Hey there adventurers! The sidekick and I are off again – this time to the Virgin Islands! We are spending two days in St. John, one day in St. Thomas, and an evening in San Juan, P.R. The weather looks great! I managed to snag a vehicle at the very last minute, just this morning and it looks like a cool trip is ahead of us! I/we had to make some adjustments to plans for the rest of the year and you can check the out new schedule in the “where to next” section! I’ll try to have the post for this trip a little quicker than my last one! :). Do cool shit, everyone!
Pinnacles National Park and Bay Area, CA. Feb 2023
National Park Count: 32
NPS Unit Count: 55
Hey there fellow Adventurers! It has been 9 months since I have logged a new National Park! I was able to pull another “Ben Special” National Park visit in February. I am calling the short “go go go” trip in a ridiculously short amount of time, with very little sleep, a “Ben Special!” This time I found myself exploring remote central California: Pinnacles National Park.
First, the Pinnacles facts! This park was named a National Park in 2013, so it is relatively new. However, it was a National Monument for 100 years prior. It is also pretty small and has a fairly low number of annual visitors. Pre-pandemic the yearly visitor count was under 200,000! As such, the park has fairly limited facilities. This is NOT a free park and at a 30 dollar entrance fee (for a week, at least!), this is one of the more expensive parks! It is also very remote, so plan accordingly for lodging, if staying overnight. The park is named after the part of the rock formations left over from the erosion of a long extinct volcano that used to be much further south than it is now. The San Andreas Fault runs through here and has drug this part of that extinct volcano hundreds of miles along with it. This park is also a huge draw for rock climbers, more so than anything else it seems! The park “drive,” if you will, is very short and also does not go through the park: This is a hiking park! There is a second side that also offers some must sees. It is an hour and a half drive around the south end of the area and back up. Alternatively, one can hike to the other side as well. One other awesome thing about this park is that it was part of the condor reintroduction plan many years back. There are something like 500 California condors now, and 300 of them live here, part time!
I spent a full day on the more popular east side of the park. This side provides the more convenient access to the campground and store, plus the easiest access to three of the more notable features of the park. The day began with stopping at the visitor center to get some good info. This is always a good first stop! I got my stamp and visited the camp store and then off to my first (and only) hike of the day! The trail system in Pinnacles is very easy to follow and if you are on a trail somewhere, you can literally get to any other trail in the system. I started my hike from the parking lot at the East Side Visitor Center. This visitor center was closed, I presume due to some of the bad storms that rolled through central California a month or so earlier, and flooded this area.
The trail I took made a nice long loop hitting some of the big highlights on this side of the park. All Trails refers to the entire hike as The Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail Loop and rates it hard at 5.5 miles with 1630 feet of elevation gain. The start of this hike is the Condor Gulch trail which then meets up with High Peaks Trail. This section of trail is pretty mundane, but scenic, and pretty empty. The noteworthy part of this hike was watching the condors flying overhead!
One and three quarter miles, and 1500 feet of elevation gain later, I ran into the High Peaks trail. Here begins the long part of the trail that leads to the big sights! The next mile or so took me through the “Pinnacles” part of the park, the leftovers of the old lava fields produced millions of years ago. This part of the trail is some up and down, so there is only about 200 feet of total elevation gain…but part of this section is pretty intense! This is where you find the “Steep and Narrow” section of the trail, and the name is well deserved! This section is basically climbing straight up and down. The park has chiseled out footholds up the cliffs and installed a metal rail to grab ahold of. Once you clear one section of this, there is a section where a 6 foot person has to stoop way over to fit under an overhanging cliff, and then there is more! In only 500 or so feet you ascend nearly 200 feet! Once you get to the highest spot, then you have to reverse this going down with the same process of footholds and rails.
The next junction was 1.7 miles later at a downward descent the whole way. From here the next trail, called the Rim Trail, heads toward the Bear Gulch Reservoir. This section is about half a mile. The reservoir is the only body of water seen during the hike, and was a welcome change of scenery. At this point though there are options. One is to go back to the previous junction and continue to the end. The other is to take a rock staircase down the to the bottom of the dry side of the reservoir dam. This section leads into the Bear Gulch Cave. The caves here are talus caves. That is, they were formed by boulders falling into cracks and leaving passageways beneath. The caves are home to bats and are sometimes closed for their protection. The caves are also sometime closed due to flooding. I was able to enter this cave, climb through using a flashlight, and come out on the Moses Spring Trail which then reconnects to the High Peaks trail at a different spot. This then connects to a nice pedestrian trail that leads back to the parking lot. All Trails says this hike is 5.5 miles, however, my app clocked it at 6.5 miles and 3.5 hours of hiking time. I am not entirely sure if either of those are accurate, but there it is!
