National Parks

2017 Travel Plans

A constant surprise in our 18 months of full time camper life is just how cyclical it has been. Instead of endless days on the road, a pattern has emerged: six (or so) weeks of intensive travel, twelve (or so) weeks of localized travel. And while our parked weeks have proven immensely valuable in terms of cost-cutting and business-building, another constant is just how itchy we get to hit the road again after being in one place too long.

With that in mind, 2017 is going to be different. We have a full nine months of travel in the forecast, and the big challenge of our year will be learning how to balance travel, life, and work without the “breaks” that extended parking have afforded us up until now.

We have one other big adjustment planned for this year: When we head south later this week, we’ll be leaving our camper behind at my parents’ house. Yup, that’s right — we’ll be hitting the road with only our trusty Chevy Tahoe. We’ll share more on that decision when Ryan writes about the sweet new camping rig he and my brother have been hard at work building. For now I’ll just say that we learned on our last extended trip that dragging a 26′ trailer with you everywhere you go is actually kind of annoying.

So, without further ado — our planned itinerary for 2017!

January //

Congaree National Park Our Streamlined Life

  • We’ve kicked off January still at my parents’ home in New Hampshire — the plan is to head south this weekend! While I love winter, it has been freakishly cold here, and I’m just a little excited to stick my toes in the Gulf.
  • Our journey south will be pretty speedy, and peppered with stops to see family and friends. We played around with revisiting Charleston and Savannah on our way, but nixed that idea in favor of getting to the southwest as quickly possible.
  • It will probably take us a little over a week to get from New Hampshire to Baton Rouge, with tentative stops planned in New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Most of those will be visits to friends and family, but we’re also hoping to stop off at Congaree National Park and Andersonville National Historic Site on the way. We’re also playing around with taking a longer route and visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, which we’ve been trying (and failing) to visit since last January. After catching up with family in Baton Rouge, we’ll head west!

February //

Big Bend National Park

  • February will be all about TEXAS! We’ll be taking the coastal route to South Padre Island, where swimming and beach camping are on the agenda. (We’ll also be taking tips from Amanda’s super-adventurey list of 10 Things to Do on South Padre Island. I’m dying to paddleboard!)
  • Once we’re all beached out (so, maybe never?) we’re headed north again towards Big Bend National Park. We loved it so much last time that we’re planning on staying a full two weeks (the longest you’re allowed to visit during the popular winter months). We’ll probably do some repeat activities, but this time we’ll also do some primitive camping, hopefully snag a spot in the gorgeous Chisos Basin Campground, visit Boquillas, and get in some river and mountain hikes (after lots of desert hiking last time!). Last time we visited the moon was full and crazy bright, so we didn’t get in any stargazing … this time we’ll try to time our visit a little better. And I know Ryan would love to get in a river trip as well! (Suddenly, two weeks doesn’t seem like nearly enough time.)

March //

Rocky Mountain National Park

  • The last time we explored New Mexico we headed west across southern New Mexico, then east through northern New Mexico on our return trip. This time, we’ll be travelling north – south. Planned stops include Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Roswell, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos. (Hopefully we’ll be out of New Mexico before the juniper — which almost destroyed Ryan last winter! — starts blooming.)
  • We’re taking a bit of a risk heading to Colorado in the winter — but we passed it up last time and I’m determined not to skip it again. We have three awesome national parks on the agenda — Rocky MountainBlack Canyon Of The Gunnison, and Mesa Verde — and if we’re feeling fancy I’d love to do a little skiing. I’m thinking Colorado would be a great place to try to land some housesitting gigs as well, and I’d also love to visit my brother at Fort Carson.

April //

Zion National Park

  • We are both DYING to get to Utah — it’s a little crazy that, other than a quick stop-off in Salt Lake City, we’ve managed to skirt it during all our western adventures. Obviously, the big five national parks are calling our name, and Currently Wandering’s recent post has me totally drooling to visit Snow Canyon State Park, too. I have the feeling Utah is going to be difficult to leave!
  • Fortunately, we have a little love affair going on with Arizona, which should soften the blow of heading south again! Our itinerary is a little up in the air. We’re debating retracing some of our steps from last winter, and hitting up the Grand Canyon, Phoenix, Sedona, and Prescott again … but we’re considering skipping some of the southern portion in favor of spending some time in Vegas.

