National Mall, Having a Ball

On our first full day in Washington D.C., we had plans to play tourist! After lacing up our comfortable walking shoes and grabbing a breakfast which included homemade poptarts at the cutest diner, Ted’s Bulletin, we made our way to all of the nation’s capital’s hot spots.

Conveniently, D.C. has something called the National Mall, which lies right in the heart of downtown and holds almost all the monuments and memorials on a massive four blocks of lawn. Our goal was to hit them all!

We started with the White House and planned on working our way counter-clockwise through the gardens. These were all famous from our history books, such as the iconic Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. For me, I had the added bonus of collecting all the National Park site stamps for every one of these monuments, basically doubling my collection in the span of a few hours.

I won’t list them all, but I’ll tell you my highlights. The Lincoln Memorial was impressive, both smaller and bigger than I’d imagined it somehow. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was really great – I was surprised to have never seen or heard of it before. And oddly enough, the Korean War Memorial was strangely impressive; it was weird to see big statues of soldiers scattered through a field imitating real war.

It had gotten surprisingly hot on our trek around the National Mall, so after the last memorial, we were glad to head to grab a bit of eat at the Jazz Garden that was in front of the Smithsonian. We were a bit early for the jazz to start, but just sitting there in the shade, sharing a pitcher of sangria was super great. We had seen so much, read so many quotes, been both inspired and disheartened by history.

After a bit of a nap and freshening up, we decided to hit up an Ethopian restaurant, Dukem. Almost all of us (myself included) had never had it, so it was a great new cultural experience. I had a tray of sambusa, which was very delicious! And, you could’ve guessed it, I made everyone walk to get the local homemade ice cream (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams) after dinner. Yum!

We met up with the bride and groom after their rehearsal dinner for some amazing mint juleps at the Willard Hotel downtown. Coming from a pretty casual group of people, we were all feeling pretty fancy having gotten all dressed up to have drinks at a really nice hotel bar that was located in downtown D.C.  Also after the delicious foods and the introduction to the best mint julep I’d ever had – there was no way the night could’ve gone wrong. Celebrating our long-time friend and his pending nuptials was just a fantastic bonus!

How to Balance NPS Stamps and Friendship

Ah, where to begin on my adventure to Washington D.C? Since we were headed there for a friend’s wedding, a big group of us decided to hit up our nation’s capital for a long 5-day weekend. I felt a little awkward “making” my friends embark on my quest for National Park stamps, but they were all for it! I was glad I’d been able to take charge of the schedule so I could make sure friend time and National Park time was fair. I mean, you can’t take a trip to the nation’s capital where there are almost forty stamps to collect – and not let me try for them, right?!

My flight got in late morning Thursday, so after arranging a drop off for our bags, we headed to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. It wasn’t too far from our AirBnB, and had been recommended (besides being a National Park site I needed to snag). I was nervous that everyone would enjoy something that was mainly for me – but lucky for me, I have friends who are into history!

This home was where the Women’s National Party had started and conducted most of their meetings when they had met to discuss women’s suffrage. Seeing the same house in all the old pictures as the same as the one I was currently standing in was pretty great. Besides that, there are a ton of old banners still preserved from their marches as well as hand-drawn political cartoons displayed.

That was the only planned National Park site for the day (the other two on the itinerary were closed due to fire system upgrades). Having two stamps taken off my plate right off the bat, was actually kind of great. Since these two were impossible this trip, I knew I’d have to make it out to DC again the future. And because I knew I’d be back, my mission to finish the list in one long weekend became a lot less necessary.

If it happened I got the rest, great. If not, still great! This freedom allowed me to de-stress and enjoy more activities that weren’t NPS related.  So we had time after Women’s Monument to pass by the Capital building and walk over to the Library of Congress. At the Library, we saw some of Alexander Hamilton’s personal letters and also got a peak at some academics researching with the actual books in the Library.

Most of the rest of that first day was spent reconnecting our big group of old friends. Reconnecting with everyone basically means food and alcohol. And laughter, of course. We had lunch at Busboys & Poets, which had great food (every one of my friends there was a meat eater and still enjoyed the vegan nachos!) and even cooler paintings on the walls.

Later, after getting a bit of time with the groom, our friend Derek, we headed to Barcelona Wine Bar. This spot was chosen because it was Tracy’s birthday, but it was also one of the best hot spots in DC! The wait was long, but the wine was great and we were all just happy to be together -and on vacation! When we finally sat, the tapas were awesome and we began making our next plan.

A few of us had heard U Street was a cool spot with lots of bars, but it was pretty dead for a Thursday. Most bars were also showcasing the Stanley Cup finals, so it wasn’t quite ready for our ready-to-party group vibe. We headed back to the AirBnB to wait for a few more friends’ flights to get in and couldn’t believe it’d only been one day!