The drawback to this park is definitely its size. After my hike it was only about 4 or 4.30 and I was not interesting in any more hiking since I had already done the “big one.” The park road here is just a short drive, and there is nothing, and I do mean, NOTHING, anywhere close to this side of the park. The nearest place to get food/drink/gas was about an hour away and I was in no mood for a 2 hour round trip, so I just saddled up to my campsite and got myself prepared for the night. A cool campground find though: apparently the resident turkey vulture population likes to roost in the trees in the campground!
The next morning I headed out nice and early to the west side of the park. This was an hour and a half drive around the bottom of the park and back up to the other side. This area is still a pretty remote part of California, but at least there were some signs of civilization! It should be noted that while the east side of the park has 24 hour access, the west side has a gate that doesn’t open until 7:30 AM and closes at 8 PM. I arrived just about at opening time.
The first hike I did was the hike behind the visitor center, the Prewett Point Trail, an easy, paved, 1 mile hike that travels through an area that used to be a pioneer homestead in the late 1800s. There is not much there now, but some really good views of the Pinnacles. As an aside, this trail connects with another trail called Jawbone, which itself connects to the trails in the middle of the park that joins the two sides together. This trail is a very polite and accessible for anyone type of trail. Also, though I didn’t mention this before, this park is a big wildflower park, but I was there a little too early for that. However, this trail did afford some very small wildflower glimpses along with some different plants not found in the east side.
The main draw here in this section is a trail for arguably the most well-known feature in Pinnacles, the Balconies Trail, which includes the Balconies Cave. This is a moderate rated trail, about two and a half miles and does feature a lot of up and down. The trail is about half a mile until it meets a loop. At this point one can go directly to the Balconies talus cave, which is only a few minutes away, and then come out and do the long stretch of the loop back, or one can do it opposite. The rangers I spoke with strongly suggested the opposite route with the cave toward the end. There are a couple good reasons for this! Number 1: This cave is pitch black, involves climbing in the dark, and is generally a lot trickier than the Bear Gulch Cave, it was also partially filled with VERY COLD water, and doing it at the end means only a half mile cold and wet hike back to the parking lot. Number 2: as I told myself, doing it at the end forced me to not back out! The hike is generally pleasant with some nice views of this large rock formation that is the namesake of the trail, and also another rock formation called Machete Ridge. Machete Ridge is where the cave formed, while the Balconies offer condor watching and also rock climbing opportunities. Upon coming around the back side of the trail I approached the cave. The dark gaping hole in the rock did not look especially inviting! I had a flashlight on my hat, and I had put on sandals since I didn’t want my hiking boots to soak. I ran into a guy exiting the cave but he was actually turned around due to not having a proper light. Good start. The water was FRIGID on my bare feet, and yes, it was pitch black inside! It also was not a simple flat walk through the cave either. There is some wiggling through rocks and a lot of climbing up rock ledges to get out. And then, once exiting back out to the light, you find out that the reprieve from the darkness is short lived as there is another section of cave. Generally, other than right at the entrance, I was able to avoid most of the cold water. But, once leaving this second section though, walking through 2 feet of water was unavoidable and my feet quickly were half frozen! But, soon enough I was out to dry a bit, warm up, and have a snack! Just a bit later I was back at the car and headed out of the park. This trail was not hard at all, and actually quite pleasant. The cave on the other hand, although only like a tenth of a mile….well, that thing is almost a tap out, and I might have done that had I not went the long way around, and I am glad I forced myself to do it!
After departing Pinnacles I had my eyes set on a nice glass of wine! There is a winery just on the doorstep of the National Park’s western entrance: Chalone Vineyard. I highly recommend – the wine was great, and the views are pretty awesome too! And, when I said it was on the doorstep of the Park’s entrance, that is literally true – just about a mile away! From there it was on to Monterrey. I had spied a spot on the coast I wanted to check out. Unfortunately, the weather turned rotten, so the situation wasn’t ideal. Soon after, I began the trip back to San Francisco.
I only had a couple hours the following morning, but I still had some adventuring to do! I quite literally stumbled on Ft. Funston, on the western coast of the Bay Area. This is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area! So, another NPS unit checked off! There is no visitor center here, and really it’s just some sandy hiking along the cliffs dropping off to the ocean. It’s a VERY dog friendly and popular. at least when I was there!
After strolling a bit through the Ft. Funston area, I started making my way back to the airport, but with a stop at San Bruno Mountain State Park. This is a really nifty little urban park! There are several miles of trails up this mountain. I did not have much time, but I did get in about a mile or so on the Eucalyptus Loop Trail which gives some awesome views of downtown San Francisco! There was very little fog so I had pretty good views! Then, it was off to the airport and this trip was finished!
