Embracing Winter in My New State: Recent Northern New Mexico Adventures

If you haven’t spent much time in New Mexico, you’d probably think winter here was warm, sunny, snow-free, and quintessentially Southwest. Well, you’d be right about the sunny part, but that’s about it – something that I quickly learned after our first big snowstorm on Thanksgiving Day and several more since then.

I’m a summer gal, born in August and loving hot weather more than anything else. But for a variety of reasons, we didn’t buy a house somewhere that’s 70-degrees year around. Once again, I live in a place with four distinct seasons, so I’ve been trying to shift my mindset to embrace the winter and the beauty this season brings to New Mexico.

Over the past month, the husband, pup, and I have taken two regional road trips to get to know our new home state a bit better. The first adventure was a ski/snowshoe trip to the Taos area in the RV…actually (and sadly) the first legit time we’ve taken the RV out for an overnight trip since plopping it in front of the house when we moved in. The second adventure involved a little tour of nearby national monuments to celebrate our dog Monkey’s sixth birthday.

Even without the steady pace of full-time RV travel, we’re no homebodies. Yet these trips were a welcome change of pace from the DIY renovation projects that have been filling up our weekends lately and a reminder of how much more of the Southwest we have yet to explore.

Here are the highlights of our recent Northern New Mexico travels within just a few hours of our new home base!

1. Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo is a living Native American community that’s also a heritage site and historic landmark at the same time. That means it’s open for tours but also a place where people live and stray dogs roam free. While my expert skier husband was hitting the slopes, I did a little solo outing with a self-guided tour to see it. The only building I could go in was the church, but the multi-storied structures were still undeniably impressive in this mountain landscape.

2. Snowshoeing Around Taos

During this trip I was in my sixth month of pregnancy, which meant that breaking out the snowboard wasn’t the best idea…especially considering that any time I hit the slopes, I spend just as much time falling on my ass as actually gliding down the mountain. But not one to miss out on winter fun, I strapped on my snowshoes, grabbed a couple poles, and took Monkey out into the wilderness. The Carson National Forest near Taos has some nice snowshoeing trails that we checked out together, even one near Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.

3. Downtown Taos

Downtown Taos is lined with random boutiques, hippie shops, and interesting restaurants. After checking out the Taos Pueblo, I took a stroll around the area and bought myself some cool new rock/gem dangly earrings, just because.

4. Taos Ski Valley

Meanwhile, Ski Husband was loving his first experience at Taos Ski Valley, which I’m told has lots of challenging runs and is geared more towards skiers than snowboarders. Here are a couple scenic shots he snapped while I was out doing my own thing.

5. Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the fifth-highest bridge in the U.S. and not a destination for the faint of heart. It’s along Highway 64 and has rest area where you can park and then get out to walk across the bridge on a pedestrian sidewalk, where it always seems to be windy. I’d walked across the bridge once before in the summertime but was curious to see how it looked in the snow. The snow cover was minimal, but that didn’t make the views any less impressive.

6. Earthship Biotecture

Sure, I recycle and buy eco-friendly bath products, but I have yet to go as far as building my own earthship. Earthships are self-sustaining, off-the-grid, and otherworldly housing structures that have a big presence in the high desert outside of Taos. Outside the Greater World Earthship Community (which sounds suspiciously like a cult but is probably just a cooler version of my house’s HOA), there’s a visitor’s center that I popped into to take a self-guided tour. The tour involved a short film, museum displays, and getting to see a couple of the structures up-close. They sound like a lot of work are inspiring nonetheless.

7. Snow Camping

During our time in Taos, we stayed at the Taos Valley RV Park, a private campground that was close to town and had some great bathrooms so we didn’t have to bother fixing up our broken fixtures in the RV. Better yet, it had full hookups so we could plug in a space heater to supplement the propane tank that we’d filled up before the trip for some extra warmth.

Although we didn’t have snow in this RV park, we got stranded on the trip back home from Taos due to a snowstorm that got kind of crazy. It was actually the worst snow that we had ever driven the RV in, and this monstrosity named Dragoon was nearly swerving off the road, totally unable to handle the slick conditions. So, we cut our losses and pulled off at Piñon RV Park just outside Santa Fe. We were less than an hour (in normal non-blizzard traffic) from home so it felt kind of silly calling it quits that close to home. But driving any further in the RV felt unsafe and stupid. Besides, we had our laptops with us, so it was a good opportunity to squeeze in a snow day workday.

