Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road (Part 1): the new smoky reality of travel in the Western United States and Canada

This past summer of 2021 we finally checked off Glacier National Park from our bucket list. But unfortunately, we were greeted with smoky skies. A few years earlier we had visited Banff and Jasper in Alberta, Canada and experienced the same. It is, unfortunately, becoming more and more common, as forest fires are no longer the exception, but the norm.

I debated how much editing I should do to these pics, but decided to post them as is. No sugar coating it. Fortunately, the rain came on our last day and I did get some better pics, but in this posting, I am showing what we saw on our first drive through on Glacier’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is the main scenic drive through the park. Despite the smoke, it is still stunningly beautiful and easily my favorite national park drive. I’ve been to almost every national park in the the Western United States, some numerous times (Yosemite, Crater Lake, and Rocky Mountain), so this is high praise!

Now, a word about parking. It’s pretty bad. Many people’s destination is Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, but you may be forced to wait to get a spot. I returned on the second morning to drop off my husband for a hike he did and it was already packed at 7 am. We did manage to find a space on the first day, but it was pure luck. When we were in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, people parked along the road but you can’t do that here. However, if it is packed, continue on and check out the equally beautiful east side of the park, including Saint Mary Lake. We were unable to find a parking spot for St. Mary’s Falls Trail but did manage to get one for Baring Falls.

The following set of pictures is from the east side (beyond Logan Pass), including St. Mary’s Lake and Baring Falls. There are lots of beautiful road-side falls that cascade down to the road. You can see evidence of the one of the numerous fires that have scorched Glacier over the years. Yet, from the ashes beautiful wild flowers grow again.

Glacier National Park: Planning for your visit

Glacier National Park has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to Colorado 14 years ago. However, I’ve always been in a bit of a quandary how to get there. We had previously visited the national parks in Wyoming (Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and doing a 14-hour drive from our home in Colorado to visit this national park in the northwest corner of Montana just didn’t seem like something I wanted to do.

So I reluctantly shelled out close to $800 for 2 tickets for me and my husband to fly there this past summer. It has its own International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell and is serviced by quite a few major airlines. Now, as you probably heard, there was a rental car shortage last summer. Initially I had some issues finding an available rental car, but ended up making a reservation with Hertz through Expedia. It was expensive – $200 a day. But a rental car is essential in Glacier. Lucky for us, the line was short. The line for Alamo was a mile long. I noted that Enterprise is located outside the airport. So I got lucky since I had also made a backup reservation with Enterprise.

Hopefully, the rental car situation will be better in 2022, but please make your reservation for one as soon as you make your flight reservation. Although there are the funky Red Bus tour cars, they don’t offer you the same freedom as a rental car.

Red Bus Tour Car (PC: NPS)

Where to stay?

Well, since it was the Pandemic, we opted to stay outside the park. The National Park Service actually has a variety of accommodations inside the park including seven NPS-affiliated lodges in the park: four on the west side (Lake McDonald Lodge, Village Inn at Apgar, Lake McDonald Motel, and Apgar Village Lodge & Cabins) and three on the east side (Many Glacier Lodge, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins, Rising Sun Motor Inn & Cabins). Normally, I might have been inclinded to stay in Lake McDonald Lodge since it is a classic national park lodge with a beautiful location, but we are starting to prefer cabins and AirBNBs because of safety issues in the pandemic.

lobby of Lake McDonald Lodge (PC: NPS)

And of course, campgrounds. But camping was out of the question for me since this is grizzly bear country. But please don’t let this scare you. I’m just prefer a roof over my head and quite honestly, we didn’t spot one bear while we were there. And my husband even hiked in the backcounty, although he did pack bear spray at my insistence.

Grizzly bear in Glacier (PC: NPS)

I found a nice cabin resort called the North Forty Resort just about 10 minutes from the airport on the outskirts of Columbia Falls. It does add about 25 minutes on your drive into the park but on the plus side, it is close to Columbia Falls dining and shops.

