Cathedral Spires trail at Custer State Park

My husband is more of a hard core hiker and did a bit more hiking at Custer State Park when we were there earlier this summer. But for me Cathedral Spires was an easy and enjoyable hike that I think most people will like. The key is start early in the morning to avoid the scorching sun and the frequent afternoon thunderstorms. If you’re looking for some challenging hikes, consider Little Devil’s Spur and/or Black Elk Peak. My husband did that one on his own. It’s the highest spot in South Dakota (7242 feet).

Cathedral Spires is roughly 1.6 miles out and back. It takes you to the base of the spires and if you’re lucky you might spot some climbers like we did. It’s a moderate uphill climb and there were quite a few mosquitoes in the first half mile or so as we crossed some marshy meadows filled with wildflowers

Road Tripping to Black Hills, South Dakota: Bismarck Lake Campground

Back over a decade ago when we first moved to Colorado, we took an epic road trip up to the Wyoming national parks (Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and then finished out our trip by driving over to South Dakota and visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands (which, contrary to their name, are pretty awesome). On our way home we passed through the Black Hills National Forest. At the time we were road weary and ready to get home, but we made a mental note to return as it was so green and beautiful. It took us a while but my husband and I finally made it back this summer. And we weren’t disappointed by our stay at Bismarck Lake Campground.

Getting there

From Denver it’s a good 5-6 hour drive, especially on a busy holiday weekend. However, that’s nothing for many folks. We talked to a couple who drove from Michigan and it was a 20-hour journey for them. If you prefer to fly, the nearest major city is Rapid City, just about an hour away. Since the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, as well as some other major attractions such Crazy Horse Monument and Wind Cave National Park, are nearby, it’s very easy to spend a week here visiting all the sites.

Info for campers

There are cabins and hotels in and around the town of Custer, but we decided to tent camp. We don’t have an RV and every year I regret it a bit more as I get older as it just is not comfortable. Another reason is that in Colorado and throughout the Mountain West (and I stretch to include South Dakota within that region) summer thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence. All three days we were there we had them. Now, fortunately none were as torrential as we experienced in Colorado, but I think we just got lucky. Only one happened during the night and that passed by us just to the north. However, it woke up me (I was thinking it was another fireworks celebration as it was on the 4th of July) and I was unable to get back to sleep for over an hour as I was concerned it would come our direction as it appeared to be doing on the radar.

Now when it comes to picking a campground I always feel a bit torn. Usually I prefer a state park when staying 3 nights or longer, as they have shower facilities, but I didn’t really like the look of the campgrounds within Custer State Park.  The most central ones had a generic feel to them and were better suited it seems to RVs. So we decided to just stay right outside the boundary of the state park at a Black Hills National Forest Camp, Bismarck Lake Campground, a small 21-site campground next to a scenic lake. Like forest camps everywhere, it only had vault toilets but it did have water.  But it was high enough up that we felt it wouldn’t be too mosquito infested.

The campground itself was great. The location of our site (#3) was also very nice with lots of trees and plenty of space between us and our neighbors. However, it was indicated as a tent site and I just don’t agree with that.  We ended up pitched our large-ish tent at the end of the long gravel driveway. At least it was flat but the ground was very hard, difficult to drive the spikes into.

However, #3 was on the quieter end of the campground with better spacing than the small loop and we felt the mosquitoes were minimal. Close to the toilet but not too close and a short walk to the lake. The lake is smaller than the very popular Sylvan Lake and nearby Stockade Lake but very pretty, with a boat launch (for canoes, kayaks, small fishing boats, paddle boards as this is a no-wake lake).

Because of its proximity to Custer, we actually drove into town for breakfast 2 mornings and donuts on our final day. (I especially recommend Baker’s Bakery and Cafe – great breakfast and killer Apple fritters) We ate our dinner once, as well. For me, it was a nice balance as I’m not a hardcore camper

Overall, I’d give this a 4 out of 5 for its beautiful location and quiet surroundings.

Links to our favorite places:

The Begging Burro for killer Mexican food in Custer.

Baker’s Bakery & Cafe for homestyle breakfasts and donuts.

Hotel Rui Palace Mexico: our “revenge vacation” destination

Like so many Americans we decided to do what is being coined a revenge vacation after being fully vaccinated and waiting 2 weeks. I actually booked our vacation once I got my first vaccine scheduled. My husband was dragging his feet on scheduling but did want to go on vacation, so we worked quickly to get him scheduled as well (this was back in late March).