8. Jemez Historic Site

A few weeks later, we set out on our second Northern New Mexico adventure on a Sunday-Monday “adjusted weekend” to celebrate Monkey’s birthday. Our first stop was the Jemez Historic Site, which is a well-preserved Native village that dates back 500+ years. There’s a short trail that goes through the ruins, as well as a kiva you can climb a ladder down to see and a self-guided brochure to read as you walk around the site.

9. Jemez Soda Dam

Between the Jemez Historic Site and the Santa Fe National Forest, where we did a little icy hiking, lies a weird roadside spot called the Soda Dam. It’s along New Mexico State Route 4 and a neat geological feature formed from calcium carbonate that’s thousands of years old. It’s a natural dam, not a man-made one, and a place where you can park along the side of the road and get out to snap a few pics.

10. Valles Caldera National Preserve

Remote, snowy, and sometimes inaccessible, the Valles Caldera National Preserve had been on our regional bucket list for a while. A volcano erupted here 1.25 million years ago and created a big depression that’s 13-miles wide. We broke out our snowshoes to explore this area and its deep snow on a couple of the trails that allow dogs so Monkey could join in the snow-filled fun.

11. Bandelier National Monument

We tried to visit Bandelier National Monument on our first little winter weekend getaway to Taos but had to scrap that plan because the snowstorm shut down the park. However, we beat the snow on our second attempt and pretty much had the place to ourselves, which was awesome. Ancestral people lived in these dwellings carved out in the rock from about the years 1150 to 1150 and left behind some neat spaces to see. We climbed ladders to experience the dwellings first-hand while hiking along the rugged canyon and mesa country and seeing some petroglyphs along the way.

12. Hotel in Los Alamos

While the RV served as our once-again home on the road for the first new adventure to Taos, we opted for a comfy Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos for the second weekend trip to the national monuments. While once beloved, the RV caused us more headaches that it was worth on weekend #1, with lots of things breaking and causing drama. The second time around, we splurged for the sake of not getting stuck in another snowstorm and treating ourselves to a little warmth and comfort. On an unrelated note, the birthday outfit I got Monkey will never cease to make me double over with laughter. I mean seriously….that tutu!

So, with those 12 highlights, that’s a wrap! We have lots more New Mexico to explore from our new home base, not to mention the rest of the Greater Southwest region. But we’re chipping away, taking our time, and really loving what we’ve seen so far.

Making Our Way Up California (yes, again): Month 19 on the Road

Last month, I left off with our nomad journey in Yuma, Arizona, a familiar place where we bought this RV we’ve been living in for the past year. Month #19 of this journey was spent in California and mostly in places that we already visited within the past year.

After having different scenery every two weeks, it’s weird being back in the same places. But the simple fact that everything isn’t new and needs to be figured out is kind of relaxing and helping us with our goals to slow down and not stressing out over constant trip planning.

Here’s a quick recap of this past month’s batch of homes on the road.

San Luis Obispo, California: Home on the Road #60

Unlike most places within the last year and a half, we visited SLO with a mission. We stayed in nearby Oceano, California last May and began to fall in love with the area. So, we make plans to spend another couple weeks here, this time in El Chorro Regional Park, which was about halfway between SLO and Morro Bay.

  • Highlights: Great downtown area with weekly farmers’ market festival, rock climbing gym and film documentary, breweries galore, super easy traffic, bike lanes everywhere, running along the beach at Morro Bay, free live performances, Oceano sand dunes nearby, finally touring the famous Hearst Castle
  • Lowlights: Disappointing news from a real estate agent about how hard it is to find land to plop a camper onto (without a house) around these parts

Napa, California: Home on the Road #61

Unlike SLO, I have zero desire to live long-term in Napa or in the Bay Area of California. We stayed in Napa at the Expo Fairgrounds in town last summer and found ourselves back here again….not only in the same campground but in the very same campsite too. The main reason for staying in Napa this time around wasn’t a wine vacation but rather to spend some time with my in-laws.