Our cabin at North Forty Resort

GOING TO THE SUN ROAD – Ticketed entry!!! Please read this

I did not realize until a few weeks before we left that the main road through the park has a ticketed entry system. No, this is not included in the entry fee. You must go online and get this either in the spring or the week before you go. This is the info from the website for 2021:

Going-to-the-Sun Road Entry tickets are available 60 days in advance on a rolling daily window for arrivals May 28 – September 6, 2021. Beginning May 26th, 2021, tickets will also available two days in advance at 8 a.m. MT on a rolling daily window. Entry tickets are good for 7 consecutive days including the reserved day of arrival. Only one GTSR entry ticket is required per vehicle/motorcycle.

Since I missed the window in the springtime I attempted to get our pass a week before. They sold out within minutes. They said do not have multiple windows or devices open in an attempt to get a pass, but the next day I said to hell with it and had 3 windows and my phone submitting requests for a pass the minute they opened it up. I got it on my fourth attempt.

My next post will include more pics of the park. But I wanted to leave you with a few today. It’s a glorious place, even with smoky skies.

Lake McDonald

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!

St. Augustine, Florida: not just a beach vacation

We did a quick getaway to St. Augustine, Florida back in January of this year (seems a lifetime ago already!) We had hoped we would get some decent weather, but as it turned out it was pretty cold. Fortunately, this is a great town to do sightseeing.

Despite the gloomy weather, we’d start our day with a beach walk. We were staying in the Vilano Beach area and unfortunately its beach is not as nice as St. Augustine Beach due to beach erosion due to a hurricane and the current restoration project. But we still got to get walk it the first two mornings. On the third morning we drove over to Anatasia Island State Park and hiked the beach on Bird Island, just north of St. Augustine Beach. Wow! Great beach. If you like long flat beach walks (or runs) it’s definitely better over on this side. Plus we finally had sunny weather.

So after our beach walks we’d head into town and do a little exploring and sight-seeing. On the first day we checked on the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. This is a privately run park and charges a $18 entrance fee. Typically, I stay away from places like this, but you can blame it on the peacocks roaming the grounds freely. This were definitely worth the entrance fee and the rest of the park wasn’t bad either. I did learn about the early colonial history of St. Augustine, first explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 and settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, even before the Pilgrims came to North America. The walk around the grounds is beautiful and you can see various exhibits such as the canon firing and Timucuan Village, a replica of the village of the native people that lived here when the Spaniards first arrived. And of course, I drank from the fountain of youth.

We next headed Castillo de San Marcos, which is the oldest masonry fort in the US, constructed by the Spanish, with considerable help from local natives, in 1672. It’s been occupied twice by the Spanish, twice by the British, had two periods of US occupation, and also briefly occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War. It was finally taken over by the US Park Service in 1933, having been using for nearly 250 years. Unfortunately, we could not go inside because of Covid 19 (only open on Wednesdays currently) but having seen a similar fort in Puerto Rico, we weren’t overly disappointed. We enjoyed walking the grounds and checking out the unique stone used to build the fort. It’s called stone called coquina (Spanish for “small shells”), which consists of ancient shells that have bonded together to form a rock similar to limestone.

The next afternoon was dedicated to exploring the historical district of Saint Augustine. It’s truly a beautiful town and while there is a hop-on trolley, it’s easily done on foot. Our first stop was historic Flagler College. While the college is only 53 years old, the main structure is over a 100 years old, constructed in 1888 as the Ponce de Leon Hotel for industrialist Henry Flagler.

Right down the street from Flagler College we saw another Flagler-commissioned building. Also built in 1888, this building was originally the the Alcazar Hotel. It closed during the depression and was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago publisher, who then turned it into a museum that housed his extensive collection of decorative and fine arts. It also serves as a city administrative office building. We didn’t have time to tour the museum (my husband spends way too much time when he goes in one) but we did enjoy its beautiful courtyard. Finally, we closed out the afternoon by walking up past Plaza de la Consitucion, Cathedral Basilica, and doing a little shopping on the touristy St. George Street. After all that, we needed a little refreshment, so we drove to the nearby St. Augustine Distillery!

