The Nation’s Newest National Park – Indiana Dunes

It’s so funny how so many of us are in a hurry to leave our hometown, city, state, or country. In the rush to leave and experience new places we sometimes forget to explore our own backyards. Growing up in Indiana my entire life I never made the short 3 hours drive to Indiana Dunes. It took the Dunes becoming America’s 61st National Park to spark enough interest for Dan and I to make the trip.

Becoming a National Park is not a simple process, it requires certain criteria:

  1. It must possess a unique natural, cultural, or recreational resource.
  2. It must be in need of protection, and no organization other than the National Park Service would be able to secure adequate protection.
  3. It must be able to be protected. (It is suitable and feasible to protect the area.)

Indiana Dunes hugs the shoreline of Lake Michigan and spans about 15 miles with over 15,000 acres of wetlands, prairies, dunes, and marshes. These diverse landscapes are sprawling with flora and fauna unique to the area.

Camping:

Unfortunately trail camping is not an option yet for this park. There are campsites available at Dunewood Campground which require a reservation (or you can choose your campsite upon arrival). There is also a charge per night of 25.00. We decided to book the site upon arrival and chose a walk-out campsite. The campsites were very basic with a grill and fire pit. We were near other campers – which we hate, but luckily it was raining so most people stayed in their tents and didn’t get on our nerves.

Trails:

Cowles Bog Trail System

We evaluated some of the trails prior to arrival using the All Trails app. One of the highest rated trails was Cowles Bog which is a 4.7 loop trail, showcasing the parks diversity with views of prairies, wetlands, and marshes.

When we arrived at the parking lot a slight shit show transpired. I apparently forgot our equipment bag at the house, including our drone and GoPro. Dan was not impressed and a slight argument ensued but only for a couple minutes. You see, I have a terrible memory so honestly if Dan is a good partner he should be aware of this and double check. Just kidding!

Dan actually ended up whittling a selfie stick from a nearby tree, which ended up producing some pretty stellar shots! Nice work babe!

This trail lived up to the expectation and took us through some beautiful landscapes. We loved exploring the marshlands and the view of Lake Michigan from the top of the dunes. When we arrived to the shoreline the wind kicked up and a torrential downpour sent us back into the woods for a hike in the rain.

3 Dune Challenge

The 3 Dune Challenge is located in Indiana Dunes State Park, however, both parks are adjacent to one another so don’t miss this opportunity. The cost to enter the park is $7 for in-state visitors and $9 for out of state visitors. To complete The 3 Dune Challenge, you must hike a special 1.5 mile course at Indiana Dunes State Park, climbing Mount Jackson (elevation 176 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet), and Mount Tom (192 feet).

The hike for us was not very difficult, this could have been because most of the sand/trail was matted down from the rainfall. The top of the dunes offer some great views of Lake Michigan and the hike is a great workout!

The rain definitely cut our hiking plans short, however overall the experience was a good one. We would recommend visiting the dunes as a day trip; two days at the max if you are planning on swimming or enjoying some beach time at Lake Michigan’s shores. The surrounding area of Gary, Indiana is pretty run down and doesn’t have much to offer, but the park’s beauty is enough to keep you captivated.

HAAAY!

3 National Parks in 3 Days

Dan and I had a plan to visit 3 of California’s most beautiful national parks in 3 days. The plan was an ambitious one as March in the Sierra Nevada can mean unpredictable weather and an unknown amount of snow. Two of the parks, Sequoia National Forest and Inyo National Park were within this mountain range. As always though, we were determined.

I was on a business trip in Las Vegas for the week. Dan flew in on Wednesday and rented a GMC Yukon, which would not only serve as our transportation but our shelter for the next three days as well.

We had basic gear for the trip since we weren’t primitive camping this time. We made a nest in the back of the Yukon that was comprised of our inflatable pillows, sleeping mats and sleeping bags. The temperature the first night was going to get down to 30 degrees, so we were sure to pack our 0 degree bags.

It was a six hour car drive from Las Vegas to Camp Nelson which was home to our campground – Belknap. The drive through the mountains at night was eerie as their huge looming shapes were outlined by the night sky. When we arrived at our campsite we saw glimpses in the headlights of red majesty that awaited us in the morning – giants.