  • Highlights: Great bike lanes along vineyard roads, perfect weather, seeing Reefer Madness the Musical in Vallejo, visits with the in-laws that went well, making origami boats, old-school rock climbing gym, new breweries opened up in town, catching an Olympic curling match at a dive bar since our RV cable sucks, celebrating Monkey’s 4th birthday / 2-year adoption day
  • Lowlights: Awful traffic at all times, the insane price of wine tastings, expensive everything, still way too many wineries to choose from (that one’s for you, Lara, if you’re reading this)

Grass Valley, California: Home on the Road #62

We made a point to stay in Grass Valley for a few days for one reason and one reason only: snow sports. It’s been a couple years since I’ve dusted off my old snowboard, but I broke it out again to hit up the resorts nearby. Fortunately, this didn’t include breaking any bones and only being very mildly sore. We’re also celebrating Valentine’s Day here by going out to a Hawaiian poke & BBQ restaurant for dinner in nearby Nevada City. For the rest of the week, there are possibilities of more snowboarding or perhaps snowshoeing with Monkey instead for some variety and dog inclusion.

  • Highlights: Spacious and quiet campground among tall trees and few neighbors, a fun ski resort day, getting NBC on the RV antenna to watch the Olympics 
  • Lowlights: Cold nights close in the 30s, still being a pretty crappy snowboarder

This Month’s Ramblings from the Road

  • While staying in SLO and going for a run, we passed by a developing botanical garden and stopped by. The place was clearly in need of some volunteers, and volunteering is something we’ve been interested in doing but never seem to make time for. So, one morning, we ditched computer work and opted for manual labor instead, clearing away branches and debris and loading everything onto carts. There’s something very satisfying about working outside that typing eight hours per day just doesn’t provide. I’d love to find a way to work outdoors (and get paid for it somehow) for half my time and write for the other half.

  • Collecting souvenirs is a fun part of travel, but finding space for a bunch of crap in a tiny house is not. I’ve been collecting (space conscious) iron/sew-on patches for a few years from places I’ve enjoyed and shoving them in drawers, thinking someday I’d come up with a really cool craft project to display them. But for now, they’re new fridge decorations! I taped up as many as would fit for a little camper decor ‘til a better idea comes along.

  • Sometimes my work feels like a lost cause…like I’ll never catch up and get ahead. I’m working too much and feeling burnt out, but I’m often not sure how or where to scale back or whether that would be a totally regrettable decision. But today, I actually turned down some work and it felt oddly satisfying and like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

  • Last month, I introduced you to my lifelong Cabbage Patch companion, Isabelle. While in storage, she was wearing a dress way too short for any 33-year-old. So, I sewed her some pants! Now she matches our bedroom curtains because I made the pants with leftover curtain fabric.

  • We bought new dishes for the camper! Goodbye old scratched-up plastic crap. We fancy now.

  • Yes, our camper is nice and only a year old. But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t falling apart already. We’re slowly realizing why some campers are so much more expensive than other: craftsmanship and quality materials. It seems ours wasn’t really made for full-time living, so things keep breaking. Are any campers made for full-time living? The kitchen sink leaks, the floor squeaks, the propane alarm keeps going off, and I’m pretty sure that the shower floor is going to collapse any day now (which is going to be incredibly awkward).

Looking Ahead to Next Month

I’m really looking forward to Month #20 for a couple reasons. One, we’ll finally make it as far north as Eureka, California, an area we’ve never been to and failed to get to last year. Two, we’ll finally make it into Oregon! Goodbye Cali, it’s been fun, but it’s time to move on and take this camper journey to the Pacific Northwest.

Catch up with the journey:

Double Digits Down: A 10-Month Report on the Ups & Downs of Camper Life

Howdy. It’s the 14th of the month and you know what that means…blog time!

As of today, it’s been 10 months of camper life. Lots of things are happening, and lots of other things are becoming clearer with more time on the road.

A while back, I went on a frenzy of following other full-time campers’ blogs and got obsessed with virtually relating to others living a similar lifestyle. But now it’s newsfeed overload to the point of making life on the road feel way too ordinary and uninteresting. Pretty much everyone says the same cliche things and comes to the same lame and nostalgic conclusions. My perspective feels different, and I can no longer relate. I haven’t exactly figured out why or how to put it in words. So for now, I’m another cog in the wheel. Let’s keep turning the wheel ’til I figure it out.

Places We Were: Month #9

Last month began by wrapping up our time in Santa Barbara, which has still been one of my very favorite places of the entire trip. I loved the size of the town…not overwhelming but still plenty of stuff to do. The weather rocked and the area offered so many of the things that I love to do on a regular basis: kayaking, hiking, biking, beach, museums, breweries, vineyards, etc. If it weren’t so damn expensive to live in a place like that, I could totally plop down in SB for a while. But maybe that’s not a deal breaker after all, so who knows.