We wrapped up our visit of St. Augustine on our final day by visiting the lighthouse on Anatasia Island. This 165-foot lighthouse with 219 steps was constructed between 1871 and 1874. However, a watchtower was originally built here in 1589 and went through several renditions before funding for the present lighthouse was approved by Congress during the Florida Reconstruction period. It’s actually the first lighthouse I’ve climbed up and it wasn’t difficult for me, but it could be some as it is a tight space. Fortunately, it was a cool Florida winter day so it was quite pleasant and there weren’t many people due to Covid.

In closing here are pics of the wonderful Christmas lights in St. Augustine that were still up in January as a part of their Night of Lights display.

Please check out my other blog posts on St. Augustine here and here.

A wonderful Florida beach vacation that’s a bit different than the others: St. Augustine

Ever since we moved out to Colorado from California 14 years ago, we’ve been trying to make it to Florida every 2-3 years. Although some of those vacations included time in Miami and Orlando, our favorite spots were beach destinations including Marco Island, Key Largo, St. Pete Beach, and Boynton Beach. But I have to say our favorite so far has been the St. Augustine area. It’s not just your typical sun and sand destination (and I have to say we didn’t get much of the sun when we were there). Rather, it’s more of a historical destination, billing itself as the oldest city in the United States, with a vibe somewhat along the lines of Key Largo. But don’t worry, it’s got great beaches, too!

Accomodations

St. Augustine is located at the junction of the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers, just west of the Saint Augustine inlet, so it is not directly facing the Atlantic Ocean. However, there are a lot of nice hotels in its downtown area, with lots of dining options which makes it a great spot for those who are just there for shopping and sightseeing of the historical sights.

However, if you want a beachfront property, you can check out either St. Augustine Beach to the south, or Vilano Beach to the north. Both are just minutes away on barrier islands, but have different pros and cons. Vilano Beach has more houses and less of the typical Florida condos. It’s also very accessible in that it does not have a drawbridge like the Bridge of Lions which you have to cross to get to St. Augustine Beach. If you’ve spent much time in Florida, you know those drawbridges out to the barrier islands can drive you nuts as they get really backed up at times. That said, St. Augustine Beach is much nicer. Vilano Beach was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew back in 2016. Yes, there is beach there, but it’s not as flat and walkable. They are currently in the middle of a restoration project which is pumping in sand through a large pipe which is submerged in some areas and exposed in other areas.

Fortunately, we did not see the pipe from the condo we chose to stay at. I was very pleased with our choice as it was quiet, with a beautiful view, and very close to Publix grocery store. As we were there in January 2021 during the Pandemic, we wanted to stay in a place with few people and this fit the bill. The owner had remodeled it within the last year, so it had a fresh, new feeling.

There are several restaurants in downtown Vilano Beach. The first night we ate at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant. They had patio dining, which we did every time we ate out while we there. We usually tried to eat lunch out and cook breakfast and dinner at the condo, as it was pretty chilly (60 and below) by the time sun set.

In my next post I’ll talk more about what to see in St. Augustine. But in the meantime, enjoy these beautiful views!

Sunrise from Seawatch Condos
Some mornings it was cloudy but who cares?
Relaxation at Vilano Beach
Condos from the beach
Sunset out our front door, looking toward Francis and Mary Usina Bridge
The Vilano Beach Pier at night
yummy key lime pie at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant

Day 3 in Iceland – our adventure on Heimaey

Our plan for Day 3 in Iceland in the fall of 2017 was simple enough: leave Hella and proceed east on Ring Road to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, exploring several waterfalls along the way. Well, it started out very nicely. Our first planned stop was the majestic Seljalandsfoss (Golden Falls). It’s just off the Ring Road and an easy 90-minute drive from Reykjavik if you’re just doing day trip exploring the South Coast.

(Read about our first two days here.)

As we drove there from Hella we noticed the landscape was more green and lush than it had been on Reykjanes Peninsula. A herd of sheep seemed amused by our presence as we stopped by the roadside to take their picture. Unlike their counterparts in England, they were a tad less skittish.

Peek a boo!