Overall Impressions: I think this is an awesome gem of a place for people living in Central California! It is much more remote than I expected which was good (few people) and not so good (nothing to do outside the main area of the park when finished with the daily adventuring). The hiking was great and the couple cool spots are really pretty unique and iconic! If you are into rock climbing, I am sure that’s great as well. Getting a chance to view condors in the wild is also a super plus! Unfortunately, if that’s not enough, or not what you are looking for, you might be disappointed. Even the park drive(s) are short, so if you are the “drive through park-goer” it will be underwhelming for the amount of time to get there and do both sides.
The Adventurer’s Rating: 4 Stars!
Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, Mexico. January, 2023
¡Hola compañeros aventureros! ¡Bienvenidos a mi primer viaje de 2023! (Welcome to my first trip of 2023!) This was the sidekick’s trip, so I guess that makes me the sidekick on this one! The trip was a volleyball vacation trip organized by South of the Border Volleyball Vacations.
Ixtapa is small resort town very close to the larger town of Zihuatanejo, located on the Southwest Pacific coast of Mexico. Ixtapa and Cancun were the two first government planned tourist resorts that sprung up on Mexican beaches beginning in the late 1960s. To access Ixtapa one must catch a flight to the Zihuatanejo airport. From the US the options are limited and some are seasonal. It appeared during this trip that the options were Alaska Airlines out of L.A. and United out of Houston. The flight from Houston took about 2.5 hours and takes you over some very remote parts of the country. Upon arriving in Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa is about a 20 minute cab ride up the coast. The pin on the screenshot below shows the location of Ixtapa.
Zihuatanejo looks pretty much like the stereotypical Mexican town: poor quality roads, questionable infrastructure, and very shoddy looking buildings in various stages of “ongoing construction” (apparently this is a tax getaround?). As you approach Ixtapa the road goes up a hill and on the downslope you can see the gorgeous area that houses Ixtapa open up in front. Ixtapa itself is the jewel of the area, and yet, is still very dated. Compared to Zihuatanejo, it seems first world. However, as we found out later on, Ixtapa is somewhat of a failed U.S. tourist town. Earlier, I mentioned that Ixtapa, along with Cancun, was the first of many government planned beach resort towns in Mexico. These were planned with American tourism and American dollars in mind. Ixtapa is pretty far off the beaten path. The flights there are very few and only a few carriers offer year round service, with a few more offering seasonal service. Add to the fact that it is very easy to get to other resort towns (Cancun and Cozumel for example) and Ixtapa has transformed into more of a Mexican national’s vacation spot. What was planned to bring in hundreds of dollars per day now cannot because the Mexican tourists simply cannot afford that. Also, while there were certainly plenty of employees who speak English pretty well, I would say about half of the staff speaks very little English, so this was definitely a spot where you should brush up on your Spanish!
The resort we stayed in, Park Royal, is pretty bare. The room had a slow toilet that didn’t always work properly. There was neither fridge nor microwave. Outlets were sparse. The resort was all inclusive for food and drinks (yay!) but honestly, the food was mainly buffet style and not great. The resort is right on the beach and does have a dance bar, a big pool, including a swim-up bar, and the rooms have pretty killer views of the beach! That being said…the normal rate for this place is over $200 US per night…so it’s pretty pricey for lower quality amenities.
The environment here is pretty stunning. Huge blue waves crashes incessantly on the shore. They were large enough that it was the best decision to just walk into the wash up. The sand here is super clean with no trash to be found anywhere. In the near distance are these very distinctive rock islands. I would have loved the opportunity to explore those a bit but there was a noticeable lack of boating out on the water, other than some parasailing outfits, so I am not even sure if that is an offering.
We went into Zihuatanejo one day for a very fun boating excursion. A group of about 100 of us loaded up onto an all you could eat and drink catamaran to depart the bay in Zihuatanejo and head a few miles down the coast for some nice Pacific Ocean snorkeling. The water was super clear and a very comfortable temperature. We wrapped up at a local beach restaurant called La Perla with some very tasty Mexican food!
The reason for the trip was volleyball, and ball was awesome to watch and participate in! I did not do a lot of playing, although I did get in a clinic game with pro players Geena Urango and Kelly Reeves! Good times and good learning opportunity! Other pros there included Billy Allen (super nice and cool guy!), Ty Tramblie, and Andy Benesh, among others. It was pretty cool being able to interact, chat, and party with these amazing ball players!
It was a short trip for me, just a Saturday through Tuesday excursion, (the sidekick did a full week) but a super fun trip. I am not sure I would go back to Ixtapa again, other than for another one of these volleyball vacations, but it was super great experience for my first every trip to a place where English was not the language!
Overall Impressions: The Ixtapa beach is beautiful and well worth a visit! The accommodations are a bit dated despite being expensive. It is also bit pricey to get here and flights potentially require some schedule finagling. One knock is that there did not seem to be a large variety of activities. At least none that were easily accessible, or available. But if hanging on a really pretty beach and relaxing for several days is your thing, Ixtapa accomplishes that!
