set up camp and find the hot springs in the morning. Luckily, as we approached 15 minutes, we saw the first tent. Hallelujah! Seven hours later, we reached the first camp site.

Taking off my backpack was the most glorious feeling. We set up the tent and while Clayton organized our camp area, Riley and I quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and snuggled while eating all the snacks within reach. It was getting late and it was still a half a mile to the hot springs. Part of me didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag, but the thought of sitting in the hot springs and relaxing my aching body sounded too good to pass up. After laying for about 30 minutes, we gathered our swim suits and headed towards the hot springs. When we arrived, we found the main pool was filled with several people, most of the folks were clearly under the influence (this is Colorado), but they didn’t bother us. Honestly, we’d rather we share the pool with a bunch of relaxed stoners than rowdy drunk people. We sat in the 100 degree pool and felt our muscles relax. I tried my best to hold in my laughter as I listened to several philosophical questions get passed around from person to person. One guy was seriously asking people if they liked the sun or the moon better, and the reasons for their choices.

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After about 30 minutes, we reluctantly got out of the hot springs. The mountain air was so cold so I dressed myself first then pulled Riley out of the water to dress him as fast as I could. We headed back to our campsite in the dark which turned out to be an adventure in itself. It pretty much consisted of crossing a high narrow bridge in pure darkness, crossing an incredibly muddy creek where we lost our footing and got foul smelling mud all over our feet, we then reached a really cold stream where I bent down to wash Clayton’s feet and ended up sitting in the cold water, getting my entire backside wet. Regardless of those mishaps, we were so tired, it didn’t matter. When we got back to the tent, we found that Riley’s camelback had leaked and one end of our sleeping bags were soaked. This then led to an entire night of sleeping with wet feet.

Since we didn’t have the best night sleep, we welcomed the morning with open arms and slowly got ready, ate breakfast, and packed up camp. We decided to have everything ready to go so that after another soak in the hot springs, we’d be set to start the 8.5 miles back to the car. When we arrived at the hot springs, we found only 4 people who had been there since early morning. After about half an hour of sharing the springs, we finally had the whole place to ourselves. The mountain views were just incredible and it was surreal to be sitting in hot water at tree line in the mountains. I told Clayton I never wanted to leave and Riley shared the same feelings. As expected, we had a little difficulty convincing Riley to get out of the water.

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He finally agreed to go, so we dressed him and headed back to our camping area where we left our backpacks. The hike back wasn’t as difficult and we definitely made better time. It helped that we were hiking mostly downhill, leaving behind that 2,700 ft gain. As we made our way back, Riley announced that he wanted pizza, so it was the thought of devouring pizza that helped keep up the pace. This time, there were no tears from Riley. He hiked back like a champ with only a few reminders that he was tired. When I saw the Aspen trees that surrounded the trailhead and parking lot, it was like I had just witnessed a miracle. I felt like I had been walking in the desert and finally found a well full of water. Seeing those cars was the most glorious site. I was walking in front of Clayton and Riley when I turned around and yelled “Thank God!” I just really wanted to take off my boots and eat pizza.

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We headed back to downtown Aspen, returned the bear canister, parked the truck and Bear, and walked to the nearest pizza place. We devoured a veggie pizza, and Riley was thrilled to get his pizza and sprite, just as he requested. We talked about our exhaustion, our tired feet, and how bruised our hips felt from our backpacks. That conversation then turned into “so what should we do next?” It’s in those moments that we realize, this is what we live for. Our lives revolve around taking the opportunity to experience God’s creation, challenging our bodies physically, and immersing ourselves in nature while enjoying each other’s company. This is what makes us feel alive and helps us appreciate what life is really about. And Riley… Riley if you ever read this when you grow up, you are absolutely amazing. There was not one other kid on that trail, and even when you wanted to quit, you kept going. We are so proud of you, bubs. Sometimes I look at your little legs and wonder how you do it. You are truly an inspiration and I hope others recognize that too.

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