Stay tuned – there’s still a lot of DC adventures coming!

They Don’t Call it “Big” Bend for Nothing

I woke up to my last day at Big Bend National Park very optimistically. The day felt endless and so I had no doubt I would be able to accomplish every single thing on my Big Bend list. In retrospect, this is hilarious because I had five hours to try and cross off sixty miles of driving and twelve miles of hiking. Plus, you know, enjoy the views. Good luck!

First item on the list was catch sunrise. I hadn’t slept all that well in the night, mainly because it was a bit too hot to ever really get comfortable. I was ready to get moving and all packed up. While doing this, a javelina wandered into our campsite! This certainly wasn’t on my checklist, but you can’t say no to meeting new friends. This little hog-like mammal was also my most exotic wild animal sighting to date!

Based on the incredible span of views, we had decided the day before that the Rio Grande Overlook would be our best (easy to reach) spot to watch sunrise. It required only a two minute walk and then you were at a hill that had unobscured three-sixty views. We could see the sun just starting to peak over the mountains, so all the plains were changing beautiful colors. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I love catching a sunrise in National Parks. You’re never disappointed.

Before the sun could rise too much, I knew we should get moving to start on our big hike of the day. It wouldn’t be as hot as the day before, but this was still Texas after all. It definitely wouldn’t be cold. We moved from the east side of the park to the middle, finally entering the Chisos Basin mountain area. We would be checking off one of the trails to a peak of about 7500 feet. The Lost Mine Trail.

This was a moderate level hike, not to steep all at once, but lots of switchbacks to reach the top. As always, elevation can get you if you rush too much or don’t remember to focus on your breathing. For me, this trip was right after a long two-week illness, so I was very much feeling the strain on my body. Luckily, this trail had lots of benches and amazing scenic stops. Anytime I needed a minute to pant, I also snapped a shot of the trail of the surrounding mountains.

As always on a trail like this, as soon as you reach the top, it’s all worth it. This peak had quite a few boulders to climb and get a little risky with. You can climb steep rock formations and slip between cracks if you were feeling like a daredevil. To be honest, I played it pretty safe, but both Austin and Jenna got great (slightly scary) shots at the top. I preferred relaxing and enjoying the insanely beautiful sights.

Making our way down, I realized it was noon already. Our end at Big Bend had come swiftly, leaving me with a list of only about seven other things I’d wanted to do. Even after spending a weekend there, I’d still only seen about half of the Park. But I’d also done so much!

On our scenic drive out of Big Bend, I started talking about coming back later in the fall or early spring of next year. There’s been a couple of trips previously where I knew I’d need to go back, but this was the first time I felt like I hadn’t done a majority of my list. Sure, I’d hiked three major trails, got into two different bodies of water, and seen exciting wildlife – but that just goes to explain how big Big Bend really is!

I can’t wait to see what else I can cross off next time!

Big Bend Brings the Heat

It’s finally time for me to share my trip to Big Bend! Being a Texan, this National Park has been on my list from the beginning! When planning my visit to Big Bend National Park, I knew I wanted as much time as possible to try and get as much done there as I could. I gave myself a three day weekend and researched as much as I could. I even highlighted a printout map for the first time!

We stayed in Alpine, TX for the night after a day of National Park sites and Marfa tourism, so we were ready to start bright and early. We grabbed our stamp at the nearby Fort Davis, checking out the replica of the general store and walking a bit of the grounds. Then it was straight on to Big Bend!

I knew the temperatures would be reaching a hundred by midday, so I planned one short hike in the morning and the rest of the day would be water activities. After checking out the Panther Junction Visitor Center and getting some more detailed trail information, it was time to rough it to the Balanced Rock trail.

To get to this trail was a six mile drive on a dirt road, with plenty of dips and bumps. My friend Austin drove a small rented car, so we definitely felt every jag and jostle. The drive was scenic, with lots of cacti and a big beautiful blue sky. This road was long enough that I even had time to crawl into the backseat to braid Jenna’s hair!

We arrived a bit behind schedule, and it seemed we wouldn’t be escaping the heat as much as I’d hoped. We were in high-ninety zone, but luckily this was only a short hike with very slight elevation. The whole thing would take us about an hour.

Reaching the top, after many encounters with cute green lizards, I was already impressed by the views. I couldn’t believe we were still in Texas! And the massive balanced boulder was cool too, obviously. It had been a hot hike, but up at the top the breeze was really nice.

Our next stop was the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River! We drove to an overlook, snapped a few pictures, but then were ready to get in the water. There were a couple of small trails into the river, so we pulled away to have more privacy for our swim. After stepping through a bit of mud and over river pebbles, we made it in the water. It was perfectly cool even though it wasn’t as deep as I would’ve liked. It was more sitting than swimming, but still really fun!