Sequoia National Park

  • Campsite: Belknap Campground
  • Time at Park: 11 Hours
  • Total Hikes: 2

Hikes:

The Nelson Trail | 7.7 Miles | Climbing 1780 ft

Nelson wasn’t a tough trail it had beautiful views of groves and rushing springs. We were the only ones at the campsite and on the trail. So visiting in March definitely has it’s benefits. We only hiked directly to the grove which is actually about 2.2 miles.

The Bear Creek Trail | 5.5 Miles | Climbing 2220 Ft

The 5.5 mile Redwood Grove Trail starts between two cabins just upstream of a big log bridge near the Belknap campsite. The trail is a little overgrown and hard to see although someone recently put a sign up to better mark the trail. The initial start of the trail is covered in a few fallen trees but then clears off. The trail is very steep and requires a ton of endurance – frequent breaks may be required based on your skill level.

Once the trail leveled off we were shrouded in forest and our trail turned to snow. We were surrounded by a small grove of sequoias. This grove has sense of seclusion and mystery which makes it stand out and feel remote from other groves.

We descended Bear Creek and headed back to the truck (not before I tried to get a quick drone shot of the beautiful log bridge and dropped it in the river – bye Dronie boo boo!). Our next destination, Inyo National Forest was just under five hours away.

Inyo National Forest

  • Campsite: Red Roof Inn (I’ll explain below).
  • Time at Park: 7 Hours
  • Total Hikes: 1

When we finally arrived it was after dark and we were anxious to park at our campsite and get some rest. However, there was one problem. A bulldozer was blocking the entrance to the park with a sign saying road closed. There would be no camping; instead we had to make a reservation at the nearest town, Bishop. Luckily the Red Roof Inn had a bed available.

The next morning we headed back into the mountains and anticipated hiking from the entrance to the trail which would add an additional 2 miles to our 6 mile hike. When we arrived we were met with 15 police and firefighters who were volunteering for a mountain search and rescue drill. They said the locals had closed the road, due to ice.

Hikes:

Big Pine Lakes Trail | 13.5 Miles | Climbing 3356 ft

The trail was partially covered with snow at the lowest elevation. Due the difficulty of this trail and length an early start in winter conditions is absolutely necessary. Being the end of March the trail can really be a hit or miss when it comes to snow depth. This trail features mountain views, and five lakes. We only planned on hiking the first six miles of the trail to the first lake.

After the first couple of miles trekking steep inclines the trail became completely covered in snow. We were dependent on previous hiker’s footprints for navigation. We had no cell phone service and there were no topography maps available, the map we did have made it difficult to scale the actual distance. The snow also disguised many of the trail markers.

We had a clear sunny day around 40 degrees fahrenheit. The top layer of the four feet deep snow began to soften and this meant sinking down 2-3 feet with every step. Snow shoes would have been nice. The sun was also contributing to another issue we had not anticipated – our faces were melting off from sunburn/snowburn.

The snow was slowing us down considerably. After five hours we finally arrived at one of the map markers – Lon Chaney Cabin. With the additional mileage we had to hike from the entrance to the park this put us at about 5 miles. With the trail only being hiked 2.5 miles. It was 3pm, we were not going to be able to hike the additional 2.5 miles to the first lake.

At this point we had to turn around to make it back before sundown. If we would have kept going the search and rescue drill would have turned into a real life rescue. We had no regrets though, the hike was challenging and offered panoramic views of snow covered pines and towering mountains. The glistening snow was beautiful, although it fried our faces off (#1 lesson learned wear sunscreen, especially in snow). The descent was much easier and even kind of fun as we tried to slide down some of the mountain side, it was actually more like tumbling/falling. We departed Inyo and headed two hours south to our next destination.

Death Valley National Park

  • Campsite: Darwin Falls
  • Time at Park: All Day
  • Total Hikes: 2

We visited forests and snow covered mountains, now it was time for a warm up, where better than the hottest place on earth? We headed into the desert and camped in the parking lot of Darwin Falls in Death Valley. We spent the evening star gazing.