I had talked to several people who had gone to Mexico and it seemed like the easiest place to go. Sure, it wasn’t going to be the same as Spain, which we had booked and planned to go to in the fall of 2020. But it did have a beach and it was hot and sunny. After a long winter in Colorado, that’s all I needed.

Although we have stayed once in an all-inclusive (AI) in Puerta Vallarta, our preference is usually smaller boutique or condos in Mexico. However, given the situation of the pandemic, our plan this time was to find an AI in or around Playa del Carmen (south of Cancun). I had heard the big chain hotels were offering free on-site Covid testing as it is (currently) required to get back into the US. Once booking some dirt cheap flights on Frontier (with upgraded seating!) I started looking for hotels. They were cheap in May (and even cheaper now). My two finalists were the Rui Palace Mexico and the Riu Palace Maya Riviera. They’re both in the Playacar area of Playa del Carmen. Ultimately, I liked the look of Rui Palace Mexico a bit better and it was cheaper by $60 a night when we went.

(one little nice thing about the Riu chain – there are a bunch in Playa del Carmen. If you have a wristband from any one of them, you can eat or use the pools, etc. at any of them. One time we were walking down the beach and actually stopped by the RP Maya Riviera and saw that it was virtually the same layout as RP Mexico. We picked up a free drink and continued on down the beach to our hotel.)

Speaking of the rooms, I’m posting two pics here to show you that the rooms at both the hotels have virtually the same layout.

I booked directly online on the Riu site as I was able to get a free shuttle for us. That’s very worthwhile as it’s an hour away from the Cancun airport and would be quite a taxi ride. When you get to the Cancun airport just walk past all the people inside trying to get you on a shuttle or taxi and make your way outside to where Riu has a little podium where you can check in. It may take a while for a shuttle to come but no worries! There’s an outside bar where you can go eat or pick up a drink. I got a Tecate. After a long plane ride with no drink service, this was very welcome in hot, humid Mexico. One con about the RP Mexico is that is one of the later stops on the shuttle route. Fortunately, only one other couple on our way there. On the flip side, we were one of the first pickups on the return to the airport. This was good! We got a seat near the front of the van and were not packed in the back like a sardine.

Although we did do the online check-in procedure which was supposed to streamline the check-in process during Covid, it didn’t seem to be any different than the normal check-in. Copy of passport, etc. However, this wasn’t a big deal as there weren’t any others checking in at the time. By the way, they take Covid precautions very seriously in Mexico, such as wearing a mask in all indoor public areas in the hotel, hand sanitizer, and also these little shoe cleaning mats that you’re supposed to walk through. Also they did do temp checks when you enter the hotel. They’re supposed to do it every time but sometimes no one was there. The most important part of the check-in was getting info on the Covid testing. Kudos to the Riu for offering this service and making it so easy.

We were also scheduled to meet with a hotel representative who, of course, wanted to sign us up for activities. We passed on any activities, as the main attraction we wanted to do, Tulum, was closed by the government because of Covid.

I would give our restaurant and dining experience a B here. The breakfast and lunch buffets were always good and they did have a variety of hot dishes every day so you weren’t eating the same thing every day. At breakfast all I cared was that they had plantanos maduros (fried plantains) and papaya. As for the restaurants, no reservations were required (during the pandemic) and no dress code either, although most people did tend to dress up.

Each night 3 of the 5 restaurants were open. I think normally all five would be open during a non-pandemic year, but I think they were limiting dining choices due to low number of guests.

  • “Krystal” Fusion restaurant
  • “Miyagi” Japanese restaurant
  • Steakhouse
  • Italian restaurant
  • “La Bodega” Mexican restaurant (buffet starters and dessert)

Of course, I think the Mexican restaurant was the best, followed by the Italian, and the Steakhouse. Sometimes Mexican properties do a good job on sushi but the Riu Japanese offerings were not up to par.

As I mentioned, some of the activities were limited due to the pandemic. Live music seem to be limited and the resort seemed to be relatively quiet compared to what it probably was prior to pandemic. We saw that every afternoon they had some games going on by the pools, but overall it wasn’t the party atmosphere that we expected. But I was fine with that. The pools themselves are the smaller side, but with the relatively small amount of guests it wasn’t crowded. The swim-up bar was operating, but I never used it. The pool-side waiters kept the drinks coming. What I enjoyed most, though, was the beach area. Sure, 2021 is a bad year for sargassum seaweed. But there were tons of palm trees and lounge chairs which afforded beautiful views. Yes, there were some annoying venders but not as bad as some Mexican resorts.