May //

Yosemite National Park

  • We’ve allotted ourselves a month to travel through California, but I’m guessing a big chunk of it will be spent in southern California. Our current route is pretty zig-zaggy — we’re going back and forth between the coast and inland wonders like Yosemite! We’ll probably revisit San Francisco and the redwoods, too. Even though I was born in California, I’ve only been there a few times — but in my imagination, at least, California in May is weather perfection!

June //

Mount Rainier National Park

  • June should see us in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying early summer in Oregon & Washington. Since we’ve spent some time exploring coastal Oregon, we plan to head inland and check out Crater Lake National Park as well as Bend. Next we’ll take a few weeks and criss-cross Washington state!

July //

Denali National Park & Preserve

  • Six months later, we finally reach the whole point of this trip: ALASKA. Honestly, it seems totally surreal even typing that! We’ve had a little trouble planning out the route due to current road closures (because, January in Alaska) but we plan to make our way up through Yukon, to Anchorage, and ultimately all the way up to Prudhoe Bay. Naturally, we’re also going to hit up as many epic national parks as we can, including Denali and Glacier Bay. If you’ve been to Alaska, or are planning to go to Alaska, let’s talk — we need All Your Wisdom on things like avoiding the legendarily horrible mosquitoes. And bears. And serial killers.

August //

Banff National Park Photo by Tony Webster
Photo by Tony Webster
  • After 4-6 weeks in Alaska (guys, that place is HUGE) we’ll make our way back to the lower 48 via Canada. After some great travel experiences in Niagara Falls and Quebec City, we’re excited to spend some time in British Columbia and Alberta. But really it’s all just part of my grand scheme to lure Ryan into spending a night or two at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. (Hi, my name is Rebecca and my birthday is in August.) Anyway — Banff National Park is a bucket list stop for both of us, and we’re excited to spend some time exploring our friendly northern neighbor.

September //

Glacier National Park

  • In September we’d love to still be pretty far north — but the weather will play a big part in that decision.  We’ll be slowly tracing a path home via Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan & Wisconsin — and with lots of gorgeous national parks along the route, I know we’ll be eager to linger as long as temperatures remain friendly. (Last summer when we were in Acadia I had a mild case of traveler’s envy seeing everyone’s end-of-summer travels through northern Michigan in particular — I’m dying to get there!)

October — December //

Acadia National Park

  • Fall and winter finally bring unknown territory. Our late summer & early fall plans hinge on mild weather continuing in the northern reaches of Canada and the United States, and I’m guessing we’ll probably be pretty happy to get back to our camper! We’ve tossed around the idea of spending fall in upstate New York and New England, and at this point the holidays are also a question mark. Either way, we’ll have to head back to New Hampshire to reunite with our home on wheels!

By the end of 2017, our hope is to have visited the majority of the continental United States! At that point, we’d love to turn our attention to international travel, because we’ve both been totally itching to get overseas. (Dream destinations include Germany and Iceland for both of us, Scotland and New Zealand for Ryan, and Thailand and Greece for me.) I have the feeling that our 2018 travel plans are going to look totally different, and totally epic! What do your 2017 travel plans look like?

2017 Travel Plans

Road Trip Recap: Appalachian Adventure

Road Trip Recap Appalachian Adventure

I love posting these recaps of our trips because it’s such a fun way to look back on our adventures and see all the ground we’ve covered. This trip definitely looks different from some of our previous trips — more on that below!

Appalachian Adventure By the Numbers:

Total travel days: 41 (September 6 – October 17)
States visited: 7 (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky)
Nights camping: 41
Nights in hotels or with family: 0 (!)
Campgrounds visited: 12

First of all — this trip was fun. In some ways it was more mellow than other trips we’ve done (no crazy off-roading, lots of KOAs) but in some ways, it was definitely an adventure (all the whitewater and all.the.bourbon). We definitely enjoyed getting to know a part of the country we’ve neglected. And we picked a great time of year to do it — let me tell you, West Virginia, Tennesee, and Kentucky in fall are gorgeous. The trip was also a study in contrasts; we stayed at both the swankiest campground we’ve ever visited (Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA) and the sketchiest (Camp on the Kentucky RV Park). We spent quality time in four states, and traveled through three more.