We arrived to the parking area for Seljalandsfoss mid morning and already found it to be quite busy. It was a bit windy and we felt a bit of spray blowing off the 200-foot waterfalls, even though we were parked maybe a quarter mile away. We noticed people putting on rain jackets and the like, so we did the same. Many carried their iPhones in waterproof cases.

The popularity of this waterfall is in large part due to the fact that you can walk behind it. Let me be clear – you WILL get wet. So be prepared. My travel pants dry quickly, but if your preference is toward jeans, consider getting a large plastic poncho that will cover most of you. We even saw a Chinese woman in her red wedding dress getting photographed by a professional photographer behind the falls. She looked positively freezing. I hope she wasn’t planning on wearing the dress again.

Seljalandsfoss from the road
behind Seljalandsfoss

After our stop at Seljalandsfoss, I had assumed we’d continue on the Ring Road east toward our final destination for the day, stopping at several waterfalls en route. However, my husband had other plans. He wanted to see if there were any ferries running to the Island of Heimaey, which is the main island of the volcanic island chain, Vestmannaeyjar, just off the southern coast and not too far from Seljalandsfoss. I was skeptical that a ferry would be running, as it was late September and the seas were already rough. While this is a popular summer attraction for visitors who want to see puffins, the ferry route typically stops running for tourists in September as the puffins are gone and there really is not too much to do other than hike. But hike is what my husband wanted to do. Luckily for him, the ferry was running. But the 35-minute ride was rough. I never get seasick, but I almost felt the sandwich I ate on board come back up.

Vestmannaeyjahöfn Harbor, Heimaey. photo credit Icelandmag.IS

The story behind Heimaey is actually quite interesting. It has a pair of twin volcanoes, Eldfell and Helgafell. The younger of the two, Eldfell, errupted in 1973. With a little luck and ingenuity, locals managed to save the town from being totally destroyed by it. Check out this short video for more details.

The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell, Photo Credit: wildernesscoffee-naturalhigh.com

With a limited amount of time, as our return ferry was scheduled to leave at 4 pm, we decided to hike Eldfell. There is a well-marked trail and easy to get to from town. However, it was windy and unpleasant, with the volcanic sand blowing off the slopes. My husband proceeded to the top, but I turned back and did a little shopping. Most tourist shops were already closed for the season, but I did find one near the harbor. Around 3:30 I headed toward the ferry terminal where I met up with my husband. Others were starting to gather there as well. At around 4 we received bad news. The ferry would not be leaving as scheduled due to rough seas. They would re-evaluate conditions in an hour, but nothing changed.

In the meantime one of the employees at the terminal told a young couple she had contacted a local pilot about the situation. They, in turn, passed the info along to us and after talking with others and weighing our options, we decided to go to the airport on the other side of town where he would meet us. At this point we had no idea how large his plane was or how many trips he would make back and forth. We all began scrambling to figure out how to get to the airport as it was a good ten-minute drive or at least a half hour walk. My husband had been talking with a couple from Singapore and they had managed to contact a tour bus operator with a van that was able to carry eleven of us over to the airport.

Lucky for us, we were the first group there. The young couple who had actually told us about the pilot were the last to arrive as they decided to walk. I felt awful for them as they were the last ones in the line that was at least 40 people long.

When the pilot arrived, we all were in for a little shock. The plane was small. He could only take five of us at a time. (I think we paid about $50 a person. We did eventually get a refund from the ferry operator.) They needed one more person for the first flight, so my husband and I split up. For two reasons: in case the plane went down, one of us would still be living! And the second reason, to get the car, which was parked about two miles away from the airstrip. The whole round trip was fairly short – about 15 minutes. But it seemed an eternity.

After the second trip, the pilot announced that the third trip would be his last. You could feel the tension of the people waiting. Fortunately, I made it on the plane along with a young German man and his grandparents, as well a local that the pilot was taking back. But people started to get rude while we were getting ready to exit, saying that they deserved to leave earlier than me because they had a flight back the next day. In particular, a Boston family group of five with a young girl started to get nasty to me. I just turned my head and practiced my rusty German with the German grandparents. It was honestly a very tense situation and I felt sorry for people, but there was nothing I could do.

