Breathtaking Drive to the Needles in Canyonlands National Park

Time always flies on vacation! On most trips, there are more things to do than time allows.  It can be really hard to narrow down the to-do list!

In Moab, Utah, you can’t help but face this dilemma! Nestled near 2 National Parks, the Colorado River, and some of the best rock terrain in the nation, it is tough to decide what to include on the itinerary and what to save for another trip!

On our first trip to Moab, we spent time in Canyonlands National Park Islands in the Sky District.  We wanted to visit the Needles District, but there just wasn’t time to make that drive.

On our most recent trip, we debated whether or not it was worth the 1 hour and 45 minutes drive one way to see the Needles.  We decided to go for it and quickly found out that the answer is YES!Indian Creek Scenic Drive Utah

To reach the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park from Moab, head south on Hwy 191. Turn right (west) on SR 211.  This is where the drive starts to get really interesting.

SR 211 is also known as the Indian Creek Scenic Byway. It joins highway US Hwy 191 about 40 miles south of Moab. This Scenic Byway is 18 miles each way and ends at the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  The highway winds among spectacular buttes and rock formations!

As you enjoy this scenic drive, don’t miss Newspaper Rock, one of the country’s largest collections of petroglyphs which is also a Utah State Historic Site. This amazing rock art is about 15 miles west of Hwy 191.

Once you arrive at the entrance to the Needles District, the possibilities are endless! And, there are far fewer people in this district than in Islands in the Sky. I think you’ll find a Moab day trip to the Needles along the Indian Creek Scenic Byway to be vacation time well spent!Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

The BEST National Park Visitor Center

I absolutely love our national parks, and for me, spending time in the park’s visitor center is a MUST! While there are some great national park visitor centers throughout the park system, there is one that really stands out: the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center!

Hot Springs National Park is located in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  It is about an hour’s drive from the capital city of Little Rock.

What makes the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center so special? It’s cool (or shall I say hot) backstory!Hot Springs National Park Bathhouse Row

In the 1800’s, the natural hot springs located in this area became a tourist mecca.  During that time, people believed that these springs had healing properties. People from around the nation would travel to this area to spend time soaking in the springs, drinking the water, and receiving other treatments to cure their ailments. The town of Hot Springs developed around this natural resource to provide the many visitors with much needed services.

Hot Springs National Park Spring Water
The spring water from Hot Springs National Park is still flowing.  Visitors are welcome to fill containers of water to drink or take home.

Hot Springs was the first public land to be set aside for protection based on it’s natural resources.  In 1832, Hot Springs National Reservation was established.  It became known as the “American Spa.” This area was designated as a National Park in 1921.   This designation led to the development of the Bathhouse Row that we see today. By the 1960’s, the heyday the hot springs had come to an end and many of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row began to close including the Fordyce Bathhouse.Hot Springs Reservation

The elegant Fordyce Bathhouse operated from 1915 to 1962.  It remained closed until it opened as the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center in 1989.  It has been lovingly restored to its original glory.  Hot Springs National Park Fordyce Bath HouseHot Springs National Park

Today, the Fordyce Bathhouse offers visitors a glimpse into what it was like to come to a glamorous bathhouse and to be pampered with a true spa experience during the first half of the 1900’s.

Some of these spa experiences aren’t too far removed from what you may enjoy in today’s spa visit.  Visitors in the early 1900’s could enjoy a hot bath, pedicure, hair and beauty treatments, steam treatments, and a custom developed workout regimen.  Some treatments, on the other hand, are in much less demand today.  Certainly many of us would say “no thank you” to an electric shock massage.Hot Springs National Park Fordyce Bathhouse

This National Park Visitor Center is a real gem. The Fordyce Bathhouse has 4 floors of bathhouse history to explore. It is fascinating to see and to imagine what it might have been like to visit this elegant spa in the early 1900’s.Hot Springs National Park Fordyce BathhouseHot Springs National Park-12Hot Springs National Park-14Hot Springs National Park-23

The Fordyce Bathhouse is just one of several beautiful structures on Bathhouse Row. Many of the bathhouses have been restored as the area has undergone a period of revitalization.  Buckstaff Bath is still in operation today offering spa services with the famous thermal waters of this National Park.  Superior Bathhouse has recently reopened as a brewery and distillery as well as a full service restaurant which utilizes the thermal waters to produce its craft beverages.Hot Springs National Park Bathhouse Row

A visit to Fordyce Bathhouse great way to spend a leisurely afternoon. Take a stroll along Bathhouse Row or simply spend some time in a rocking chair on a bathhouse front porch.  Then, take a bath just like visitors to Hot Springs have been doing for over 100 years!Hot Springs National Park Bathhouse Row

Arches National Park: Park Avenue Trail

When I think about some of my favorite areas in Arches National Park, Park Avenue Trail immediately comes to mind. This section of the park is stunning and easy to reach! The trail meanders thru a canyon flanked by enormous fins, monoliths, and statues.

View from Park Avenue TrailPark Avenue Trail Arches National Park_-7 Trips

This hiking trail is rated as moderate because of the fairly steep descent into the canyon from the parking area.  However, there are stairs, so it isn’t treacherous.