Every extended trip we take, it seems like we experience something new — and this trip was no different. This was the first extended road trip we’ve taken where we pulled the camper with us, and it was pretty eye-opening. First, we learned that it’s a lot easier to be lazy with a camper than when car camping; this trip definitely saw us doing a lot more TV watching and lounging indoors than we’ve done on previous trips. We also learned that pulling the camper is a little bit stressful, slows you way down, wreaks havoc on your gas mileage, and puts a major damper on spontaneity. Yikes! This trip was a bit of a test run, as we’re planning some pretty extended on-the-road time for 2017, and it was certainly instructive. So we’re taking it as a lesson to figure out how to improve for the future.

Traveling with the camper definitely changed our travel style. In the past we’ve often rolled into off-the-beaten path campgrounds, cooked dinner over the fire, went to bed early, and rolled out with the sunrise. This trip we averaged 3.5 nights per campground — unheard of for us! — and definitely traveled more slowly. We actually spent six nights each at two different campgrounds. Now, I know that for many full-time travelers that’s nothing, but for us, that’s the definition of S-L-O-W travel, which definitely had its pros and cons. (One thing that hasn’t changed: we’re still terrible at making reservations in advance. We actually got turned away from our very first full-to-capacity campground on this trip! I guess after 18 months on the road, it was bound to happen eventually.)

Now, without further ado — here is the official link roundup/recap of our Appalachian Adventure! We loved our time in the mid-Atlantic mountains, and we hope you enjoy reading about it, too.

Car trouble, camping in Coopers Rock State Forest, and excellent beer! (Morgantown, West Virginia)

Whitewater, whitewater, whitewater! (#GauleySeason kickoff weekend)

Books and burritos in West Virginia’s capital city! (Charleston, West Virginia)

Our new favorite West Virginia state park! (Pipestem Resort State Park)

Yeah, we’d like to be a guest of the Vanderbilts … (Asheville, North Carolina & the Biltmore Estate)

It’s America’s most-visited national park for a reason … (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

Celebrating Ryan’s birthday in “The Gateway to the South” (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

One night in Nashville + our new favorite campground! (Nashville, Tennessee)

Caves for days! (Mammoth Cave National Park)

Three days. So much bourbon. (The Kentucky Bourbon Trail)

We didn’t jump off a bridge — but other people did. (Bridge Day, Fayetteville, West Virginia)

If you’re interested in reading more of our road trip adventures, check out our 2015 Road Trip recap here (where we travel from the East Coast to the West Coast and back) and our 2016 Road Trip recap here (also known as our Great Southwest Adventure)!

Our 2017 National Parks Wishlist

Our 2017 National Park Wish List

Yesterday, we shared our five favorite national parks of 2016. And because planning ahead is just as much fun as looking back, we thought we’d share our 2017 national parks wishlist — all the epic parks we’re hoping to visit in the coming year. (We are dreaming seriously big this year!)

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Eight of the 59 national parks are located in Alaska, and it was reeeeeeally hard to pick just one to make the list. But take a look at that view and it should be pretty self explanatory why we can’t wait to explore a few of Denali’s six million acres.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

It seemed like last summer all the cool kids were in Glacier, and we had a serious case of Instagram jealousy. (It’s called the Crown of the Continent for a reason!) And its proximity to Banff National Park in Canada only bumps it higher on the list.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore

I couldn’t make a national park wish list without getting some beach action in there, and since we’ll be in California this spring Point Reyes seemed like an obvious solution. The camping situation looks on point — and how gorgeous are those bluffs?

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Ahhhh, Utah. We were so sad to leave you off our southwest adventure last winter after lingering too long in Arizona. But we vowed we’d be back for you — and your jaw-dropping national parks are a big piece of the draw. It was hard to pick just one (clearly, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands are all crazy beautiful too) but I can wait to see those arches for myself.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park

It’s an eight-thousand-year-old volcanic lake. What more do I need to say? We should be in Oregon by late spring, and we can’t wait to seeing those blue blue waters in the United States’ deepest lake with our own … four eyes.

Bonus #1: Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

If I’m being honest, Dry Tortugas is actually #1 on my personal national parks wish list. But with no plans to visit Florida any time in the near future, it seemed futile to put it any higher on the list. In spite of that, I’m still dying to explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson (accessible only by boat or seaplane!) and snorkel in those ridiculous crystal clear waters.

Bonus #2: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park

We have seriously neglected the Midwest in our travels, both in terms of states visited and national parks. But there are some crazy beautiful national parks wayyyyyy up north (Isle Royale and Voyageurs both look awesome, too) and I’d love to get up there. It’s possible we’ll pass through here in the fall after we’ve left Alaska!