Elliðaey from the air. There’s actually a hunting lodge on this island

I could see why our flight was the last one once I got on the tarmac. The wind was gusty and our little plane seemed like it might blow off the runway. I was glad to be up and off that island. The flight over was short, fortunately. Seeing the rough seas below gave me the chills. I’ve never felt so happy to land.

After saying our good-byes to our fellow flight buddies and dropping the German family off at the car park, we proceeded east to our hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It was nearly a 2-hour drive on a dark drizzly night. We managed to find a place to eat before checking in and crashing for the night. What a day!!

Footnote: we don’t know when the others made it back to the mainland. The ferry terminal employees were uncertain if the ferries would run the next day and I know in the morning the conditions did not look good. There were some small hotels on Heimaey, but I did see a tourist group on the ferry who looked like they planned to stay overnight, so I’m not sure how much availability there was. To some degree, I think the ferry operators were irresponsible in not warning tourists that a return trip this time of year was not a guarantee.

Lessons learned from this experience:

When traveling by ferry to an off-shore island, always take a small bag with essentials: toiletries, medications, rechargers for your phones, and maybe some extra clothing. Check to see if they have lockers at terminal so you don’t have to carry it with you.

One thing not to do in the Smokies: Cades Cove

Cades Cove appears on most lists of top places to visit in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So we decided to visit it on our last full day there on our trip in early October. The weather was good and we were certainly up for another scenic drive, as we were fully in love with the scenic beauty of the Park. However, it didn’t meet up to our expectations (except for the lovely drive there) and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone planning a visit there, unless you’re a cyclist. (The loop is closed to cars on Wednesday during the summer.)

First of all, a little background on Cades Cove. It’s about 34 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. The road from Gatlinburg, Hwy. 441, is not one way, but once you get to the loop, it does turn into a one-way road. The 11-mile loop around Cades Cove goes around the perimeter of the valley floor, which was first settled by European settlers between 1818 and 1821. Several of the restored original structures still stand, including three churches, a working grist mill, and cabins. The cove has a campground and a visitor’s center. Along the loop there are pull-outs and places to park (more on this later!)

Cades Cove

According to the National Park Service website, “It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible.” Quite honestly, after seeing turkeys and a bear elsewhere in the park (like near our cabin) I was okay if I didn’t see anything. I see coyotes and racoons all the time at home, so perhaps we should have thought twice about going here. I know the mention of wildlife tends to draw crowds. Lesson learned!

We knew we wanted to do some hiking first. We decided to do a short, easy hike to Laurel Falls, right off 441. It’s only about 1.5 miles to the falls and the trail is paved the entire way. We got there plenty early, so the foot traffic wasn’t bad and we didn’t have to park far away (by now we were used to the crazy roadside parking situation). The fall colors were very just starting, but still it was a very beautiful hike with great views of the Park, as well.

The beginning of fall colors
Interesting fungi
Majestic views of the Smokies
Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls

After we finished up our hike and continued on our way. I sure loved all the green. Having lived outside my beloved Oregon for nearly 30 years, I forgot how much I crave the forest. But we don’t have cool vines like this in Oregon!

I could never be a monkey!

We had lunch at a nice picnic area at Metcalf Bottoms and then onto to the Sinks, a powerful roadside waterfall before continuing onto to Cades Coves

The Sinks – don’t go rafting or swimming here!
The windy but beautiful road to Cades Cove

We finally made it to Cades Cove, only to be warned by a temporary sign that said due to slow traffic it could take upwards of 4 hours to complete the loop! WHAT!!!! I was ready to turn around but my husband disregarded it and proceeded. As we drove at a snail’s pace around the park with the hundreds of other cars, we saw several of the old structures and places you could pull off. But even the pull offs were packed and seeing old cabins didn’t seem too exciting (we have plenty of those in Colorado.) We did finally find a nice pull off where we took pictures, but we had yet to see any of the elusive wildlife. So we continued on our way with the plan to stop at the visitor’s center at the end. But then traffic literally came to a halt. Seriously. We moved maybe .1 mile in half an hour. So I decided to get out and walk to the visitor’s center. I needed the lady’s room and it was about 1.5 miles away. I had gone about a tenth of a mile when another person came back and told me that traffic stopped because someone had seen a bear. SERIOUSLY? My burst bladder for a bear?