Then we moved onto Lake Isabella, which started out as a total bust. We couldn’t access the Sequoia National Forest because of snowed in roads, which was basically the whole point of moving here. Kayaking was also a bust, and the tiny towns of a couple thousand people each offered little-to-nothing to do. But after wallowing in some self-pity, we made the most of it and embraced the dramatic scenery in full-force.

Finally, we moved to Oceano, California in the San Luis Obispo area. This stay is still in progress, and while the initial reaction was not so great, this area is really starting to grow on me. The campground itself is claustrophobic and overpriced. But we’re right next to the sand dunes with the ocean on the other side, there are fresh farm stands on non-trafficy roads, and lots of local theater stuff nearby.

Here’s a quick recap of this past month’s batch of “homes on the road”:

Santa Barbara, California: Home on the Road #37

  • Highlights: Santa Ynez breweries nearby, cute Danish town of Solvang, getting an Easter visit from our friend and her baby in Illinois, visiting an ostrich farm, self-guided mission tour, biking to the beach, chill breweries, quirky shops, uncrowded hikes, incredible flowers and succulents
  • Lowlights: Camping 30+ minutes away from town, weird lake regulations that prohibited SUPing, campground laundry facilities broken & useless, loud and annoying Easter campground crowds

And now…some photos to go with those words:

Lake Isabella, California: Home on the Road #38

  • Highlights: Amazing scenery in every form, fast and free campground WiFi, getting to use the snowshoes that we’ve been toting around in the RV, driving a BOAT, beating (barely) my husband in golf on our first game on an actual course, the surprisingly well-preserved Silver City ghost town in Bodfish
  • Lowlights: Didn’t get to see any sequoia trees, didn’t get to kayak, small towns didn’t have anything to do, realizing how badly out of biking shape I am on moderate hills, hikes that were ended abruptly due to impassable waters

Here are some of my favorite photos…

Oceana, California: Home on the Road #39 (in progress)

  • Highlights: Sand dunes right behind our campground to play on, SLEDDING IN SAND, lots of local theater stuff nearby, Bishop’s Peak hike, horseback riding on the beach (June was the most chill horse ever), wandering around San Luis Obsipo, our wedding anniversary is tomorrow!

  • Lowlights: Probably THE most claustrophobic campground we’ve ever stayed in + the most expensive one = worst combination EVER, 20+ mile winds every day

Realizations & Ramblings from Month #9

In no particular order, these are some random thoughts that came to me during the past month on the road.

  • I’m sick of other campers. I feel like puking every time I read another full-time RVers blog about how “fun” it is to meet other people on the road. This will likely be the thing that drives me away from this lifestyle. Or maybe my niche is how to travel/RV full-time with an introverted/anti-social personality. But who’d read that, right?! Everyone wants to romanticize this lifestyle, and that goes against the grain. Still, I stand firm on my belief that there are many other (and better) benefits to travel besides meeting people (how about. trying new things, learning about yourself, disconnecting from the bullshit, or figuring out the type of place you’d be happy in someday?) To me, these things are far more valuable than mindless and repetitive chit-chat with annoying strangers I’ll never see again. I’d welcome another scheduled meetup like we did in Yuma with Sara & Mike, but those positive encounters seem very few and far between. If it sounds like life on the road is making me jaded, that’s because it is. However, jaded is part of my natural state of mind wherever I’m at. Hmmm maybe I should buy a piece of jade jewelry. That’d be pretty.

  • On that note, we are semi-seriously talking about buying a piece of property “somewhere” that’s sorta kinda in the middle of nowhere to put the RV on it and get it all hooked up to water/electric/sewer. With a possible consideration of building our own house on it in the future. My husband is more gung-ho on this idea than I am because I get caught up in the logistics and commitment. But I’m still way interested in this idea over “giving up” and just getting a lame apartment in a suburb. The big question though is “where”?

  • I stumbled across a travel log that I wrote from a trip to Montana/Wyoming/South Dakota trip in April 2013. My writing was 100% better and more interesting. These days, I just rush through this blog to say I did it and to help myself remember things. It feels more like an obligation than a pleasure, which is sad and pathetic. I’m also so burnt out with writing 8-10 hours for work every day that I have nothing else interesting to say at the end of the day. Poor me, boo freaking hoo. Anyway, everything I read myself write these days is disappointing, and I should do better.
  • I’m learning about plants! I’m tired of going on hikes and not knowing what I’m looking at, so I bought a textbook. Plants are hard…but I’m trying.

