US NATIONAL PARKS: CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!

When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:

  1. Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake
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    Glacier National Park, Montana [Photo Credit: Kerry Bollerman]
  2. Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance. 
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    Stopped by bison, while snowmobiling in Yellowstone [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
  5. Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
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    Volcanoes National Park at night [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  6. Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee).
  8. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).

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    Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:

  1. Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
  2. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
  3. Katmai National Park (Alaska)
  4. Arches National Park (Utah)
  5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

What are your favorite National Parks?

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EXPLORING DENVER AND ITS ENVIRONS

My friend Alyson and I both recently had a week off between jobs and decided to go on a last minute getaway. In choosing a locale, we were looking for a relatively cheap destination that was easy to get to from multiple cities (she lives in Boston and I live in NYC). Denver popped up on both of our flight searches and we were lucky enough to find flights that arrived/departed within 20 minutes of one another. I’ve flown into Denver many times for ski trips and work trips, but have rarely spent time exploring Denver and its surrounding areas. As I started to research for the trip, I was so impressed by the number of awesome activities, hotels and dining options I came up with. Denver is definitely an up and coming travel destination and I would recommend it to anyone as an easy long weekend getaway.

ESTES PARK

We flew into Denver on a Sunday morning and headed straight from the airport to Estes Park, a town just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park that is only about an hour and a half drive from Denver. In Estes, the Stanley Hotel stands perched above the town.

 

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The Stanley Hotel

A historic hotel dating back to 1909, the Stanley is also known as one of the most haunted places in America and was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining (they also filmed the movie there). The hotel is only 20 minutes from the National Park entrance so it’s a very convenient place to stay when visiting. We enjoyed several great meals in the hotel’s restaurant, Cascades, which features local American cuisine and ghost-themed cocktails (try the REDRUM).

We also signed up for the one of the nighttime ghost tours offered at the hotel. While a bit kitschy, it was a fun way to spend the evening and we enjoyed hearing the history of the hotel which was part of the tour.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

It’s such a treat to find a beautiful National Park so close to a large city, so I definitely recommend at least a day trip. Our favorite hike was a 5-mile roundtrip that we took to Cub Lake. It offered varied terrain, beautiful mountain vistas and a lake destination. Plus, we saw herds of elk, and even two males up close in the woods.

IMG_3710Depending on the time of year you visit, the Bear Lake area is also very popular for hiking, and offers access to several trailheads. But, given the high elevation of that area, it was too snowy for our visit in early November.

BOULDER

Boulder is only about 20-30 minutes’ drive from downtown Denver. And if you’re driving to Denver from Estes Park like we did, it’s on the way and makes a great pitstop for lunch. After our long hike to Cub Lake, the delicious meal we had at The Kitchen was delightful (although there is also a location in Denver, if you miss the trip to Boulder). Boulder also has a great pedestrian mall downtown on Pearl Street, and it’s definitely worth walking around and popping into the cute shops and boutiques. For an afternoon pick-me-up after shopping, definitely stop in at Boulder Baked, for one of their “baked to order” cookies.

DENVER

On to Denver! We stayed at The Art Hotel in the Museum District.  The hotel was very comfortable, conveniently located and a museum in itself! The hotel features several temporary and permanent modern art installations for guests to enjoy – everywhere from the lobby to the elevator. Our first full day in Denver, we headed out in the morning to Core Power Yoga near our hotel for a great yoga class. Then we headed out for lunch and local beers at The Source, an artisan food market in the River North (RiNo) District.

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I definitely recommend the tacos at Comida, a former taco truck serving Southern-influenced Mexican street food. My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits taco. That afternoon, we spent some time shopping on the 16th Street Mall (check out Tattered Cover Book Store for an old fashioned brick and mortar bookstore) and at the boutiques in Larimer Square. In the evening, we took a little drink tour before dinner. Our first stop was The Great Divide Brewing Company for a tasting (they offer 3 oz pours for $1 each!) and our second stop was Terminal Bar, located in the historic ticketing office of Union Station.

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Beer Flight at The Great Divide

For dinner, we headed to ChoLon Bistro and were completely blown away. The flavors were sublime and each dish was more innovative than the next.

On Day 2 in Denver, we got in a quick workout at Pure Barre in Cherry Creek and then went out to brunch at Sassafras. The food was delicious (I had cheesy grits with poached eggs and bacon) but my favorite was the make-your-own mimosa flight, which was just too cute!

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Mimosa flight at Sassafras

That afternoon, we spent hours exploring the exhibits in the History Colorado Center which were so well done. The highlighted exhibit featuring Toys from the 50s, 60s, and 70s was particularly fun, although we also enjoyed the more permanent exhibits around the history and environment of Colorado. The exhibits were very engaging and great for kids, but also fun and educational for adults.

For our final evening, we took a shop owner’s recommendation to visit Williams & Graham, a speakeasy posing as a bookshop in The Highlands.

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The cocktails were fantastic, but the atmosphere was just perfect – complete with walking through a fake bookcase to get to the bar. For dinner, we ate at Linger, which is housed in an old mortuary and features globally-inspired plates. The food was delicious and more wallet-friendly than ChoLon Bistro, although the portions were a bit large. The food is meant to be shared, so with only two people it was a little difficult to taste a variety of things without being overwhelmed by food.

All in all, we had a fabulous trip exploring Denver and its environs!