The Adventurer’s Rating: 4 Stars!
2022 Wrap Up Part 2!
Hey there Adventurers! Before I get into my favorite pictures from my travels this year, I need to make a slight addendum to my planned trips in part 1…somehow I missed a huge one! The sidekick and I are prepared to hit Patagonia! This will be a late year trip (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) and literally nothing has been planned yet, but stay tuned! Now here are my favorite pictures, in trip order, from 2023!
Maui, HI, Feb:
Spring Break, March, Cedar Key, FL.
Summer Bark Ranger Roadtrip, June.
And that is a wrap for 2022 adventures! See you all in 2023!
2022 Wrap Up Part 1! (Pinnacles National Park on tap!)
Hey Adventurers! This year really blew by! I feel like I wrote this same post not that long ago, but it was 11 months ago! This part 1 is just to share a new booking and provide a look at 2023 as I see it right now! Part 2 will be the rundown of my favorite moments and pictures from 2022!
I remembered a few days ago that I had a nice 150 dollar credit on my Alaska Airlines account expiring the first week of June. I also had 100 dollars in credit on my Southwest account so I got to brainstorming where I could go with only missing one day of work – no small challenge considering all the national parks left are out west or the couple logistically difficult ones in the upper midwest. Eventually I landed on a Thursday evening Southwest flight in February, getting into San Francisco before midnight to drive 2 hours in the morning to Pinnacles National Park. I will visit all day Friday and nearly all day Saturday before returning to San Fran for a beautiful 10 AM direct flight back to Tampa via Alaska Airlines. The out of pocket for the flights was only 100 bucks (and mostly because I upgraded the Alaska flight a bit!) and the rest of the trip looks on the cheaperish side! This is an Adventurer speciality, one of those ridiculously far away, but fast trips! If anyone has tips for Pinnacles drop them in the comments, or some general San Fran tips! I will probably arrange to be in San Fran 7 or 8 ish on a Saturday night, so give them to me!
So what is in store for 2023!? I am accompanying the Sidekick to Ixtapa, Mexico for a Volleyball Vacation in January. This is an exciting trip because it will be justmy second time out of the country ( I do not count a previous Niagara Falls, Canadian side, or a cruise ship stop in the Bahamas)! The Sidekick is a volleyball fanatic and she loves this kind of stuff! I drag her to enough outdoor hiking stuff that it will be nice to accompany her to something she really loves! Only 2 weeks later will be the Pinnacles trip. Next up the Sidekick and I are headed off to the Virgin Islands to check out St. Thomas, St. John, and the Virgin Islands National Park! That national park will officially be the last one of the eastern side of the US, unless you count the one hanging out in Lake Superior and the one in Northern Minnesota. This one is the middle of March. The 4th trip is not technically booked yet, but is imminent! The sidekick and I are looking at a “June in Juneau” trip! We are looking at a week or so. There is a national park in the vicinity, Glacier Bay…I always thought that would be the one I would have to cruise to, but there are ferry options out of Juneau. Whether there is time or not? I don’t know!
And in huge travel news! I was successful canceling my Southwest personal credit card and being re-approved for a new one with the huge SUB. I have to also do this with my business card, but there are not issues there and no rush either as of course, the first half of 2023 are already busy! But look out for some more great travel coming courtesy of Chase and Southwest! The Sidekick and I are already discussing a Pacific Northwest adventure in early July! Stay tuned!
And, lastly, the Bark Ranger facebook page has really taken off and is now well on its way to 1100 members! We are looking at some great ideas and expansion of the group in the near future! If you love dogs, and want to know where they can go and where to participate in a Bark Ranger program you should definitely join! https://www.facebook.com/groups/1110565603061011.
Look for Part 2 soon with my best/favorite pictures of the year!
Amazing Southwest Airlines CC Offer PSA!
PSA fellow Adventurers! RIGHT NOW you can get a Southwest Airlines Companion pass very easily, provided you meet the appropriate financial requirements and have means to show at least a small side business! This is probably, by orders of magnitude, the absolute best sign on bonus of any credit card around! I did this in 2020 and was able to take a massive amount of my trips utilizing this perk!
So, what is it, exactly? The companion pass offered by Southwest is pretty much the holy grail of domestic (and Caribbean and Latin American) travel! Once you have it, in essence every flight you book is a BoGo. BUT, you don’t even have to pay anything other than the $11.20 in fees and taxes! Couple it with the massive amount of sign up points you get, and you have a massive twofer perk that is good for the remainder of the year you earn it AND THE ENTIRE FOLLOWING YEAR. Because Southwest allows you to take your companion on a flight booked with points, this is an unparalleled perk! Other airlines that have a companion fare (usually only one fare per year) require a revenue (paid with dollars) flight to book the companion. In essence you and a companion can fly free (minus 11.20 per person round trip in 9/11 fees) for between 12 and 24 months to any destination Southwest services, until your points run up, and there are no blackout dates!