Now that we were all a bit more refreshed, we headed to set up camp. Austin had bragged a bit too much, so we made him set up the tent blindfolded (ha). Unfortunately, he did it easily and now forever has bragging rights to setting up a tent while blind. We set out a blanket in our little meadow, made an easy no-fire dinner of sandwiches (PB&J!) and cracked open our Big Bend Brewery beers. Ah, what a life.

We relaxed in the shade, drinking and playing card games while we waited for night. Our next water activity involved a hot spring. Since the spring is naturally 105 year-round, we knew a night hike would be the only way to chance getting in and not burning alive instantly.

Of course, there’s no pictures from the springs seeing as it was almost midnight, but let me just tell you the stars were amazing. The spring was a crudely built brick structure around a natural bed, right on the edge of the Rio Grande. The water was super hot, but so relaxing with the surroundings after a day of working my muscles.

My time at Big Bend was running out fast, but sitting there surrounded by the galaxy, I couldn’t be all that mad about it. I’d already seen and done some incredible things. I knew no matter what else I could accomplish the next day – I would be planning another trip to Big Bend!

Start Your Summer, Find Your Peace

I had a heavy wedding season this spring, so I had to halt all traveling for too long. I was so excited to finally get back outdoors and start checking off more National Park sites! Not only that, but resume driving the beautiful countryside from sun up to sun down.

After a bit of a nap after work, Jenna and I were headed off around midnight. Making great, time we arrived at our first stop, Carlsbad Caverns right as it opened! I had done a bit of cave exploration in Georgetown, TX, but I had no idea how big Carlsbad would prove to be! We didn’t think we had time to do the entire Big Room Trail and the whole descent walk, so we took the first elevator down.

It shot us quickly almost 700 feet down, which seemed great. Later I found out the descent walk is completely worth it. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff we missed, but a part of me is glad I got to do the entirety of the Big Room. Besides I need to go back anyway to see the bats, which missed us this time!

We were the first to step off the elevator and we headed straight for the start of the trail. Everything was so massive! It was like having the whole cavern all to ourselves. In the entire loop, which took more than an hour, we only ran into one person. We explored the cave, checking out the stalagmites and stalactites and other natural formations. There were also lots of pools and even one “bottomless pit.”

It was finally time to head to our next stop, the Guadalupe Mountains. I’ve spent the least amount of time in this west part of Texas, so the drive was incredible. It’s all plains until you spot the Guadalupe Mountains. It makes for a terrific scenic drive.

The highest peak in Texas is a part of this range of mountains, the Guadalupe Peak. There was no time this day and I wouldn’t prefer the insanely hot weather, but I have definitely put this on my bucket list. One day I will hike to the top of Texas’ highest point.

Continuing down the National Parks Highway, we were headed to the very tip of Texas – El Paso. El Paso is one of the only well-known cities in Texas I had never been to. We spent some time driving through the town, which of course shared similarities to Mexico, seeing as it is a border city.

Our final National Park site of the day was the Chamizal National Memorial. This site commemorates the peaceful settlement of the Chamizal dispute. Because of its purpose, the whole visitor center was focused on the idea of peace and diversity. Besides learning about this dispute and the cultures involved, it celebrates all cultures and the ideal of the “melting pot” that is America.

On the main building is a massive mural depicting all different cultures and peoples. It’s big and colorful and super interesting. It’s got JFK and Obama, Native Americans and Spaniards, and lots of different ages and races of every people that has made up part of American history.

Even though all three of these stops were very different, they represent the sort of things I’m discovering on my National Park journey. There’s natural wonders, and scenic views, but also the concepts brought to the world by man. We strive to seek out not only the physical attributes of this land but the meaning we make of it too!

Bad Luck Fixed by a Drive to the Coast

My only “real” knowledge of Portland, Oregon before this trip was the tv series Portlandia, which seems not too far off in retrospect. This trip was mainly for my travel buddy Jenna, who’s birthday was the following Wednesday. Her Oregon wishlist included lots of nature highlights, so that would be our main goal the first day.

However, we had to fly in Thursday night and I got to admit, our trip didn’t get off to a great start. Our flight had been delayed by three hours and so when we finally made it to check into our Airbnb around one in the morning, we discovered we’d been given the wrong code and our host was unreachable. We were tired and cold and on the phone with Airbnb support for quite a while. Not the greatest introduction to Portland.

They ended up giving us an old code that luckily worked, and we were more than ready to shake off our bad luck the next morning. However, the bus we’d planned was nowhere to be found. I took out my perfect schedule, and knew we would have to rearrange some things. When your transportation plan is derailed when traveling, it’s time to be flexible.