We loved doing beach walks every morning before it rained (we seemed to get a quick shower most days around noon) and before it got super hot. There are some ruins just up the road from the hotel that were not much to see, but we did get to see some iguanas running around. I personally enjoyed the shopping in Playacar. We did go one day into Playa del Carmen but the shopping area was too touristy. That’s where you can catch the boat shuttle over to Cozumel.

In and around Playacar

Playa del Carmen

Now for the cons of this hotel. Overall, the housecleaning is great. However, they’re too stingy with towels (I swiped them off the housecleaning carts as it was easier than calling). I know, they’re doing what they’re told but two towels at a beach resort is not enough. (yes, you do get a card for pool/beach towels). And the housecleaners were a bit too thorough. While I do get partial blame for this, my new bikini top disappeared on day 2. I think I had accidentally put a towel over it after drying off after a shower but it I couldn’t find it later. Lesson learned. We were very careful with keeping things tidy after that.

But the biggest gripe is the noise. The neighboring hotel had live music going on one night until after midnight. Of course, the RP Mexico has no control over this, but I think offering ear plugs wouldn’t be a bad idea. Their policy is no music at the outside stage or theater after 11. But other hotels didn’t abide by this time frame. Furthermore, the hallways are super loud as noise echoes off the concrete walls. On the last night our upstairs neighbor was watching TV until midnight (and very active with other activities on other nights) and it became obvious that there was no soundproofing between floors and rooms.

Overall, we had a great time here. Good food, great location, very good service. Just a little noisy. I was impressed with Riu on my first stay there. I’ll certainly consider their other properties in the future.

Sedona: a wonderfully relaxing getaway

My husband has been bugging me for years that we should do a getaway to Sedona. As we live in Colorado, it’s just a short flight away (to Phoenix and then a 2 hour drive north.) So we finally decided to go in 2020 for our anniversary in April. But then the pandemic came and that plan went up in smoke.

However, we decided to try again in 2021. We discovered in 2021 that we liked staying in AirBNBs. Originally we had planned to stay in Sedona proper in a hotel but being that it was March this time (my birthday) and neither of us were vaccinated yet, we decided to skip the hotel and find an AirBNB in the Village of Oak Creek, just about 10 minutes south of Sedona. Good choice! It’s less crowded here and a lot less traffic. We stayed in a house just minutes away from shopping with tons of privacy, and of course, great views. Well, pretty much anymore in Sedona has great views but we feel that Oak Creek is a lot less hectic. The con is that there aren’t as many dining options. But that was the point – we wanted to stay away from crowded restaurants.

What to do: Well, first of all, Sedona is known as the day hike capital of the US. And from my observation, that’s a very accurate description. Since we were there only 3 nights, we devoted one day to hiking, although we could have easily done more. But for the non-hikers there’s plenty of shopping, “new age” activities such UFO tours and Vortex experiences, and your usual group tours. I’m not into new age stuff, but I did wish we could have gone to Slide Rock. I recall going there as a child. But it was too cold in March to do this. It’s a natural sandstone slide on Oak Creek. Not surprisingly, it’s super popular during the hot summer.

Slide Rock State Park (PC: azswimmingholes.com)

The hike we chose to do was the Bell Trail that takes off from the Bell Rock Trailhead and encircles Courthouse Rock. It’s about a 4 mile loop and is pretty easy with hardly any hill climbing, unless you decide to climb up to the Vortex at Bell Rock. Start early, though! This parking lot can get packed. Many people just chose to go up to the Vortex and by the time we returned the parking lot was packed. And this, as I mentioned, was in March! It was a little drizzly when we started but it cleared off quickly and we were treated to a beautiful hike.

View from our AirBNB

Courthouse Butte

Baby Bell Rock

Bell Rock

Another hugely popular trail is the Cathedral Rock trail. The picture below is from our vantage point on the Bell Trail. But it does have its own trailhead. I imagine it’s a zoo in the summer. They were doing some work there to prevent people from parking on the entrance road as it is near a residential area.

But if you’re not into hiking there is still plenty of sightseeing to be done. Two places I recommend are Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout with spectacular vistas of the Sedona area and also the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which is built into the rock cliff face.

Last but certainly not least, there’s plenty of shopping to be done. On the north side of town on 89A there are plenty of the typical touristy shops to get souvenirs and such. I couldn’t help myself and posed in front of these cute pink Javelina.

But for a more upscale shopping experience wander over to Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village on the west side of 179. Even though I didn’t buy anything they did have a lot of interesting shops and galleries and I enjoyed the pueblo-like atmosphere there. It’s very interesting to look at all the Sycamore trees which the buildings seem to be built around.