How to do it? First of all, an important note. If you are the type to spend and not pay your statement entirely on a monthly basis, this is probably not for you. Secondly, you will need to apply for two cards, a Chase southwest personal card and a business card:
There are a few variations of both cards. The ones I have shown are the lowest annual fee varieties. With the exception of a few perks, the other variations are pretty similar with slightly better perks that cost you about double on the annual fees. The other business card does, however, come with 80k bonus points but it’s not worth it to me. The credit card point requirement to get a companion pass is 135k points. It used to be 125 but they are actually giving their credit card holders an additional 10k companion pass points (cannot be used for flights) to make up the difference, but between these two cards, after meeting those spending bonuses you would have, at a minimum, 141,000 points! If you do not have any type of business income, I understand that people can still get it but I am cannot be sure of that. I would apply for the business card first in that event to see what shakes out!
Timing for hitting the bonus is extremely important. It is now November. You would not want to hit that sign up bonus until after your first statement in 2023. Most all of your earned points are Rapid Rewards points (good for booking flights) and ALSO companion earning points. However, the companion total resets every Jan. This means that while your RR points DO NOT expire for travel, they DO expire for use toward a companion pass every January 1st. If you hit your bonuses on your statement in December, you will still have a companion pass, but only for the few remaining days in December and all of next year, versus hitting it in January and having it for 23 months plus! Big difference!
Is it worth it – what do all those points really equate to in real life? For 160 dollars of annual fees, ABSOLUTELY. The valuation of Southwest Rapid Rewards Points is variable, unfortunately, which means that how much you get out of those 141,000 points depends on the fair type you select and which flight you actually pick. I cannot tell you exactly how many flights, or what their total cost would have been, in relation to the sign on bonuses I earned in 2020 as I continued using the cards for everyday spending and adding to my points every month. For the record the amount of points I redeemed for travel totalled just around 220K. Of that about 140k were the initial signup bonus, 18k were from the anniversary points for 2 anniversaries, and at least and here are the list of places that I went to entirely for free:
Virgin Islands National Park via San Juan, PR (one leg, upcoming)
Nashville (one leg)
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks via Salt Lake City (companion expired)
Maui and Haleakala National Park (companion expired)
Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, and Guadalupe National Parks via El Paso
Acadia National Park via Portland, ME (with companion)
Chicago (with Companion)
New River Gorge National Park via Cincinnati (with companion)
Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks via Bozeman, MT (with companion)
Cuyahoga Valley National Park via Cleveland (solo)
Petrified Forest and Saguaro National Parks via Pheonix (with companion)
Zion National Park via Las Vegas (with companion)
Shenandoah National Park via Baltimore (with companion)
Rocky Mountain National Park via Denver (with companion)
The long and short is that I spent only a few hundred bucks on all of those flights for me and the Sidekick. Points wise, I spent in the neighborhood of 220,000. 140,000 or so came from the sign up bonus, another 20,000 or so came from anniversary points, and a large chunk also came from multiplier offers they frequently advertise. And, just an fyi…you can get these bonuses again, as long as it’s been 24 months since the last time you got it! Sooooo…. I recently canceled my personal card and will be reapplying soon! My credit is great and I meet all requirements. Assuming I am approved again, I will shortly thereafter my canceling the business card and redoing that one as well! If all goes well, I will have another great Southwest Airlines travel spree awaiting me!
Alaska: Fairbanks and Denali National Park. Sept, 2022. Part II.
Hey there Adventurers! This is part two of my recent trip to Alaska! In part one I recount the beginnings of the trip in Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs, and provided some general FYI of traveling throughout the interior of Alaska.
Now, it was off to Denali! This makes my second visit to this park, and it joins The Everglades, and Rocky Mountain, as big parks I have made a return visit. Denali is one of those ginormous parks that is vast, totally undeveloped, and mostly wilderness. There is one road through the park and private vehicles are only able to access about 13 miles of it at any given time. Buses will take a person the full 90 or so mile length of the road, most of which is unpaved and is spectacular! At least they used to. Unfortunately, the road features a spectacular vista which crosses a continual landslide that as of a year or two ago has now become unpassable. There actually is a lodge and resort at the end of that road, but you must fly in now to get there. Anyway, I came in and wanted to first check out the Denali sled dog kennels that I missed my first time there! After stopping at the Visitor Center for the requisite stamp entry into my passport book, it was off to see the dogs!
The kennels were certainly a neat experience! It is very educational, you can meet the dogs, and there is a live demo of the pups. These dogs are a very vital and iconic part of life in Alaska, and have been for thousands of years. In fact, in Denali, law requires that travel through the wilderness of the park must be done with sled dogs in the winter! They are working dogs for sure, and then after about 7 or 8 years, they are retired and adopted! Heads up, if you are a passport stamp collector, there is a specific kennel stamp there as well!