  • Last month we killed a TON of bugs in the RV. It got to a point of keeping a personal tally to see who killed more at the end of the day. I remember getting up to 6 on one particularly crappy day.
  • It was really easy for me to get used to having less stuff in the beginning when we had a tiny pop-up camper. But these days, it’s been harder to resist buying more stuff since we have more room in the RV. Especially when Amazon delivers right to your RV park. RESIST THE STUFF…resist!
  • I don’t have popular goals like climbing Everest or hiking the PCT. Those are someone else’s goals, not mine. I should probably put more thought into what mine actually are though.
  • I made my first cupcakes in the tiny RV convection oven/microwave! After three batches and two semi-failed attempts, I found that the magic recipe was 350-degrees at 23 minutes.

  • Flavored whiskey is wonderful. Honey and apple…yum.
  • Longer days of sunlight are equally wonderful.
  • I have a hard time respecting full-time RVers with Amazon charity links and who regularly ask strangers for money to support their lifestyle. I built my own freelance writing business on my own from the ground up 4+ years ago. I didn’t get lucky. I figured it out and bust my ass every day. You should too.
  • I totally don’t understand the point of Instagram. I only care to comment on this because I’ve recently been hired to do “community management” for a client, which basically entails just liking and commenting on behalf of the brand on Instagram. I’ve used Facebook as my one and only social media outlet since the beginning of time because the format and features make sense to me. But I can’t wrap my head around why anyone would use Instagram. Can anyone shed some light on this for me? As a professional writer who values content and context, I can’t see any value in sterile and staged photos followed by generic comments with zero substance. I understand that the average person can’t manage to read more than a couple-word caption on a photo. But for me, a picture doesn’t equal 1,000 words. It equals a picture. And as someone who gets paid by the word, each and every one of them matters. Maybe I’m just outdated and one of those rare non-visual learners. Help a 33-year-old out?

Looking Ahead to Month #10

As month #10 continues, we’ll be in Oceano for a bit more and celebrating our two-year wedding anniversary here! We don’t put a whole lot of stock in that court-issued piece of paper, but we made a random pact to celebrate wedding anniversaries at the beach, so here we are. Certainly could we worse! Next, we’re headed up to Fresno and Gilroy to experience some of the lesser-famous parts of Cali.

Hopefully reading this month’s post wasn’t a total downer. There are still plenty of things that I enjoy about camper life, like the easy access to nature and having new places to explore. Yet other parts are wearing me down, and I’m sure that’s bleeding through in my monthly reports. I’m still searching for my voice in all of this to express how my RV experience differs from the “masses”. If it comes to me anytime soon, you’ll be the first to know.

How To Take An Easy Road Trip to Cross Country Ski in Michigan

For the past two years in a row, I’ve found myself perched on top of skis along the “coast” of Western Michigan. It’s not that I’m particularly partial to the area, but it does happen to be a great place to cross country ski.

Last Winter Skiing at Ludington State Park

The area around Ludington State Park also tends to have a fair bit of snow throughout the winter and locals post information about ski conditions online so you can plan ahead. Other considerations were northwestern Wisconsin, around Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Sturgeon Bay, and Manistee National Forest in Michigan. However, Ludington had snow and trail conditions yet once again.

The Gear Rental

Ludington isn’t a big town, so you don’t have a ton of gear rental options to choose from. The one that I’ve gone to twice now is Provisions Sport Shop. Their website leaves a lot to be desired and the staff is pretty clueless, but the equipment is quality and the prices are reasonable.

Gear up!

Gear up!

Regardless of what time you rent ski equipment, it’s considered a 24-hour rental and due back by the close of business the following day. The 24-hour rentals include skis, boots, and poles for $25 per person. The shop has lots of gear for sale too, in case you left any essentials behind. Hand warmers are key.

The State Park

Ludington State Park is the biggest state park along Lake Michigan, covering 5,300 acres in Mason County, 5.5 miles of Great Lake shoreline, and a 1,699 acre natural wilderness area. When they’re not covered in snow, you can see wind-blown sand dunes and gently-hilly pine tree forests.

Handy dandy park info board

Handy dandy park info board

This spot is clearly more popular in the summer than it is in the winter. There’s a large beach area and a couple campgrounds that only operate during the warmer months of the year. The park also has a 4-mile/3-hour canoe trail that with great signage to keep you on course, and there are a couple miles of bike trails that connect the campgrounds.