Park Avenue Trail is 1 mile in length which makes it a 2 mile out and back hike.  If you are fortunate enough to have 2 vehicles, you can save yourself the uphill climb.  Simply begin at the Park Avenue Parking area and leave the 2nd vehicle at Courthouse Wash!

Park Avenue Trail Sign with Map
Park Avenue Trail Map

If you don’t have the time (or energy) to hike the Park Avenue Trail, you can still enjoy some fantastic views from the Park Avenue Viewpoint at the parking area.  However, taking time to hike this trail offers a unique perspective on one of Arches National Park’s iconic vistas.

Park Avenue Trail Viewpoint
Park Avenue Trail Viewpoint

5 Jaw Dropping Not-So-Obvious National Parks for Your Bucket List

The Big Three – Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.  These iconic National Parks are known for their jaw dropping appeal. But, there are other National Parks that are just as spectacular!

These 5 National Parks may be less famous but still deserve a place on your travel bucket list:

  1. Redwood National Park: Walking among these giants in Northern California is something you have to experience in person.  There is no way that words or photographs can illustrate the shear mass of these unforgettable behemoths!  Here you can enjoy watching the fog rolling off the ocean and consider the role it plays in this amazing old growth forest. Plan to spend several days in the Redwoods as the groves are spread out over a large area.  You’ll certainly want to savor this experience!Redwood Trees in Redwood National Park
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park:  The massive sand dunes alongside the Rocky Mountains are nothing less than extraordinary!  Don’t miss the park visitor center where you can learn about how and why all that sand came to reside in the mountains of Colorado.  To top it all off, this unique ecosystem is home to a variety of wildlife.Great Sand Dunes by Rocky Mountains
  3. Canyonlands National Park:  The Grand Canyon isn’t the only National Park where the Colorado River is a leading character. Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of the Colorado Plateau where the Colorado and Green Rivers converge. The endless number of canyons, buttes, and mesas offer unlimited adventures. Aren’t up for hiking down to the bottom of a canyon (and back up)?  No problem! You can access many areas of Canyonlands National Park by vehicle, so you can explore at your own comfort level.  And the views in the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands are no less jaw-dropping than its more famous cousin.Canyonlands National Park Islands in the Sky
  4. Crater Lake National Park:  This unique National Park boasts one of the purest bodies of water in the world.   This royal blue gem is the deepest lake in the United States and has no other bodies of water flowing into it.  It is fed only by rain and snow, so it is very clean. The rim of this extinct volcano caldera offers views of the lake from several perspectives.  If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to take the volcano boat tour for great views as well as a sip of this better-than-bottled water.Crater Lake National Park
  5. Zion National Park:  Utah’s first National Park is one of my all time favorites!  The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is stunning, and there a variety of hiking trails to help you enjoy this dramatic landscape.  Right outside Canyon Scenic Drive is the town of Springdale, Utah.  This quaint town is a great home base for your stay in Zion Canyon.  It boasts several unique and charming local restaurants, shops, and galleries offering a pleasant way to unwind after a day exploring this National Park.Zion National Park

A vacation that includes a visit to one of our National Parks is a great way to unplug and enjoy family time.  Whichever park you choose, a unique and memorable experience awaits.  America’s National Park system is truly America’s Best Idea!

Tip and a Tee: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is such a unique place!  If you are anywhere close to that area, I’d highly recommend you spend some time in this giant sandbox set against the backdrop of the Colorado Rockies.  You won’t regret it!

Trip Tip:  When planning your trip, be sure to check the hours of the National Park Visitor Center.  This is one place you don’t want to miss the park movie as well as the model of the sand dunes.  You might also want to pick up a trip tee at the gift shop!  IMG_8958

Great Sand Dunes National Park Tee Shirt
This Great Sand Dunes National Park tee is a fun shade of blue!


Great Sand Dunes National Park: 5 Things to Know BEFORE You Go

Great Sand Dunes National Park is situated in a quiet little area in the southeast corner of Colorado.   We stopped at Great Sand Dunes National Park while on our road trip to Utah.  I’ve wanted to see Great Sand Dunes for some time and was eager to have an opportunity to visit.  We altered our route slightly, so that we could stop at the Dunes.  It far exceeded my expectations!

If you are considering a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park, here are 5 things you need to know BEFORE you go.