After the kennels it was back to the cabin to get settled in. Shout out to Lynx Pizza, a delicious pizza by the slice joint that I stopped at briefly before heading back to the cabin. Dinner that evening was back in the Denali canyon area, the touristy spot, mostly operated by Aramark and Princess Cruises. The spot selected was a restaurant called Moose-AKa’s. The name is a play on the eastern european dish, moussaka. This restaurant is absolutely delicious and is actually listed as one of the top restaurants not only in the US but worldwide! Afterward, it was back into the park to get a preview of the next day’s hike, some more pictures, and a bull moose sighting! On the way back to the cabin I stopped at the brewery and then it was time to sleep a bit. But I was waking up often to try and catch a glimpse of the aurora and for a brief minute or two I did see something that looked weird and then was definitely the aurora! It was very brief, but SUCCESS!
The Savage Alpine Trail is one of the best rated trails in Denali and was on the list of many things to do in Denali on my first trip, but didn’t happen. The next morning I set out to do this one. The trail is rated hard, 4 miles point to point, and has about a 1500 feet elevation gain. One end of the trail is at the Savage River and this spot is very steep and rocky traversing through the tundra. This is also the spot that is the farthest a private vehicle can drive into the park and there is a small parking lot there. The other end is more gradual, goes through the forest, and also has a parking lot. All trails reviewers suggest doing the steep part at the end and bussing back to the car…I totally disagree with that strategy. This is a difficult trail. That steeper “half” is about 1500 feet of elevation gain in 1.5 miles and the section a half mile to the parking lot is about 700 feet of it! The thought of doing that going down is not cool to me, so I would suggest knocking that out right away, then it’s another mile to so up another 7 or 800 feet, then a gradual descent for 2 miles. This is a very exposed trail, easy to follow, but exposed and very windy. If the weather is clear you can get spectacular views of the beautiful Alaskan Range, including Denali from about 40 miles or so away. If it’s not, you get killer views of the surrounding valley, and you hope for peeks, like I got, of Denali. After finishing the trail it was back to the Denali Village area for lunch and then back for a needed nap!
Later that evening I found a sweet Thai food truck, and then spent some time hanging with the pal living up the road from my cabin! Like the previous night, I was on northern lights watch. When I got out of the vehicle and started looking up into the sky, mother nature definitely started giving a show! The lights are awesome to experience! Protip: I am not entirely sure why, but locals had mentioned this as well, taking a video of the lights does not work, but taking a picture, or even just watching them through the camera, makes them look awesome!
The next day, Thursday, was the rainy day. As such, I made that the day to drive down to Talkeetna, for a return visit! A little outside of town is where you can find the Denali Brewing Company, home of some damn fine beer and some awesome pizza (at this location!) I stopped downtown for a bit to stroll and walk down memory lane, so to speak. The weather was pretty terrible which was a shame because Talkeetna is a very pretty town with some good walking stops, and if the weather is good, some killer views of Denali. But, such was the way it was! There is another Denali Brewing location in the town proper. I highly suggest making a stop at both locations! The in town tasting room had a totally different menu that was pretty damn killer. Protip: the vegan nachos are to die for (and I am a meat eater!) I left Talkeetna and headed further south. I had planned to go up a mountain/mining road, the same road that I had traveled earlier this year and was stopped by a snow covered closed area through the pass…this time I came at it from the other side and actually did drive to the top of the pass.
The top of the pass is like the rest, pretty and covered in that fiery red and yellow tundra. There is an active gold mining operation going on near the end of the pass and on the other side of the pass is the old historic mine that was the end of my earlier trip. If you are ever driving this road, do not let anyone spook you! It is dirt, and has some big holes…but I drove this thing even in slight drizzle at this point, and it was totally fine. I understand the rental agencies prohibit it, but my Turo host was fine with it. Since it’s not gravel, it was actually just fine to drive, by me! There are a handful of switchbacks, but nothing crazy, and not a whole lot of steep grades either. Make sure you are mindful of what happens if you have car problems though. I think I saw two other cars driving the road, and of course, no cell signal! The road was already closed for the season the week after I did this drive!
This next part is probably not interesting unless you are really thinking of visiting and driving in Alaska. By the time I started driving back on the Parks Highway I was anticipating getting back to Healy right around sunset. This road is downright treacherous in not ideal weather conditions. The grooves on the road from all the traffic mean that the water literally pools without running off, just about the entire length of the road. Hydroplaning was a concern (and a bit of a reality) almost the entire drive! To make matters worse, because of the overcast skies, and also these 6 and 7000 foot mountains towering along the road, it started getting dark far earlier that I anticipated. The last 30 minutes or so of this drive was not an experience I ever want to repeat. The only vehicles on the road were me and the semi trucks, often pulling two trailers, flying toward me. Trying to navigate the wet road is one thing, doing it while these massive trucks are hurtling toward you is another, and doing it when you can barely even see the road, or the lines, is an entirely unpleasant experience! There are no reflectors on this road. There are no lights of any kind. And it is DARK. In a nutshell, do not drive this road in the dark! The locals don’t even like doing it! I will note that I *almost* saw Denali. There is also a state park called Denali State Park that I drove into and for a fleeting moment the weather was starting to allow some views into the Alaska Range and Denali was teasing! Then the weather and the light got in the way again!