The Skiing Trails

The north ski trails include a 6-mile loop, and the south ski trails include four cross spurs that are all between 1.5 to 4 miles in length. The trail map is pretty straightforward, so first take a look:


However, there are some serious differences between the trails on here. For beginners, the best place to start is the Logging Trail (green), a 6-mile loop located at the north end of the park. The hills are gentle, the trail is wide, and you don’t have to worry about flying over protruding tree roots the whole time.

The Logging Trail

The Logging Trail

I first made the mistake of attempting the Ridge Trail (purple), which sits just east of the Logging Trail. The Ridge Trail is narrow, winding, and has tree roots sticking out pretty much the whole way. I encountered some local hikers at a particularly frustrating moment, who told me about a guy who broke his hip last week trying to ski that very trail. They suggested back-tracking a bit to the logging trail for my own safety and sanity. It was a wonderful suggestion.

If you travel south in the park, you’ll find the designated cross country ski trails of Jackpine Loop, Cedar Loop and Juniper Loop. When I visited the park in mid-December 2013, the road that led to these trails was closed and chained off to vehicular traffic. But on my second consecutive day of skiing, my curiosity got the better of me and I ventured towards these trails on foot with skis under my arm.

Alyssa v. tree roots on skis

Alyssa v. trees on skis

Perhaps it was due to the new snow that had fallen the night before and that morning, but none of these trails were groomed and I never passed another single skier. I skied along the edge of the Jackpine Loop, fully around the Cedar Loop, and back out to the main road. These trails provided a completely different experience than the two I had skied the previous day.

Cedar Loop’s hills were more gentle, and this area of the park is much more wooded. It’s a really peaceful place. Tree roots weren’t a problem, and the trails were very well marked so I never took a wrong turn. I had to cut my own trail the whole way, which was a little tiring, but a great workout nonetheless.

The Trail Conditions

Unfortunately, this park doesn’t have it’s own fancy website that updates trail conditions on an obsessive-compulsive basis. However, if you’re not phone-shy, you can call up the Michigan DNR at (231) 843-2423 and ask how the trails are looking today and for the days ahead.

Another area that seems worth checking out is the Big M Cross Country Ski Trails. Big M’s website updates trail conditions every few days, which can give a general idea of how things are down in nearby Ludington. If anyone’s skied on these trails lately, I’d love to hear how they are!

Trail warming shelter

Re-gloving at the trail warming shelter

One of the best parts of cross country skiing at Ludington State Park is the warming shelters. There’s on by the the parking lot at the trail head and there’s a several scattered along the trails as well. Most of these have fire pits, although you’d have to figure out a way to tote firewood on you back while skiing to use them.

Finally getting the hang of this

Playing in snow is the only way to stay sane in the winter

Camping really isn’t an option in this area, as all the campgrounds shut down for the winter and honestly, it’s just too damn cold anyway. There are few things that feel better after a day in the snow than a warm, bubbly hot tub. Hot tub hotel options are somewhat limited in Ludington, so I’d suggest the Comfort Inn & Suites in nearby Pentwater, Michigan. The rooms are clean, the pool area isn’t very crowded, and you can crash for about $70 per night.

What are your favorite cities, states, and parks to cross country ski?

How to Escape the Crowds at Yellowstone

Emerald_pool_in_yellowstone_2As one of America’s most popular outdoor destinations, Yellowstone National Park attracts millions of visitors every year.  Despite the park’s beautiful setting, it can be hard to find solace and experience the peacefulness of nature. Here are just a few ways to get away from long lines, loud kids, and annoying tour busses:

Visit in the fall 

Summer vacations are over and the kids are back in school. Plan you trip around the first week in October to see the foliage explode with color. Lodging rates are lower at this time than during the summer months, wildlife is more prevalent, and trails are less crowded.

Take alternate driving routes 

Alternate routes, like the Grassy Lake Road, are often less congested with traffic. You should ensure that your vehicle is equipped to handle the terrain on these routes before starting your drive. You should also collect relevant maps or a GPS with good reception in case you lose your way off the beaten path.

Hike backcountry trails 

There’s no better way to experience the true spirit of Yellowstone than in the backcountry. Check out the Bechler River area and the Thorofare region for a truly wild outing.  The Bechler River runs along the southwest section of Yellowstone and is home to over half of the park’s waterfalls. You can hike for 30 miles in any direction without ever reaching a road in the Thorofare region.  Hikers should always check in with a nearby ranger station to obtain necessary permits, collect maps, and provide contact information in case of emergency.

