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Palo Duro Canyon

Canyon, Texas

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I have found the perfect trip to take during these days of Covid-19!

Why not check out Palo Duro Canyon State Park and visit our nation’s second largest canyon? Consider it a mini Grand Canyon and one of Texas’s best kept secrets. This park covers 30,000 acres and is located a few miles outside of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Palo Duro Canyon offers spectacular views, fun outdoor activities, lots of fresh air and few social interactions with others. Why not get a change of scenery, have a great time and enjoy nature  – all while social distancing? Win, win!

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My husband and I recently drove to Palo Duro Canyon (6 hours from DFW) and stayed in a wonderful cabin (Skyhouse @ Dove’s Rest Cabins) five minutes away from the park entrance and spent two days in the park. If you go, be sure to purchase your State Park day passes on-line a few weeks in advance due to limited availability. Tickets are only $8 per vehicle per day and the park is currently open 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

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The morning we arrived, there were only a couple of cars ahead of us checking into the park. After entering through the main gate, there were 16 miles of paved roads ahead of us that descended 800 feet to the canyon floor. We stopped along the park road several times and enjoyed fantastic scenic views, historical sites and markers, picnic tables, miles of hiking trails and the visitor center (with limited hours). There were also public restrooms, biking trails, horseback riding trails, a souvenir shop with grill, camping areas suitable for day trips, and overnight tent camping. Several areas were closed due to the pandemic, including the outdoor amphitheater and park cabins, but there was still plenty to see and do.

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We were there on a Sunday and Monday and may have seen two dozen people – tops! The parking lots, trails and roads were nearly empty. We passed a couple of people on each trail we were on. The most people we saw in one place happened to be at a snow cone stand at one of the major trail heads. It was great!

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Our first morning hike in the park was on the Pioneer Nature Trail that looped down to the river and back. It is a popular place to spot Texas horned lizards/toads/frogs (my daughter graduated from TCU so I will hereafter refer to them as horned frogs!). We found three snake skins (yikes! lots of rattlesnakes in the canyon), small lizards, tons of red ants (horned frog food), and a half-eaten coyote pup skeleton.  Near the end of our hike on this trail, lo and behold, we came across a Texas horned frog. He froze, we took pics, and went on our merry way. I was a happy camper!

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We then hiked a short distance off-trail around the site of the historic Battle of Palo Duro Canyon where the high red walls and percolation caves (caused by wind and water) reminded us of the rock formations in Sedona. This whole area has that eerie “battlefield” feeling I have felt other places – it just makes me feel sad and uneasy remembering the history and loss of life here. The vibe is unsettling and disturbing. You can read more about what happened here at the end of this article.

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Back on the main road, we chose the Sunflower Trail for our next hike and it was my favorite of the trip. This trail led us alongside a creek on one side and a large red, Permian wall on the other. This 300 million-year-old wall had beautiful horizontal veins of shiny white gypsum running through it. Most of the trail was shaded by tall cottonwoods and the clay-like ground underfoot was filled with animal tracks. We recognized raccoon, deer, rabbit, bobcat, coyote, and mountain lion tracks. I don’t think I would want to be on this trail at night! We also had to avoid stepping in piles of wildlife scat along the way that was teeming with iridescent dung beetles. The circle of life is alive and well in the canyon!

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The following day began at the visitor center where we enjoyed the scenic view from the overlook at the canyon rim. We drove halfway down into the canyon and hiked off-trail again to climb a large prominent rock that overlooked the canyon floor. The views from there were amazing. This trail was full of cacti and the climb was not easy but I made it! We had to be very careful where we were stepping and constantly be on the lookout for snakes, scorpions and centipedes. Many things were ready and willing to stick, bite or sting!

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We hiked back to our car, drove a little further into the canyon and parked near the Kiowa trail head. We walked along the Kiowa Trail and followed a dry creek bed through mesquite groves for great views of another prehistoric Permian wall formation that gives the river its red color. We didn’t spot any wildlife here but saw many animal trails and tons of grasshoppers that would suddenly fly up and scare the bejesus out of you!

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Later that afternoon we found ourselves at the Lighthouse trail head. This is the most popular trail and leads to the iconic Lighthouse Rock “hoodoo,” the symbol of the park. This is a six-mile hike round trip and where most of the park’s heat-related injuries and deaths for people and pets occur. We were warned to not start this hike if the temp was above 80 degrees (it was) and not unless you have at least one gallon of water per person (we didn’t). We decided to hike down the trail far enough to see the Lighthouse, take a pic, and head back – which is what we did. We then made a beeline to the snow cone stand in the parking lot! 

Note: the canyon floor is always 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the temperature on the canyon rim. It was hot! hot! hot!!

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Afterward our much-enjoyed snow cone, we made a couple of brief stops at pull-outs and had a picnic lunch. We saw more beautiful rock formations, a big green lizard, and a turkey.  After two full days of exploring the park and canyon, our trip was coming to a close. We enjoyed it immensely and I would love to visit again in the spring or fall when temps are a little cooler. One major highlight of our trip (besides the gorgeous scenery) was that the lack of crowds could not be beat!

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More information on the park itself:

People have been a part of this scenic canyon for 12,000 years where they hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. More recently, the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa Native American tribes called this canyon home. They left behind rock art, arrowheads, and pottery shards that clue us into their way of life here. Early Spanish adventurers exploring the canyon, named it Palo Duro, Spanish for hard wood. The visitor center has a video and some of these artifacts, fossils and relics if you are interested.