Hopefully we do better checking parks off this list than we did on last year’s list! Tell us in the comments: What’s on your 2017 national parks wish list?

Our 5 Favorite National Parks of 2016

Last December we shared our 2016 National Parks Wishlist — the top five parks we hoped to hit in 2016. Tomorrow we’ll be sharing our 2017 National Parks Wishlist (my, how time flies!) but first we wanted to take a look back at 2016. Today we’re rounding up our national park stats from 2016 … reviewing how we did on last year’s wish list … and talking about our five favorite national parks we visited this year!

Acadia-Bound Our Streamlined Life
These are our national park excitement faces.

First up: Numbers, names, and fun facts.

  • In 2016, we visited 28 national park sites!
  • We checked off parks in five of the nine national park regions. (Curious which regions we missed? National Capital Region, Midwest Region, Rocky Mountain Region, and Pacific Northwest & Alaska Region. Fingers crossed, we should get to all of those in 2017!)
  • We spent the most time in Acadia National Park (14 days), followed by Big Bend National Park (6 days). No surprise those two parks top our “favorite national parks of all time” list.
  • Our shortest trip was to Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, due to weird park hours and unfortunate time zone placement.
  • We checked off all the state parks in one state — and not even one of those funny ones with just one national park site! (Which, if you’re wondering, includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Delaware.) And, even though we wrote about how to visit all of New Jersey’s national park sites in one day, it isn’t New Jersey, either! Drum roll please: After visiting Bluestone NSR, Gauley River NRA, Harpers Ferry NHP, and New River Gorge NR, we’ve now visited all the national park sites in West Virginia!

So: How did we do on our 2016 national parks wish list?

Short answer: Not very well. In fact, we only managed to visit two of the six parks on our 2016 national parks wish list (Grand Canyon National Park and Acadia National Park). Two of them (Zion and Hot Springs) I was hoping to make part of our Southwest Adventure, but we were having so much fun in deserty places like Big Bend that we just didn’t have time. And the final two (Shenandoah and Cuyahoga) were planned as summer trips that just didn’t materialize.

And, last but not least: What were our five favorite national parks of 2016?

The good news is, we visited so many amazing national parks that it was hard to narrow them down. But you can certainly tell from our list that we learned to love the desert in 2016!

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

If you’ve been following our travels for any length of time, this should come as no surprise to you. Big Bend National Park was the breakout surprise and a highlight of our 2016. In fact, it’s become a strong contender with Acadia National Park as our favorite national park of all time. We stayed there twice as long as we planned, and can’t wait to go back this winter for two full weeks — the longest you’re allowed to camp in the park during peak season. Big Bend was a magical combination of wide desert skies, gorgeous river views, and spectacular mountain hikes and we had no trouble declaring it our #1 favorite national park of 2016.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

Is it possible to visit the Grand Canyon in any given year and not put it on your favorite parks list? I submit to you that it is not. The camping was spectacular, the weather was gorgeous, and the views were so incredible they actually looked unreal. We both expected to be a tad disappointed in the Grand Canyon; we were not, even a little bit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns was a surprise hit (and another stop on our Southwest Adventure itinerary). Will Rogers called it “the Grand Canyon with a roof on it,” and the comparison is apt; it’s overwhelmingly deep and has become the standard by which we measure all future cave visits. There’s just something mind-boggling about hiking down a 750-foot trail into the earth.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

We both loved Saguaro National Park but it found a particularly cozy spot in Ryan’s heart — it’s the one he almost always mentions second (after Big Bend!) when we talk about 2016. We weren’t sure what to expect when we visited, but there was just something incredibly friendly about those giant cacti! And the combination of a scenic drive, short hike, and pleasant picnic were exactly our speed. (It’s like the national parks version of “the perfect combination of sexy and cute.”)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We left Great Smoky Mountains marveling that we’d never been there before; as die-hard East Coasters, you wouldn’t think it’d have taken us thirty years to make it to the United States’ most visited national park. We could easily have spent weeks there, hiking, camping, and enjoying the gorgeous views — we’ll most definitely be back. (My favorite thing about the park? The constant gurgle of streams and brooks that was audible seemingly everywhere we traveled in the park. It made me want to sit on a rock with a picnic and a book and never leave.)