Try Cross-country instead of downhill skiing

If you’re planning a trip during the winter months, you’ll probably want to try out some of the nearby skiing options. Jackson Hole and Grand Teton Resorts are consistently crowded and expensive at pretty much all times. For a more laid back skiing experience, give cross-country a try. Jackson Hole has become an increasingly popular center for cross-country skiing on a varied landscape. Nordic centers offer beginners with rental gear and trail recommendations. More advanced skiers won’t get bored with the incredible cross-country routes in the surrounding mountains.


Discovering “Plan B” At Yosemite National Park

The winding, mountainous roads made the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park seem much longer than it actually was. My boyfriend and I were excited to trade in the daily grind of the city life for a few days of hiking, camping, and rock climbing in Yosemite Valley. We both thrive upon the peace and energy that only nature can provide.  We both are also very organized and planned our outdoor excursion down to the very last detail.  But as all travelers know, even the best itineraries rarely go as planned.

My boyfriend booked the campsite by contacting the National Park Service about a month in advance. The National Park Service’s website provides a link to review the different areas of Yosemite that have campsites and their availability. The price per campsite averaged a reasonable $20.00 per night. Additional information about nearby activities and amenities are also listed on this helpful site.

Although there was no park ranger on duty at the check-in booth, we easily found our Campsite #74 in the Upper Pines Region.  We were not familiar enough with the area to have a site preference, so we simply took the site that the park service assigned to us.  We later learned about the four campsite regions in Yosemite Valley: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4. The first three regions are fairly similar and standard, but Camp 4 is a “first-come, first served” open space that requires no reservations. In addition to these options, there are also seven campsites north of Yosemite Valley and two campsites south of Yosemite valley.

The campsites in the Upper Pines were set reasonably far apart and the terrain was fairly smooth, although covered in patches of snow. We were able to park our car at the campsite next to where we pitched our tent. Each campsite had its own large lock box to store food inside so that encounters with bears would be less of a concern. All of our neighbors at the nearby campsites were quiet and one couple was kind enough to lend us their lighter fluid to get our struggling campfire started the first night.

Don’t be fooled by the movies…California is not warm and sunny year around. It was late March, and the temperatures dipped to nearly thirty degrees Fahrenheit each night. I gave myself a pat on the pack for splurging on that +10 degree down feather sleeping bag at REI for this trip. Since I had never camped in such chilly temperatures before, I had never considered using a sleeping mat before. I quickly learned that sleeping mats, such as this one from Alps Mountaineering, make a huge difference in staying comfortable and keeping warm.

Since my boyfriend and I have decent rock climbing skills, I contacted several climbing companies in advance to inquire about hiring a guide to summit some peaks in Yosemite. My search was quickly narrowed down, as I discovered that there was only one company that provided guide services inside the boundaries of the National Park and during the month of March.

This guide company, Yosemite Mountaineering School, was extremely accommodating and helpful throughout my contact with them while booking a ¾ day climbing excursion. I thought the price of $200.00 per person for a 6 hour guided climb was pretty steep. However, this was our only option and we really wanted to have the bragging rights of climbing Yosemite. Information about the options and pricing can be viewed on the YMS website.

The staff at Yosemite Mountaineering School advised us to meet their guide, Josh, in the Curry Village Mountain Shop at 9:00am and to bring our own lunch, water, climbing shoes, and harnesses. On the night before our scheduled climbing excursion, rain poured down on our tent and flooded the terrain around us. After a cold and uncomfortable night in the tent, my boyfriend and I awoke at dawn and wondered if the weather conditions would hinder our climbing plans.

Although cell phone reception in the park was sparse, I was finally able to reach Josh to discuss the weather conditions and our plan for the day.He told me that he had gone out earlier that morning to scope out the climbing areas and that pretty much everything was flooded and nearly every rock face was wet and slippery. He advised against taking us out to climb and asked if we had the flexibility to reschedule for another day. Unfortunately, this was our last day in Yosemite so we simply had to cancel our reservations.  I really appreciated Josh’s honesty about the hazardous weather conditions and consideration for our safety.