Overall, I have to say that Sedona was a pleasant surprise. It was very temperate in March and during the pandemic the crowds weren’t bad. Fall would also be a great time to go as well. If you’re coming to enjoy the water activities along Oak Creek, well, obviously March would not be a good time. But try to hit it before it starts to get scorching hot in the summer months.

Plan now for your rental car for summer vacation!

When it comes to vacations, securing flights and accommodations comes first. Typically, if I find a cheap fare to my destination (direct is preferred!) then I will work quickly to find a suitable accommodation that fits my needs. The last thing that I think about is a rental car.  I may even put it off in hopes that the rates will be cheaper if I book closer to my vacation.

I’ve taken several trips this last year during the pandemic – Knoxville, Tennessee; St. Augustine, Florida; and Sedona, Arizona (via Phoenix). On none of these trips did I have problems securing a rental car.

However, I recently heard that the rental car market was going crazy with sky high rates and no availability in some destinations. Way back in January I had booked accommodations and a flight to Kalispell, Montana for a visit to Glacier National Park.  I realized that I had not booked my rental car. I started looking around and kept on coming up with no availability. I was in a bit of a panic. Finally, I was able to book one through Enterprise. But I had to book the whole week instead of just the 4 days I was there. I’m not happy about it and am still worried that there won’t even be a car when I show up. However, we’re not canceling yet. I noticed that my daily rate was actually pretty cheap – $100. But when I looked at changing my flight to fly into Missoula and drive 2 hours north, everything turned out to be the same. The airfare was now higher and the daily rate out of Missoula (where there was availability) was $250 a day.

My husband and I did a little research and found out that this rental car crisis is due to the rental car fleets selling off a lot of cars during the pandemic in order to stay afloat. And now there is a chip shortage in the US so they can’t replace the cars that they sold off.

So, my advice to travelers is to now check rental car rates and availability before booking flights. Don’t wait like I did!

Two and through! Done with my Covid Vaccines

Two days ago I received my second Moderna vaccine. As expected I felt a little crappy the next day. Some chills and very fatigued. My husband had his second Pfizer vaccine the next day. He felt crappy today. Pretty much the same issues of tiredness and chills that I had. He also said he felt some body aches in the morning. I took Advil right after I got my shot and it did help. But the chills set in overnight for me. Today, I feel almost 100% back to normal. I went out and did some geocaching but decided to wait one more day before I went running.

Colorado now has a number of drive-thru clinics that don’t require appointments. That’s amazing! Back at the beginning of April it was so busy. I knew people driving up to Wyoming to get vaccinated. Now it’s pretty easy. It’s still problematic for people who don’t drive and I know in Denver they’re trying to address this issue.

Still, we could be doing better. My husband plays volleyball with a group of adults and most of them aren’t interested in getting the vaccine. We need 70% of the population vaccinated to reach herd immunity. At present Colorado is at 28.4% and the United State is at 27.2%. We opened it up to all people age 16 and over a few weeks ago. I’m hoping that more schools require it so we can see an increase over the summer.

Checking out scenic Phoenix

If you fly into Phoenix, make sure to spend some at the Desert Botanical Gardens, as well as Hole in the Rock, both just minutes away from Sky Harbor Airport. We were down in Arizona in March for a quick visit to Sedona. As we arrived late in the day, we spent the night there, and before driving north, visited these two attractions. They didn’t disappoint!

You do need to make reservations to get into Desert Botanical Gardens, but I had no problem doing it the night before. Admission is $29.95. There is an onsite restaurant, but at the time there was limited seating due to Covid-19 restrictions, so the wait time was long (although you can make reservations.)

I took a ton of pictures and it’s hard to exclude too many. As you can see, it’s not just traditional cactus, but a wide range of succulents as well.

After enjoying our morning here, we picked up some sandwiches at Subway and were able to find some picnic tables outside the park to enjoy the pleasant Arizona sun (not yet scorching hot summer sun). We then headed over to Hole in the Rock. It’s in the same general area as the Botanical Garden and the Zoo. It gets a lot of visitors since it’s an easy .3 mile hike up to the hole and offers spectacular views of the Valley of the Sun.

Our Covid-19 Vaccine Journey

Yay! After a couple stressful weeks my family is on the road to being vaccinated against Covid.