Hikes:

Darwin Falls Trail | 1.9 Miles | Climbing 226 ft

This is a nice and easy, flat trail. The trail offers excellent canyon views. The way the sunlight danced around the canyon walls illuminating their peaks, waking them up to an explosion of color was breathtaking.

The trail ends at the skinny falls which today is still used for local drinking water. The falls creates a small oasis blending the canyon’s orange and reds with bursts of greenery. Gorgeous.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes | Free Roam

The Mesquite Flats are a surprising landscape change offering Sahara like dunes. The dunes require a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand, and a place for the sand to collect to exist.

If you are planning to wonder amongst the dunes prepare to bring plenty of sunscreen and water – it’s hot. You may spot a sidewinder rattlesnake slithering sideways through the sands, so watch your step.

Death Valley offers plenty of dynamic landscapes to explore – however, a lot hiking wasn’t necessary to experience them. We also toured and walked around the salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America. We then were able to drive up to the Artist’s Palette; pastel mountains of pink, green, and blue. The colors are produced by the oxidation of the metals and elements found in the ground.

The rainbow mountains were our last stop giving us plenty of time to return to Vegas to recuperate in an Airbnb and catch our flights home in the morning. While this seems like a lot of driving and limited
timing, we did not feel rushed or like we missed out on any experiences. The trip felt well balanced and fulfilling.

Recap:

  • 3 Days
  • 3 National Parks
  • 5 Hikes
  • 800 Miles Driven
  • 8 Dehydrated Meals
  • 2 Sunburns
  • 62 Combined Miles Walked
  • 121,870 Combined Steps

How to See Sequoias in March

I was going to be spending a week in Vegas for business and I convinced Dan to fly out and meet me for the weekend. When we were planning ideas on what to do, a lot of options came up. At first we thought the Grand Canyon, but Dan had already been there. We then thought about Joshua Tree National Park, but it was too far. When I pulled up the map – it hit me,
I remembered reading about the largest trees in the world in elementary school with a dream to one day see them.

We had to see the Sequoia’s, but should we visit Sequoia National Forest or Sequoia National Park? March can be a real hit or miss based on elevations, closures, and snowfall. We were immediately able to see via Google Maps that there were many road closures in the area due to snow.

We first looked into Sequoia National Park. The National Park Service website provided some insight and had a link to check current conditions. The alerts stated for March that tire chains may be required, however, below the alert it stated that they were required. The site also stated that road closures were possible but did not provide the roads that were actually closed. When we contacted the park the ranger informed us there was no way to see the Sequoias – even a southern grove in Sequoia National Forest, all roads were inaccessible.

The news from the park ranger wasn’t going to work for us, with the varying elevations and weather we knew there had to be other options. We started to research Sequoia National Forest. The USDA Forest Service had updates on current conditions as well, and even a webcam – but it was down for construction so again, not helpful. We contacted the National Forest supervisors office (559.784.1500), who finally gave us some clear insight.

While many of the roads were closed there was a more southern grove that was open, Belknap Grove in Camp Nelson. On the website the season is identified as April-November, however it was still open in March. Belknap is a southern grove at a lower elevation of 5,000 feet, however the trail was still spotted with snow; the higher you hike the higher the snow. The grove is just under 5,000 acres.

We drove six hours from Vegas to the forest. We camped in the back of the Yukon rental that was comprised of our inflatable pillows, sleeping mats and sleeping bags. The temperature the first night was going to get down to 30 degrees, so we were sure to pack our 0 degree bags.

After a few hours of sleep morning light flickered through the truck’s windows. We stepped out into views that can only be described as other worldly. I instantly became emotional and tears started streaming down my cheeks . Dan asked what wrong – the answer was nothing. I felt a powerful connection to creation here, to our natural world. It was overwhelming. Don’t let March get in your way of seeing this magnificence – you won’t want to miss it.

Looking for more tips on Sequoia? Check out our blog post, 3 National Parks In 3 Days for tips on hiking in the area.



Growing Up in the Gorge

I always get comments from people on how much they love the tattoo on my leg.  The question usually comes up, “where did you get the inspiration?”  My inspiration came directly from my childhood; hiking and exploring every inch of Red River Gorge

Red River Gorge is a vast forest located in east-central Kentucky inside the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Winding roads stretch all throughout this area that lead to some of the best hiking and rock climbing in the country.  The gorge is made up of an intricate canyon system that features an abundance of high sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, waterfalls, and natural bridges.  There are too many hidden gems to count. 