Yosemite Mountaineering School gave us a full refund, with no hassles. Although, he and I were disappointed about not being able to climb that day, we quickly agreed upon a “Plan B”. We spent the day hiking the trail to the upper waterfall. The trail boasted a challenging 7.2 miles had pretty much every type of terrain I could imagine: rock, dirt, sand, grass, mud, water, snow, ice, and concrete. A helpful guide about the various hiking trails at Yosemite can be found on the National Park Service website.

Although our initial plans of rock climbing didn’t work out, we were not disappointed at all. And although Yosemite has been photographed countless times, there is truly nothing like experiencing the beauty of Yosemite first hand. Periodically stopping to take a deep breath and view the vistas along the way brought us a sense of peace, acceptance, and appreciation for the opportunity to be where we were at that
very moment.

Snowboarding Towards Better Days

As I jolt awake, I slam my head against the cheap motel headboard and let out a scream.

Surely, there’s a nicer way to wake someone up. This is our first vacation together, after all. But oddly enough  I’m not all that surprised he had turned the alarm clock on full blast at 6AM.

My boyfriend is already dressed in his snow gear and looking up directions to the ski resort on his iPhone.  I beg for just nine more minutes of snooze time. After all, my flight to Denver had just arrived a mere six hours ago! My request is flatly denied, as the covers are thrown off of me and I crawl towards my overstuffed duffel bag.

I chug a Red Bull, gnaw on a Cliff Bar, and take my first glimpse of the Colorado Rockies as we pack up and pull out of the parking lot. As I drive up the winding roads to Copper Mountain, I open my eyes wider than they had been in months. Looking forward to this snowboarding trip with my boyfriend had been the only thing that had gotten me through the worst breakup I’d ever been through and a miserable nine-to-five job. I glance at my watch and see that it’s not even 9AM yet. I smile as I remember that today will not be spent in that godforsaken office..

I park the car and we take the shuttle to the slopes. I’m doing my best to hide how nervous I am, as I try to remember how to strap my boots on to the board. I just started snowboarding last year, and my ex-boyfriend was a painfully impatient and critical coach. I feel my boyfriend playfully knocking the edge of his board against mine. Remembering my deep yoga breaths, I flop onto the ski lift and grab his gloved hand.

I quickly discover that he is a professional on the slopes, and he quickly discovers that I spend more time on my ass than on the board.  I notice how patient he is with me after each of my wipe outs and breakdowns. But shortly thereafter, we decide to split up for the afternoon, promising to meet after the lifts make their last run.

I return to the same green trail for my second attempt, which is going only slightly better than the last one. I fall only three times, and despite my unsightly technique, I’m feeling more comfortable gaining speed. I decide that for my final trail, I will challenge myself on one of the dreadful blue routes. I stumble off of the lift and scurry towards the side to get out of everyone else’s way. I feel a wave of nausea, as I strap on my boots and stand up to see how far down the bottom is. With the  warmth of the sun on my face, I take a deep breath before attempting the most difficult trail of my life.

I fall once, twice, three times, and then more than I can count. I burst into tears from my frustration. My knees are bleeding and my tailbone feels broken. Other boarders whiz by me, and and occasionally ask if I’m alright. I take a seat in the snow and pull my camera out of my inside jacket pocket. I feel my heart rate slow down and snap a few pictures of the beautiful scenery around me.My heart rate slows down and I remember I’m luck to be here. I’ll never make it to the X Games, but I’m having an experience that I’ll never forget. I pop in my ear buds and crank up some Linkin Park, ready to conquer this mountain.

Everything feels simpler and I only fall once before reaching the bottom. I feel satisfaction accomplished for the first time today. I limp my exhausted self into the nearest pub, belly up to the bar, letting a whiskey and ginger ale request effortlessly roll off my tongue.

I knock back a couple whiskey drinks to ease my tender wounds and tensed nerves. By the time my second glass is empty, my boyfriend plops onto the bar stool next to me, telling grandiose tales of each mountain he conquered.  I listen and summon the waitress to order him a whiskey on the rocks to celebrate before we head out for some much-needed hot tub therapy.

It’s dark by the time we drive back to Frisco, but I still stare out the window to capture the rare glimpses of the mountains that shine through the headlights. We sit in peaceful silence, as my boyfriend flips on our favorite XM Radio bluegrass station.

Six months ago, I never would have imagined I would be right here right now.   I rub my bruised knees, lean back in the passenger seat, and bob my head to the banjo beats. It’s crazy to know you’re right where you’re meant to be. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be right where you’re supposed to be.