I was the first to get scheduled. It became obvious early on that getting an appointment with one of the major pharmacies was difficult. I did manage to somewhat easily get an appointment with an independent pharmacy 45 minutes away for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but then due to shortages (production issues with J&J) they canceled it. After hearing that I decided to go for either Moderna or Pfizer.   But I still didn’t like the pharmacy route. After joining the Colorado Vaccine Hunters Facebook page I learned about some of the Mass Drive-Thru Clinics. I managed to get three appointments at different locations (because I didn’t want to deal with another cancellation! And yes, I did cancel the others.) I ended up going to one run by a local fire department in Thornton. Very smooth. In and out in 20 minutes (that includes the 15-minute post shot observation time). Added bonus: Krispy Kreme is nearby so I got my free donut!

I tried to get my husband an appointment there last week but word had got out about how good they were and their schedule filled up by 9 am on Tuesday (the previous Tuesday this was not the case.) So I got him an appointment at another mass drive-thru clinic at Ball Arena in Denver. There were more cars at this one and it did take us about 45 minutes. Still, very smooth and no need to get out of the car.

(For the record, my husband at first was going to wait but then we decided to do a quick getaway to Mexico in May because it’s so cheap to travel there right now. He quickly changed his tune.)

My oldest son and his girlfriend are at getting one at a hospital clinic near where they live. That just leaves my youngest son who still lives at home. This week I was ready and waiting to book at the fire department and managed to snag him an appointment as soon as they opened their schedule.

I feel so relieved! Yes, we all still need to get our second jabs. My husband’s is already scheduled. The fire department will contact me and my son when they open up the schedule for our second shots. This whole business of getting a vaccine can be very stressful. But it seems pretty common. Friends of mine in California are driving several hours south down to San Luis Obispo to get their first jabs.

If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere – Boulder Shooting 3/22/2021

It was a dark, gray day here in Boulder county. We don’t get a lot of those. Unfortunately, the weather was a grim predicter of what would go down that day in Boulder, about 10 miles down the road from my house.

I had planned to go to Target and Whole Foods. But I was feeling a bit tired. So I decided to get all my groceries at Target, even though I knew Whole Foods had better shrimp. With enough spices I hoped no one could tell the difference.

When I went into Target I heard a lot of sirens. Target is near Hwy. 36 which heads west to Boulder. There’s also a big interchange where many accidents occur. I brushed off the sirens as an accident. I actually didn’t spend a lot of time in Target. Usually I wander the store picking up things I don’t need, but today I just tried to stick to my list.

When I got home I heard the news on a local Facebook page about the shooting at King Sooper’s grocery store. At that point people knew there were at least 2-3 dead due to the live streaming video of a local videographer. Later we learned that a police officer, Eric Talley, 51, had died. He had become a policeman only 11 years ago after a career change (former IT guy). He now leaves behind seven children and his wife. The next day we learned the final death toll – ten people including Officer Talley. The man charged was a 21-year-old from nearby Arvada. Motive remains unclear at this point. He was caught by officers in the store when he surrendered due to leg wound.

Of the other people, three were store employees, and another one was a woman picking up groceries for an Instacart delivery.

We’re still all trying to deal with this. Boulder is normally a pretty peaceful town. Yes, it is a college town where kids do occasionally drink too much and get rowdy. (Recently the news of a large party near campus that got out of control made national news). Like the rest of Colorado, we’ve been dealing with an uptick of car thefts, but that’s about it for this normally pretty quiet town of 110,000.

Today I watched the procession as Officer Talley’s body was moved to the funeral home in Aurora, just east of Denver. Tomorrow I plan to go to Boulder and place flowers at the memorial outside the store.

Snowmageddon 2021 – the big March blizzard in Colorado

I’ve lived in Colorado for 14 years and heavy March snowstorms are nothing new. We started seeing the forecast about a week ago for snow on the weekend. By midweek we knew this was going to be a big one. I think because of the experiences of the Pandemic and the recent Texas snowstorm, people went a little crazy here. Bananas started selling out around Thursday. Yeah, bananas! Anyhow, I didn’t go too crazy. I had done a Costco run early in the week and had plenty of food on hand.

However, Friday night came and we were hardly seeing any snow. Saturday came and it was raining in the morning. It turned to snow in the afternoon and by evening it was snowing pretty heavy. We woke up Sunday to about 8 inches with blizzard conditions.

When it was all done Sunday night I estimate we had got in the neighborhood of 20 inches. Hard to do an exact measure due to drifting. Today we shoveled. My husband has never bought a snowblower despite having a bad back. I’m exhausted as we had a huge drift in our driveway. Anyhow, enjoy the pics and short video. And send some nice weather our way.

This is what a blizzard is like!