  1. Consider the Sand Temperature: The surface of the sand can be warm or even hot depending on the time of year! In terms of footwear, we saw a variety of choices. Some people had on hiking shoes while others went barefoot.  We wore outdoor sandals (Teva, Keen, etc) which have a sturdy bottom and can get wet.  I would not want to walk barefoot.  Some portions of the dunes have small sticks and other vegetation which I would have found uncomfortable.Great Sand Dunes National Park trip11 Great Sand Dunes National Park trip
  2. You might ALSO get wet:  Or, your kids might. I’m sure you already expect to get a little dirty at someplace called Great Sand Dunes.  But take note, there is also a chance to get wet!  Medano Creek runs across the main access to the dunes. The level of Medano Creek varies.  Depending on the temperature and time of year, you or your kids may even want a swim suit.  Regardless, I suggest you have a towel in the car, so you don’t end up taking some of this National Park with you in your vehicle.Great Sand Dunes National Park13 Great Sand Dunes National Park trip
  3. Walking on the Sand is Strenuous:  We all know from walking on the beach that sand can be hard on your calves.  Great Sand Dunes makes a walk on the beach seem easy.  These dunes are MASSIVE!  I expected them to be big, but it is hard to comprehend the shear size of these sand dunes until you stand beside them. The ranger told us that it takes about 2 hours to climb to the top.  We wouldn’t know, because we decided we’d enjoy our visit more without a hard core climb!Great Sand Dunes National Park5 Great Sand Dunes National Park trip
  4. Allow Extra Time:  Like so many of our National Park treasures, there is always more to enjoy than expected.  Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of those places where you should plan more time than you think you’ll need.  For example, it is quite enjoyable to dig yourself a “lounge chair” in the sand and just relax – no beach chaise needed!  More time would also provide the opportunity for additional hiking, playing on the dunes, and taking pictures.  Viewing the sand dunes from various positions offers unique perspectives on their size and scale!Great Sand Dunes National Park7 Great Sand Dunes National Park trip
  5. Look Out for Wildlife:  The wildlife was a surprise to me! I did not expect to see a herd of mule deer right by the Dunes Parking Area.  Yet, to my amazement, there they were grazing as if no one was around.  Other large mammals in the park and preserve include black bears, pronghorns, bison, elk and mountain lions.  Not to mention the countless birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians which inhabit the area.Great Sand Dunes National Park Mule Deer

    15 Great Sand Dunes National Park trip
    Mule Deer

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a real treat for kids and adults!  Don’t miss the movie at the Visitor Center.  It provides a great explanation of how these massive sand dunes ended up in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  And, of course, don’t forget to pick up a park tee shirt while you are there!

5 Tips for a Fall Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is such an incredible national park with breathtaking scenery and spectacular wildlife.  Since it is only an hour and a half drive from Denver International Airport, it is easy to access.  The town of Estes Park makes a great base for enjoying all the park has to offer.  If you’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit, add it to your list.  And, I highly recommend you consider a trip in the fall – that’s when RMNP is extra special.

Here are 5 tips for making the most out of your fall visit:

  1. Get out of the car and enjoy the golden aspen trees.  The aspen trees turn magnificent shades of yellow and gold.  Because the aspens are so brilliant, you may see splashes of gold on the horizon.  It is truly an amazing experience.  While viewing from the road is nice, it is much better to get out of the car and take a walk.  RMNP has many great trails, but leaves change at different times at various elevations.  Ask a park ranger for suggestions on the best hikes for viewing those golden aspens during your visit. For us, the Fern Lake trail, Wild Basin area, and Sprague Lake trail afforded great viewing opportunities. Sprague Lake was the most popular of the three.  On the other hand, at the Fern Lake trail and the Wild Basin area, we saw very few people. rocky-mountain-national-park-leaves4-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaves3-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaves2-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaves1-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaves-trip
  2. Determine locations where the elk are most active.  The elk herds are a highlight of RMNP particularly in the fall.  Stop at one of the park’s visitor centers for insight into elk activity.  Plan to spend some time listening and watching (from a safe distance, of course).  The bugling of elk is a unique sound which is magical and almost haunting. If you get lucky, you might even see a little sparring! rocky-mountain-national-park-elk-trail-triprocky-mountain-national-park-elk-spar-triprocky-mountain-national-park-elk-tripElk
  3. Consider a drive on Old Fall River Road if it is open.  Before the completion of Trail Ridge Road, park visitors used Old Fall River Road to traverse the mountain.  This road is gravel and narrow and has a shorter season for vehicles than Trail Ridge Road. While the date of the closure of Old Fall River Road changes every year, this was a great way to experience the change of the seasons without a lot of other people.  The road ends at the Alpine Visitor Center.  Check out the Park’s information on Old Fall River Road to determine if it is fit for your family and vehicle.
  4. Don’t miss the west side of the park.  Many visitors to RMNP enter the park from the east side via Estes Park.  There are also some extraordinary sights on the other side of the Rockies.  Guess where the Colorado River headwaters are located?  Yep, in RMNP!  You can see the Colorado River in its early stages.  I happen to think that is pretty cool!  And the Continental Divide? Yep, you can see that too!rocky-mountain-national-park-colorado-river-trip
  5. Don’t miss the leaves.  Yes, I know I mentioned that back on number 1. (I am very fond of them!) However, this time I’m talking about the ones that have already fallen.  They are so numerous that it is almost like yellow snow (but not the bad kind). It is a remarkable sight to see those golden leaves both on the ground and in the evergreen trees!rocky-mountain-national-park-leaf3-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaf2-triprocky-mountain-national-park-leaf-trip

In my opinion,  fall is the best time to visit RMNP.  The bugling elk, the golden aspens, and the crisp mountain air work together to make this the perfect recipe for a great trip!