From a very early age, I remember my Dad taking me hiking and camping in the gorge.  I remember looking out over the awe inspiring mountains and feeling absolutely at peace.  This is a time in my life when none of the outside worldly clamors mattered.  It was just me, my family, and nature.  During these camping trips I learned about the different species of trees, plants, and animals.  I also learned how to prepare for anything and everything that could occur. This is probably one of the reasons that a career as an emergency nurse looked so attractive;  because let me tell you, when I’m at work I’m prepared for anything! 

As I got older I remember having birthday parties in the gorge; My 13th birthday in particular stands out. My mom rented out a cabin for me and all of my friends.  It was a blast!  We spent the days hiking and adventuring over naturally formed rock bridges, swimming in roaring waterfalls (if you want to head down an amazing trail off the beaten path that leads to a beautiful waterfall, don’t miss Copperas Creek), and swinging off of rope swings into creeks. Our nights were spent around campfires, trying to scare the hell out of each other.

As a teenager, I began to take trips to the gorge with a new purpose in mind.  At this point I had hiked and seen many of the awesome features that the gorge provides, I was also exposed to an activity in the gorge that has always peaked my interest, rock climbing. I had spent my childhood admiring climbers – the courage, the exhilaration, it was inspiring; this is where I learned to repel and rock climb.

People come from all over to experience the excellent climbing spots in the gorge.  Most of my climbing was spent in the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP).  This area is owned and maintained by the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition.  There’s an array of different climbing routes and climbers, from all different experience levels.  My climbing though, well, that’s something to be admired from a distance. 

My days in the gorge now are spent with my man, Matt.  I love showing him my favorite spots and sharing the nostalgia that it brings.  Even after all these years of exploring Red River Gorge, Matt has still found a way to surprise me with trails and hidden gems that I have never seen.  Our last camping trip landed us at the top of Cloud Splitter; one of the most beautiful camping spots I’ve ever seen. 

My black tattoo on my left shin starts about 3 inches above my ankle with a dark black solid line.  This leads into an outline of a forest made up evergreen trees that extend up my leg with slight shades of green.  My inspiration for this tattoo came from my deep love of the outdoors in places like the gorge.  This tattoo is way to keep me grounded to what is important in life.  To let go of all of the unimportant daily grind that consumes us.  It serves as a reminder to always be myself and to love what God has put in my life.  It reminds me of my time spent in the gorge.   

A Day In Pisgah National Forest, NC

Asheville, North Carolina is a destination for wandering backpackers, barefoot hipsters, and art lovers. Trust us, Asheville and the Biltmore aren’t the only attractions in the area. You’ll quickly see on a map that Asheville is tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains and two National Forests; Cherokee National Forest and Pisgah National Forest.

We were “glamping” in an Airbnb near Pisgah National Forest, in the small town of Candler, 20 minutes from downtown Asheville. Our campsite was fully equipped with an outdoor shower, grill, firepit, and electricity. A bamboo forest lies a short walk from the tent, a small path in the forest offers rushing river views. This place was only $54.00 a night, and the hosts (living next door) gave us complete privacy. One night I had a nightmare and woke up screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one came to check to see if I was being murdered. That’s privacy!

We headed out to Pisgah around 9:00am. I was really eager to get into the woods so when Dan asked to stop for gas, I urged him to keep on going. With all the mountain driving it quickly became apparent that not filling up was a bad idea. Dan instantly got nervous and gave me a little smack down for not letting him get gas, but fear not! I own a Chevy Volt, electric hybrid, luckily this car has a mountain feature that allows the car to retain electric miles when going down major inclines. The forest and earth thanks us, for not being gas guzzlers.

Our first stop for some hiking was a short .9 mile, easy trail called Skinny Dip Falls. Since we love skinny dipping anyways we figured this would be a good place to start. The short trail ends at a gorgeous swimming hole with stout, scenic falls. We recommend hitting this trail early on before it heats up and gets to crowded. If you get there and the initial pool is too crowded, continuing hiking up the falls for seclusion.