Honestly, I was quite surprised that park personnel allow this to happen. I’ve been to Yellowstone when buffalo are on the roads at times and rangers try to police the traffic as much as possible. In fact, I hardly saw any park rangers here during my entire trip in the Smokies.

While I highly recommend the scenic drive up to Cades Cove, I say skip the loop if it’s busy (pay attention to those signs!). You can exit out toward Townsend before you get to Cades Coves and circle back toward Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg.

Day 2 of our 2020 Great Smoky Mountains Vacation

On our first day in the Smokies we took the scenic, but very busy drive up the Newfound Gap Road. That left us a little exhausted, so we thought we’d start the next day by taking a hike around the neighborhood by our cabin. We spotted a few wild turkeys (there are lots in Tennessee!) Fortunately, we did not have a run-in with the neighborhood bear which we spotted from our car later in the day.

Wild turkeys!
Beautiful reflection
Thankfully, we were in our car when we saw this big bear!

Day 2 also included driving, this time on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a lot shorter than the Newfound Gap Road, only 5.5 miles, but it does take time, as it’s one way and narrow. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what the heck a “motor nature trail” would be, but after a few minutes I really did feel like I was on a trail rather than a road. It was absolutely gorgeous!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Two popular trailheads along this road include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls is 5.4 miles round trip and has about 1500 feet elevation gain. By this time it was late morning and was starting to feel warm (it did get up to 80 that day). I normally would not have any issue with that length hike but I hadn’t brought shorts on this trip and from what I read this trail is now a bit more exposed since it does go through some of the burn scar from the 2016 fire. So we opted for the much easier Grotto Falls. It’s only 3 miles roundtrip. With both of these trailheads the parking lots are quite small so roadside parking is the norm. So expect another .25 mile to half a mile walk to get back to the trailhead, especially at Grotto Falls.

The Grotto Falls trail was quite easy for us (we’ve got high elevation Colorado lungs). It was fairly busy, too. But we did find a quiet rock and ate our lunch there, before proceeding back.

Grotto Falls

Before we exited off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we made a quick stop at Ely’s Mill. The site of a former mill, it now has a few cabins and a wedding venue, as well as a gift shop. Since restrooms there are supposed to be for customers only, we gladly did a little shopping. Lots of cute hand-made items. We picked up a few wonderful smelling locally made soaps.

Photo credit Ely’s Mill FB Page

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Gatlinburg, primarily shopping and then enjoying a beer at Gatlinburg Brewing Company. There are no shortage of shops to pick up souvenirs, as well as places to nosh on yummy smelling food. It took a lot of will power to walk past them but my husband did succumb to some whisky sampling at Ole Smoky Whisky. His favorite was a Mint Chocolate Chip Whisky! Who knew? I enjoyed Byrd’s Cookie Company and came away with more cookies than I needed.

Gatlinburg has a ton of activities – two aerial trams, Ripley’s Museum and aquarium, arcades, mountain coaster ride, a Space Needle – the list goes on. None of these really appeal to us and in this time of COVID, we wanted to be cautious and stay away from crowds. But from what we saw, there were lots of families there, even midweek during the fall.

Despite the busyness, we did enjoy the nice warm fall weather and walking around town. For the most part, people were good about wearing masks indoors and maintaining some degree of social distancing. Now it was time to retreat back to our peaceful cabin and get ready for our final day at the park.

Our first “real” vacation of 2020 – Great Smoky Mountains

Yes, we did a number of road trips this year, but nothing on a plane. We had cancelled our trip to Spain (we were going in October) and our trip to Arizona back in March also had to be axed. However, with some United credits to burn, we decided to go to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) last in early October.