Originally, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (which is actually in Washington) was a “if we have time” item, but now it was within ten minutes of the car we would be renting. We lyfted there, and I was secretly glad to be crossing off a new National Park stamp and be checking off a whole new state. We arrived as soon as it opened and it looked very much like the little town John Smith establishes in Pocahontas. They even had a volunteer blacksmith that we spent some time chatting with!

We enjoyed the tall trees and open field, and I was reminded of the Park ranger, who pretty much said she was glad we were visiting but as a true Oregonite, wanted only visitors. Next we got our car, headed back over the state line, and checked out one of the top Portland tourist destinations: Multnomah Falls.

We walked up as close as we could get, and it was still pretty amazing since I’d never seen such a high waterfall (especially not on the side of a small mountain), but our bad luck would strike again. The Falls were cut off from the main entry because of mudslides, so we were only allowed a far off look. While still impressive, I couldn’t help but be bummed we wouldn’t be able to get closer.

On the way to lunch, we changed up our plan again to stop at The Grotto. We wanted to get rid of the last of our bad juju, so we headed to this Christian alcove which was full of pretty trails and one of the tallest, rickety elevators you’ve never seen on the side of a hill. There were lots of famous saint statues and a beautiful meditation building with a great view of Portland.

It was starting to drizzle when we headed to Bye Bye, a vegan restaurant in the heart of Portland. Optimistic about the nature left to see, I chowed down on a vegan grilled cheese and guacamole. Let me pause to say, I loved all the food in Portland! I could probably write a whole post on just the stuff I ate – and I just might!

We were headed to the coast in our rental car from a new app Turo, and I was really enjoying the drive. Oregon had equal parts farming and woods, so the mini roadtrip was pretty great. I love a good drive, and even though it was a bit rainy, that just added to the enchantment of seeing new things. I entered the winding roads of Ecola Park, and couldn’t imagine that we would soon pop out through the woods and be on the coast. But we did.

There was only thick forest, until suddenly the sky appeared and I parked at the top of a cliff overlooking a magnificent site. It felt like I was in a different country, one where tales of dragons and magic had been based in. It’s hard to describe the beauty. And even though I have amazing pictures, it still doesn’t really do it justice.

From Ecola, we headed south a bit, driving through the adorable coastal village, making our way to Haystack Rock. We enjoyed the beach, the massive rocks, the scenery, the ocean, everything was magic.

I fell into the water right near the end, but was having such a great time, I didn’t even mind. It was cold, but driving back I only felt happy. It had been such a great day by the end.

I know based on previous travels that things are bound to go wrong. When you leave your safe, predictable home, you invite something different into your life. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but overall I’ve found the journey worth it.

Deep in the Heart, Close to Home

Waking up well rested in San Antonio, I was ready for a day of exploration. Seeing old friends the night before had been nice, but I was ready to get to some new places and see a side of Texas I hadn’t before.

It was rainy when we headed to the San Antonio Missions. I was surprised to find out that four of the five Spanish missions had been moved all into the San Antonio area for better conservation. I was even more surprised to find the National Park site so busy! The visitor center was packed. The site seemed to be busy not only because of the National Park denotation, but also as a local Texan highlight. The shop was full of fun Texan gifts!

We got our stamps and listened to a bit of the history in the visitor center and then decided it was time to visit the biggest one (that was also the closest), the San Jose Mission. It was crazy how good the building was keeping up, and how beautiful the architecture was. There were people lighting candles and praying in the attached chapel, which was kind of great considering people had been doing just that in this very spot for hundreds of years.

It started to really pour and knowing we’d already seen the “best” mission, we decided it was time to move on. On our way out, we took the scenic drive to see what we could of all the rain-obscured missions. It seemed like a great route to bike, so I hope I’ll be back one day to explore more!

For now though, it was time to head to our last National Park site for our weekend, Lyndon B. Johnson National State Park, where the former president’s boyhood home still stood. At the visitor center, we read a bit about the history of the president and “Ladybird” Johnson. (I’ll always love her for her wildflower initiative, which to this day spurs communities to plant thousands of wildflowers all over Texas.)

The home was familiar in the way all old Southern homes are to me, so not too interesting in my opinion. There was an old double swing that was still in use though. The whole area was somewhat humbling, imagining a small boy growing up in a somewhat farm lifestyle, going on to become the president of our country.

Our final pit stop was Austin to see some friends before heading home. Funnily enough, this was another Dallas friend who happened to be in Austin the same weekend. It was weird how many familiar faces we were seeing during our travels this weekend. It made it feel like we didn’t really escape into the culture. I’ll never regret time spent with good friends, but I have to admit I might like the more remote trips than ones like these that feel more like home.