We headed to Sliding Rock next. We usually aren’t big on heavily trafficked tourist areas, but we were in the area, so why not? Sliding Rock is exactly what it sounds like, this natural water slide has 11,000 gallons rushing of water down it per minute! Parking near the trail head is nearly impossible, cars are lined up and down the road, so be prepared to walk a bit.

There is a $3.00 entrance fee (cash or credit) to the slide. A line awaited us with people of all ages waiting to slide down 60 foot boulder in icy water (50-60 degrees). The line moves quickly, so be patient. There are plenty of boulders and even a natural pool to lounge and wait.

After about a 15 minute wait we arrived to the top of the water slide. Even though the boulder is a smooth surface, it still can be a little intimidating. I planned my path to avoid my junk hitting an uneven surface. This area is regulated by lifeguards, so you have to wait for their go ahead before sliding. Once I was clear I started to slide. It was a quick, unique experience, there are a ton of lookout points so you definitely will have an audience. Everyone saw my wedgie.

Tip: Sliding Rock closes for high water or lightning. Check their Twitter feed for updates on closures. Another swimming hole, Looking Glass Waterfall is a few miles down the road from the slide. This is also a highly trafficked area. The falls are beautiful but the swimming area is busy.

Our final and most scenic stop was tubing in Deep Creek which actually flows out of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and into the Tuckasegee River, which borders Pisgah National Forest. There are plenty of places to rent tubes along the side of the road on the way to Deep Creek, we chose Deep Creek Tube Center & Campground.

For two tubes it costs us $12.00 this included them tying it on to the top of our car. They gave us directions to the trail head, and we were off. It’s a short drive to the parking area of the trail head, and about another 10 minute hike to the entry point of the river. There are two entry points depending on how long you want to tube for. Dan and I kept ramming each other with the tubes on the trail trying to knock the other over. Love.

When we arrived at the entry point we jumped in and let the water take us away. The river was the perfect temperature. The water paired along with the sun coming in through the trees made for a relaxing trip. There were a couple white water areas, but nothing too rough.

It took about 35 minutes before we landed at the exit area. You can keep going up and down as many times as you want, but it was time for us to head back. We returned our tubes and went behind the rental building to feed the baby goats to close out our evening.

There is definitely a lot to do in Pisgah, however, you want to use your time wisely and plan accordingly as the forest spans over 500,000 acres. With this type of expanse it’s important to outline your hikes and routes beforehand. Your accommodation and trip duration will help you judge this as well. However, if you are planning a day trip this itinerary is a great starting point!

Cape Cod, Good for the Bod – Our Top 3 Activities

Last October Daniel and his Mom were planning a trip to the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts for a family wedding. I hadn’t yet met Dan’s parents but his Mom invited me on the trip anyway! A little bit of pressure meeting your boyfriend’s mom on vacation, but that may be a post for another time.

Cape Cod is a hook shaped peninsula on the state of Massachusetts. It’s the site of small, quaint fishing towns, lighthouses, history and of course Provincetown, one of the top LGBTQ+ destination in America.

We stayed in the small village of Hyannis or as I liked to refer to it, The Anus. The town was definitely in it’s off season, many of the small shops and restaurants had closed down for the winter. Not everything was closed though, there was still plenty of open shops and restaurants to enjoy. We departed Hyannis to head to our first recommended activity!

#1 Bike Riding on Martha’s Vineyard

Honestly I didn’t know what the hell Martha’s Vineyard was. Dan is definitely the travel planner in the relationship, so I had to ask, who was Martha and why were we visiting her vineyard?!

Accessible only by boat or air, Martha’s Vineyard is an island just South of Cape Cod. A two hour round trip ferry to the island is $59.00 so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the island. The first ferry leaves at 8:00 AM and the the final returning ferry back to Hyannis is around 9:00 PM.

This is before the ferry started moving. When we took off Dan got seasick and turned into an angry sea lion.

Right off the dock there are a few bike rentals to choose from. We did not book in advance, although this is an option. We chose Martha’s Vineyard Bike Rentals and paid a day rate of $30.00 for a 21 speed mountain bike. This also included a bike trail map, lock, and helmet.