Our flight from Denver to Knoxville was nearly full. I think a few seats in First Class were open. We were on an Embraer 175 – a smaller jet that seats 96 people and has 2-2 seating. Instead of boarding groups, they boarded back to front and deplaned front to back. More efficient if you ask me. Masks were required, of course, but we were packed in. The return flight home was the same. I’ve been home 5 days and so far I appear to be healthy. I actually double masked – 2 surgical masks. On the way there no one talked, but on the return I was a little bit worried. I had one chatty Cathy behind me, but fortunately she quieted down after takeoff. (People, in closed spaces like this, even with a mask, keep idle conversation to a minimum!!)

Flying to Knoxville

After picking up our rental car we took a scenic route to get to our wonderful AirBNB cabin in the woods between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We were surprised how hilly it was! And green! I was in heaven. I grew up in the very green Pacific Northwest and have lived in rather treeless cities for the last 28 years. So I felt totally in my realm. The weather was also perfect. It was in the mid 70s, cool at night (mid 40s), no rain, and no bugs! Hurricane Delta did bring rain to the area after we left but fortunately did not affect us.

traveling toward the Smokies
Our cabin in the woods
Nestled in the woods. Lots of wonderful birds. And a hot tub on the deck, too!

Know before you go . . . TRAFFIC!!

All national parks have traffic. I’ve been to pretty much all the national parks except one (Glacier) in the western US. But I would have to give the award for the worst traffic to the Smokies. It starts before you get there, in Pigeon Forge and even worse in Gatlinburg. Both these towns are tourist attractions in themselves, which only adds to the problem. In addition, GSMNP has the most tourists of any national park in the US (12.5 million in 2019). One good thing about the park is that it doesn’t have an entrance fee (thank goodness! The line to get in would horrible). But I also wonder if the Pandemic coupled with the beautiful weather we had made it even worse.

So be prepared. It took us an hour the first day just to get Subway in Gatlinburg (traffic on the main drag, finding parking, and waiting in line). So that night we stopped off at the grocery store in Pigeon Forge and stocked up on lunch stuff. There are bypasses through downtown, so utilize Google maps and it will shave off some time.

Day One:

Out plan today was pretty simple: travel up US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) to Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, and continue down into Cherokee, North Carolina so I could get a geocache in that state. The total mileage through the park is only about 35 miles, but this is a super scenic highway so take your time. There are several trailheads, but unless you get there early, expect to park alongside the road a quarter to half a mile back.

In our case, we drove through the Newfound Gap parking lot where everyone wants to get a picture by the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and found it to be packed. So we proceeded up to Clingmans Dome. The last mile traffic slowed to a crawl. We finally saw a roadside spot on the opposite side of the road and with some quick maneuvers grabbed it. It was only about half a mile up to the main parking lot and then a short hike up to the Dome. We then hopped onto the far less crowded Appalachian Trail which follows the ridgeline here, and took a leisurely quiet detour. We found a quiet spot with magnificent views and ate our lunch before making our way back to the car.

Clingmans Dome
Appalachian Trail

We continued on to North Carolina. Cherokee is a small town and far different from the craziness of Gatlinburg. Its biggest attraction is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. We didn’t spend any time there as it was getting late in the day (and I heard a bottle of wine calling my name back at the cabin). When we passed the Newfound Gap on the return around 4 pm, the parking lot had tons of space and we were able to get our picture of the stateline and see the Rockefeller Memorial where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.

Oconoluftee River, North Carolina

I’ll continue my story about the rest of our stay in my next post. Stay tuned! I’ll tell you about wild turkeys and black bears!

Iceland – Fall 2017 – Nights 1 & 2 on the Southern Coastline

If you had asked me ten years ago if I wanted to go to Iceland I probably would have said no. But it started to pop up on my travel radar about five years ago after I saw an Icelandair jet at a nearby gate at DIA. It was at the same time that I starting seeing a lot of blog posts about it and knew I had to go. Fortunately, the stars aligned in 2017 and we were able to spend five days there on our way back from England, taking advantage of Icelandair’s “stopover fare” program that they were promoting at the time.