So that pretty much wraps things up! The next morning, Friday, I started back toward Fairbanks for the early Saturday 2 AM flight. I did make a stop at Latitude 65 Brewery. It is delicious beer and a really neat spot. And I also stopped at a highly regarded restaurant called the Pump House. It is an old western saloon style place set in an historic pump house on the Chena River. If in Fairbanks, I highly recommend both!
And that is a wrap! At the time of this post, this is looking like my last trip of the year (we’ll see!). I am really thankful for the opportunities that have come to me for sure! About this time last year I was fully anticipating two trips to Alaska and nothing more. What I really got was those two trips, plus a Maui trip, and a Utah trip! It was an awesome travel year for sure, and there might still be at least something else to two coming as well! Stay tuned!
Overall Impressions: Pros: It’s Alaska. Denali in the fall colors was spectacular. Fairbanks had some nice spots for sure and Chena Hot Springs is definitely a must do if you are up there. Seeing the Northern Lights was amazing and I cannot wait to see them again! Cons: None that are worth elaborating on: Far away, expensive, and weather. Noticeable? Yes. A detractor? Not for me!
The Adventurer Final Word:
Alaska: Fairbanks and Denali National Park. Sept, 2022. Part I.
Hey Adventurers! I am recently back from my fall Alaskan adventure! Departing from my new norm of separating National Park visits into their own post(s), this will be a singular post (in two parts, evidently.)
So this trip was actually booked at about the same time as my late May/early June trip, roughly Feb/March, so definitely a trip that was on my radar from a long time! The goal of this trip was 5 days to see the Alaskan fall foliage and tundra color changes, the Northern Lights, and hike one particular trail in Denali National Park (hopefully seeing Denali!) that I did not get to do 5 years ago! Before I get into the nitty gritty, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
Now for the details! The flight pattern inbound was Tampa to Seattle to Fairbanks. I got another great shot of Mt. Rainier coming in! The flight was in the afternoon and we got to Fairbanks at around 1 AM. The airport in Fairbanks is small but actually pretty nice for the size. Getting a cab was difficult…yes, I know, the time, but this is a pretty busy airport at all times, so it was a bit surprising. Anyway, soon I was catching some zzzs in the airbnb, Turo vehicle at my disposal for the morning!
Fairbanks is a HUGE city in Alaska. As in, second largest in the state, has a major highway, has all the stores one would need, and has a healthy running water system (haha). That being said my neighborhood is about a third of the entire Fairbanks population of about 30,000 people! So anyway, after waking and stocking up on delicious Alaskan beer and quick visit to Downtown Fairbanks, it was off to the North Pole! That’s North Pole, Alaska, the town, mind you…about 15 minutes down the road from Fairbanks. I stopped at a kitschy Christmas store (because, of course?) and then afterward it was off to Chena Hot Springs!
I want to make a quick note right now about the spectacular color of Alaska this time of the year! The tundra was a fiery red and the trees a brilliant golden color. Every place I saw looked amazing! I think the week I was there was the perfect week for the colors! It seemed that Tuesday was prettier than Monday, Wednesday was prettier than Tuesday, Thursday was a wash, and Friday was not as pretty as Wednesday was. I feel like the peak happened while I was there, I might be wrong, but it was beautiful in any event! Most of the pictures are going to display the awesome colors but they may appear muted as it was pretty cloudy every time I took a picture!
Chena Hot Springs is about 70 miles outside of Fairbanks and marks the furthest north I have ever been. At a little north of 65 degrees latitude, the arctic circle is only a couple dozen miles north! (But this is the end of the road here, so getting to the arctic is more time consuming and requires a lot more travel!) This spot is a very different and definitely old school Alaskan spot that features…a hot spring! They also have a resort, an Ice Museum, a bar/restaurant, and sundry other touristy things to do. The Ice Museum is definitely a spot to check out if there. It is 30 bucks a person which includes a drink at the Aurora Bar inside and the use of a parka. The drink is no good, but it comes in a martini glass made of ice, which you can smash outside! Now, for the main draw: the hot spring itself! It is entirely natural and was found about a hundred years ago when the area was wilderness and some guys noticed the steam rising in the distance and eventually found it. The pool is not overly large but it is hot (some spots, very hot), and is quite relaxing. There is a pretty strong sulphur smell if that bothers you. Do not expect cell signal here, although there is wireless inside the buildings. The whole area is nestled in some small mountains and is quite beautiful, especially with the colors this time of year.