We want to know: What were your favorite parks of 2016 … and of all time?

Underground Exploration in Mammoth Cave National Park

Before our trip, whenever people would ask where we were headed on our Appalachian Adventure, Ryan would say: “We’ll be spending time in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” Then I’d glare and say, “HONEY, we’re not going to Kentucky.” And yet … we ended up in Kentucky.

Welcome To Kentucky

I guess I just didn’t think we had time to do it justice — but when we ended up trimming a few Gauley weekends from the schedule, we suddenly had a week or so to kill. So to Kentucky we headed — and it ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip.

In the dead center of the state was Mammoth Cave National Park — our first destination in Kentucky.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but most of the park was quiet and wooded, with rolling treed hills and almost a dreamy quality.

Mammoth Cave National Park Woods

The dreaminess quickly ended when we locked our keys in the car. Fortunately a sassy-yet-helpful ranger was kind enough to lend us a coat hanger, and Ryan put his cat burglar skills to work in the parking lot. It’s a good thing he was able to rescue them, because we had absolutely no cell service to call AAA with!

Womp Womp

Crisis averted, we headed inside to explore the visitor’s center. Well … sort of. It turns out visiting Mammoth Cave takes a little more planning ahead than we were used to; unlike at Carlsbad Caverns, where self-guided tours were standard, the majority of Mammoth Cave’s tours require a tour guide and reservations. And … it was spring break. The park was packed. When we arrived, the tours we were interested in were all sold out. Instead, we took a short jaunt down to the one cave that was open for self-guided tours, just to whet our appetites.

We also checked out the visitor’s center at Mammoth Cave, and it was really cool. We loved this cross-section model of one of the larger caves …

Mammoth Cave Visitors Center

As well as this relief “sculpture” of the cave system. (Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored!)

Mammoth Cave Model

And I loved this Find Your Park poster emphasizing the park’s history.  In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. Gorin used his African-American slaves as tour guides — and one of them, Stephen Bishop, would become one of Mammoth Cave’s most celebrated historical figures. Stephen was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave’s features.

Mammoth Cave Retro Poster

Stephen was very respected by Gorin, who described Stephen after his death as “the celebrated and great Stephen … a self-educated man [with] a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology, but his great talent was a knowledge of man.” Despite his contributions to the cave, Stephen lived most of his life as a slave, although Gorin freed him just a year before his death in 1857.

Mammoth Cave was an interesting contrast to Carlsbad Caverns because while Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world, it is not nearly as deep as Carlsbad. The entrance to Mammoth felt very shallow compared to the 750-foot trail of Carlsbad’s Natural Entrance.

The interior of the cave looked totally different from Carlsbad, too! The caves were very rocky, and there were fewer formations than we saw at Carlsbad.

One of the cool things about Mammoth Cave was the wide variety of cave tours offered. We did the Domes & Dripstones tour and it was excellent. We would have loved to do the River Styx tour, as well, but there were only a few tour times offered and none while we were in town.

Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely a park where planning ahead would have served us well. You guys know we love to wing it but between the limited tour times and crowds due to spring break, this one needed a little more foresight. (We also didn’t camp in the park because it was super unclear if there were showers and restrooms available — we stayed at the solidly meh Horse Cave KOA campground — but when we took a spin through the park , it looked like there were facilities. It would have been wonderful to stay right in the park — next time!)

We had one more experience in central Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Unfortunately, this ended up being another poorly planned excursion on our part. First fail: While the NHP is only a 40 minute drive from Mammoth Cave … it’s in another time zone. Yeah. Second fail: the park’s website lists its hours as 8am-4:30pm … buuuuuut the buildings all actually close at 4:00. So, we showed up at what we thought was 3:00pm, which was actually 4:00pm, still thought we had half an hour to zip through the buildings, but they were all closed.

Fortunately, a kind park ranger saw the desperation in my eyes and went into the closed visitor’s center and stamped my passport for me. And we did take a quick tour around the grounds, which were super beautiful — so it wasn’t a total loss! We would have loved to take in the visitor’s center, and check out the “symbolic birth cabin” — turns out the one in the mausoleum above isn’t the real Lincoln birth cabin, as they thought when it was constructed — but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

Despite a few setbacks, we loved our first foray into Kentucky! Has anyone else made the same mistakes we did? And is there anything else in the area you’d like to recommend to our readers?