We started on the Oak Bluffs to Edgartown bike route. A map of Martha’s Vineyard bike routes can be found here. The beginning of the route is laid out with gorgeous beach views to the left, as well as views of the bay to your right. If the wind and season is right, you may see wind surfers skating around the water’s surface.

After a few miles you’ll arrive in Edgartown. This well preserved 19th century village built by whaling captains has been carefully maintained. It’s cobblestone streets are a little narrow, so be sure to stay on the path and try not to hit pedestrians.

We kept cycling down to Chappy Road to catch views of Cape Poge to take in some views of the starch white lighthouse that resides there. Did you know this lighthouse appeared in the movie ‘Jaws’?

We took the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road path and cut over to County Road on our way back. Get ready to get that workout in! This trail has some major inclines, but hey, it’s good for the bod.

#2 Hiking the National Seashore

The Cape Cod National Seashore is extensive and covers most of the northeastern border of the cape, protecting an array of beaches. We chose the Great Island Trail which is about a 4.7 mile loop. This trail offers a variety of diverse landscapes, from marshland, to beach, to forest; all these worlds collide.

The beginning and most of the trail is sand. So be prepared to get sand in your shoes, or walk barefoot, which is what I eventually chose to do. Walking through the dunes can be exhausting so make sure you bring plenty of water, we recommend the KUYOU 2L Hydration Bladder.

Winding through the dunes, takes you through the bay marshlands. Speckled all throughout the soft landscape are tiny holes. Before you know it you will notice movement as tiny crabs scurry sideways, entering and maneuvering through a system of underground tunnels. I was nervous about stepping on them at first, but they were quick to get out of the way.

The marsh ends at the beginning of an enchanting pine forest. In Autumn you will find many locals, hunting the mushrooms in the forest (FYI, we later discovered this is illegal). The pines open up to a beautiful meadow.

Stepping out of the forrest transcends to a flat meadow that ends at towering dunes, constantly collecting sands carried on the winds of an ocean breeze. Hiking up to the top of the dunes gives great views of the Atlantic. We took a breather here admiring the views and one another. After we caught our breath we headed down to the beach to enjoy the ocean and search for seashells.

On our way back into the forest we encountered a very different kind of local. A coyote began walking along side us. He tested his curiosity taking a few steps towards us then turned away to head back into the meadow. He gave us one last glance, which Dan captured beautifully below.

This beautiful coyote wasn’t the tiniest bit shy.

This trail is worth every grain of sand that was stuck in our shoes. Please do not miss the opportunity to take in these gorgeous New England landscapes.

#3 Kayaking Salt Pond Bay

I just need to take a moment to give a shout out to Dan’s Mom, Mary. Mary is in her 50’s and was able to keep up with us (and sometimes even surpass us, in every activity), very impressive! Our final and most entertaining activity was kayaking in the Salt Pond Bay on the East coast of Cape Cod.

We booked our three hour kayaking adventure Cape Kayaking. with Kayaking begins in the Nauset Marsh, however, you can only kayak this area during High Tide. The Marsh provides an route to Salt Pond Bay, home to many seals who wonder in from the ocean to bob around and fish in the bay. I was anxious to see the seals, and see if I could get an opportunity to pet one. The kayak instructor ruined my dreams though when he informed that the seal would bite us and give us “seal rot.” I tried to research this further, but couldn’t find anything? I think he was just keeping us from the seal’s love.

Once we arrived to the center of the bay, little bald heads began popping up all around us. We loved watching the seals play. We watched as they would pop up, go back under and then pop up closer, and then closer; but still no pets.

We had about 6 in our group. One guy flipped his kayak and said he couldn’t do it anymore. Our guide had to tow him; he asked the amateur to help him paddle. He wasn’t helping the guide any so Mary called him out and said”you better be helping him paddle!” Get em’ Mary!

We arrived at a small sandbar and relaxed a bit. We walked up and down beach enjoying the birds, (Dan enjoyed them a little too much, see below). We then ventured back the way we came, and said goodbye to the seals!

That wraps up our Cape Cod adventures. Which one sounds the most appealing to you?