On the way home, I stopped at a pizza joint, The Hungry Robot, and got a …pickle pizza…It was interesting and different. I have never heard of a pickle pizza so I make mention of it for that reason…if you ever stop by you can make judgement for yourself! The next morning was checkout of the Airbnb and the drive to the Denali area!
At this point we need a reminder on the sheer size of the state of Alaska, and the remoteness. My trip earlier this year was focused on the Kenai Peninsula area and the remote area to the west of Anchorage. To drive from Seward (where I stayed two nights in June) to Fairbanks takes about 9 hours without stopping! Also bear (ha!) in mind that is a pretty small area of the state as well! The drive from Fairbanks to Denali is desolate, though quite pretty and peaceful (at least during the day), but you aren’t going to find many options for stopping for any reason other than the occasional pretty spot for a picture! This road is called the George Parks Highway and is only about 50 years old. It is the only road running directly north/south between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The road is one lane each direction, paved but in constant need of repair, has no reflectors, has faint stripes, and of course has no lighting of any sort. Road signs are very, very infrequent. Before this road one would have to take a route that is not as convenient. To be certain, about 55 miles south of Fairbanks is the town of Nenana (population 482), a little further down is Clear, AK (population 61), and Anderson (population 177). That’s it until Healy. A little outside of Fairbanks, though, there is the wonderful not safe for work tourist spot called Skinny Dicks. A stop there ensured a morning (ahem) beer at the bar and a fun shirt and conversation with the owner!
I had an AirBnb set up in Healy (population nearly 1100!). Healy is notable for being the concessionaire employee town that is close to Denali national park. There is a grocery store! Of note, the grocery store has one of the few gas stations you will find along that entire stretch of the Parks Highway, also has a hardware store, a convenience store, a sporting goods store, and a liquor store – all under one roof, it’s a veritable Alaskan mall! The town is also home to a very delicious Alaskan brewery called 49th State Brewery. (The website intro is worth the visit if you want to see some pretty Alaskan stuff!) You may remember from my earlier trip that I visited their location in Anchorage. That’s pretty much it for Healy, and my cabin was off the Parks Highway a few miles (paved), down another rocky road a few miles, then down another rocky road another mile, was dry, with a port-a-john and outdoor open air shower, and unbeknownst to me was on the same road as someone I knew! How neat! More on that later, and be sure to continue on to part 2 where I return to Denali and do some more cool shit!
2023: Off to a Tropical Start!
Hey there Adventurers! I am still working on the recount of my latest Alaskan adventure! That one should be up in the next few days (hopefully)! In the meantime here are some updates!
Our Bark Ranger page is taking off! We have over 800 dog and national park loving members at this time! If you want to check it out please visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/1110565603061011/ and join!
Now for travel stuff! In a rare change of pace (being from Florida and all), the sidekick and I have booked two trips south and (further) into the tropics! In January she is doing a volleyball tournament in Ixtapa, Mexico and I am tagging a long for a few days! This will be my first visit to our southern neighbor. And in March, we are headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands, specifically St. Thomas and St. John/Virgin Islands National Park. Looking like a couple days in the V.I. and one day in San Juan! If you have any suggestions drop them in the comments!
By the time March comes around it will be 6 months between National Park visits, and 9 months between new park visits….so stay tuned for something between now and March!
ALASKA BOUND (AGAIN)!
Hey there Adventurers! I am super excited to be getting on a plane to Fairbanks, AK here in a few hours! The flight path is Tampa to Seattle (6 hours and change) and the Seattle to Fairbanks (3 hours and change). With a 1 am arrival.
This trip is a very unstructured one with the goal to be seeing the northern lights (the forecast for both lights and weather looks pretty great!) and hiking a great trail in Denali national park (and praying to see the mountain!) but here is the framework and things on the list to think about or do! Monday is all day in the Fairbanks area. Stops to include North Pole and Chena Hot Springs. Tuesday, depending on other things to do in Fairbanks, will entail driving to the airbnb in the wilderness outside of Healy, AK. Between then and Friday AM the plan is to do the Savage Alpine Hike in Denali, see some friends in a dinner theatre show, see the sled dog kennels in Denali, visit Talkeetna, 49th State Brewing, and head up the other side of the Hatcher Pass road! You might remember from my June trip that I went up the Hatcher Pass road, but from the opposite side until the road was closed! This time would be the other direction! Cool stuff! Friday is a back to Fairbanks day and hopefully a nice dinner and a visit to HooDoo Brewing before catching a 3 AM flight back to Tampa!
Stay tuned for some updates! Hopefully I will have some more amazing fall pictures! Thanks for following and if you have any suggestions, drop them below!!