Our five days there were spent on the southern coast of Iceland, as well as doing the Golden Circle just east of Reykjavik. Now, it is possible to drive around the entire country/island. The total mileage is 828 miles on the main road. My friend and her husband did it during the summer, but we were there in late September and the weather was already starting to turn cold. Would I ever consider doing the whole loop? Possibly, but probably not. That said, we do want to come again. Next visit we would come in the mid-summer and visit Snaefellsnes Peninsula north of Reykjavik. And we’d also take a boat tour to go see puffins. They were gone by the time we got there. But the good thing about coming in fall is it is possible to see the Northern Lights (we did! But more on that in a later post).

Night 1 – Blue Lagoon

Our big splurge in Iceland was our one-night stay at the Silica Hotel by the Blue Lagoon. Its starting rate is $399 a night. That does include a premium admission to the Blue Lagoon, as well as use of the hotel’s private lagoon, and breakfast. If you’re on a budget consider the Northern Lights Inn. Or if you’ve got money to burn, go for the Retreat Hotel. It’s over a $1000 a night. Yikes. We actually ate dinner at Max’s Restaurant at the Northern Lights Inn. While we were glad we stayed at the Silica, its restaurant seemed a bit too fancy (and expensive) for our tastes.

The view from our room at the Silica Hotel

First of all, what is the Blue Lagoon? The lagoon is man-made with the water coming the nearby geothermal  plant where superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. The beautiful milky blue color comes from the high silica content.

The Blue Lagoon — Photo credit: Ivan Sabljak (Wikipedia Commons)

The landscape around the resort and surrounding peninsula is breathtaking with its moss-covered lava field. It’s easy to see why the land is this way. After we had checked into our room, we went for a walk and got soaked. The fine rain was coming down sideways aided by the wind. Fortunately, we had a heated towel rack and quick drying clothes.

Unbelievable landscape!

After dinner, we went and relaxed in their private lagoon. Honestly, this was as nice as the Blue Lagoon. Smaller, yes, but more peaceful, especially at nighttime. Sure you don’t get the mud mask and drinks like you do in the Blue Lagoon, but that pool is quite busy. With the hotel’s private one, we almost had the entire place to ourselves. We did visit the Blue Lagoon the following morning after we checked out, but just getting in can be a bit stressful. Bus loads of tourists come from Reykjavik and some people will even come over during a layover between flights. Even though we did it in the morning, the women’s changing room was quite crazy. You’re expected to shower before going in and for some reason the women take a lot longer than men. Plus I had trouble with my locker. So it took me nearly half an hour to get ready and my husband was ready in 10 minutes. . In total we were probably in the lagoon for 45 minutes. Sure the waters are mesmerizing, but I preferred the private lagoon at the hotel.

After having lunch in the café at the Silica Hotel (fast food is a rarity outside Reykjavik) we got in our car and headed up the Reykjanes peninsula, with my plan being to head toward Selfoss. It’s one of dozens of waterfalls in Iceland (foss is waterfall in Icelandic) and not too far from our next hotel in Hella. However, as often happens when my husband is behind the wheel, we changed plans and decided to go check out Kleifarvatn Lake, a little over half an hour away. Its rugged beauty was breathtaking and I’m glad we made the short detour to see it. We also managed to find a geocache here, so that made it worthwhile.

Kleifarvatn Lake

I had hoped we would continue on to Selfoss at this point, but once again my husband wanted to make a detour and check out the ruins of Selatangar. It is recommended that you have a car with high clearance (4WD) which we did, but upon getting there, I sort of found it disappointing. My advice is to skip it. By now it was getting late in the afternoon, so we decided to head to Hella. Although we did not get to Selfoss, I did get to see many other waterfalls. So fortunately I couldn’t be too upset with my husband.

Selatangar

Our hotel for our second night in Iceland was Stracta Hotel. Like the other hotels we stayed in outside Reykjavik, it had the simplistic Scandinavian style (think Ikea!). It was comfortable and clean, but the town of Hella is not too exciting. We went out looking for dining, and found most of the restaurants were closed on Sunday. We came across one diner-style restaurant, but opted out after we saw that all they served was horse-meat burgers (by the way, horse-meat is very common in Iceland but I just can’t eat it). We ended up eating at the hotel. You’ll probably do this at most locations outside Reykjavik. We did manage to find one bar with fantastic pizza, but I’ll save that for a future post.