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For you history buffs – a large part of this canyon’s history centers around the Red River War and the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (mentioned above) which was an ongoing battle between the U.S. Army and the Plains Indians. In 1874, the U.S. Calvary attacked a large camp of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes at dawn. Many in the camp fled throughout the canyon while the army attacked the surprised natives, captured 1,500  horses (and killed 1,100 after taking their picks), burned all the teepees, food, clothing, tools, and provisions. With no horses or winter supplies, the remaining Native Americans had no choice but to surrender themselves to the reservations. A marker now stands in the far end of the canyon and details this battle. As you stand in this spot, it is easy to visualize the haunting event that took place on these grounds and to imagine the sounds of the guns and the screams of the frightened people and horses. It is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

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 With the Native Americans out of the way, the canyon and surrounding area quickly moved into the “ranch era.” The resident buffalo were hunted almost to extinction for their hides and their carcasses were left to rot and be eaten by scavengers. The few small buffalo herds that remained were run out by the ranchers to make way for longhorns. The State of Texas bought this land for the park in 1933 after it had been used as a cattle ranch since the late 1800s.

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Currently Palo Duro Canyon State Park is ranked the “number one” State Park in Texas and ranks in the “top twenty” of U.S. State Parks according to several travel guides. No surprise there!

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our days spent in the park. It was a great little trip and a nice change of scenery. If you are a fan of the outdoors and enjoy hiking, rock formations and wildlife and don’t mind red dirt, cacti, and being up close and personal with nature – plan your trip today. I hope to go back soon so maybe I will cross paths with you there.

See you on the trails!

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Reykjavik

Iceland

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Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland and the northernmost capital in the world. It is only 40 minutes away from Keflavik airport, where all international flights arrive into Iceland. Over 60% of Iceland’s entire population lives in the community of Reykjavik, and there is much to see and do here in this very modern European city. 

I visited Reykjavik this past October with four other couples before we embarked on a bus tour of southern Iceland. We had two full days here and tried to see and do as much as we could in a short period of time. The morning our flight arrived, we checked into our hotel and immediately hit the streets to get our body clocks adjusted to the time zone. We had blue skies and temperatures in the high 50s. What perfect weather! We walked a few blocks from our hotel to the well-known Braud & Co. for some delicious, buttery pastries – all locally made. After some coffee, sugar, and a brief stop, we were off to a explore Reykjavik!

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Where to next? Reykjavik’s town center was relatively small, which made it easy for us to explore on foot. We continued walking down Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík and not far from our hotel. This street is well-known for its boutiques, brightly painted houses, restaurants, artistic graffiti, and bars. We strolled down Laugavegur all the way to Hallgrimskirkja church, which prominently stands on a small hill in the downtown area. A huge statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic Viking that sailed to North America, stands in front of the church. Hallgrimskirkja is a beautiful, architectural church and a tourist “must see.” We paid a small fee to ride an elevator and then to climb a few stairs to the top of the church for stunning views of Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja stands 244 feet tall and is the largest church in Iceland. It is visible from almost everywhere in the city and is very recognizable by its “step” design that is made to mimic the glaciers of Iceland and the basalt columns that are found throughout the countryside.

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After exploring the church, we visited a few of the many museums located in the downtown area. We walked to the Tales from Iceland Museum where we watched some beautiful videos that gave us a unique perspective of the country. There were two floors of exhibits here with 14 screens, each with a set of sofas in front of them. They provided us with free coffee, hot chocolate, drinks and snacks while we enjoyed the exhibits. This was the perfect place to fight the jet lag and “chill” for a bit, while still learning about the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

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Our next stop was the Icelandic Phallological Museum (giggle if you must!). This museum is pretty small, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was well worth a visit just so we could say we have been there! There were over 200 penile parts from land and sea mammals in Iceland (from a tiny hamster member to a 6-foot-long specimen from a sperm whale). Some parts of the museum were very scientific, some were laughable. It was something I will never forget!

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As the day and time change began to wear on us, we retreated to the hotel for a little rest and some dinner. Later that evening, we decided to walk a few blocks down to the harbor to see if we could see the Northern Lights. The day had been clear and we were hopeful that the night skies would be. The chances of seeing the lights is always slim – but we thought we would give it a try. 

All I can say about this first evening in Reykjavik is  – OH, MY! The skies did not disappoint!

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How lucky were we? It was just our first night in Iceland and the Northern Lights started showing off for us. It was around 10:00 p.m. as our group sat on huge rocks that made up the harbor seawall. We watched as the skies swirled and danced with greenish gray, windswept lights of the aurora borealis. We were in disbelief seeing this phenomenon on of very first night! What luck!!

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We actually saw the Northern Lights again the next three nights in Reykjavik. The second night, they were not only visible from the harbor again, but we could actually lie in our hotel beds with the curtains open and watch them from our room. They covered the night skies and were more colorful this second night. The third night, we drove out to a secluded church yard, away from the city light pollution, and once again got a marvelous light show. This sight was incredible and an experience I will never forget. I could now officially check “see the Northern Lights” off my bucket list.

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Day 2

Our second morning in Reykjavik brought more clear skies and warm temperatures. Our group decided to take the “Hop-on-Hop-off” bus since it picked up right in front of our hotel and went all over Reykjavik. We boarded the double-decker bus and headed down to the harbor. Our first stop was the cruise ship dock where we saw the John Lennon Memorial. We rode the bus for a brief time before heading off on foot down the seawall and harbor walkway. Our next stop was the famous Hofdi House. This house, built in 1909, sits on the shoreline and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and historically important buildings in Reykjavik. It is best known as the location for the 1986 summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the end of the Cold War. We stopped here for a photo op before heading on down the paved harbor walkway.

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IMG_0313As we continued to explore this area of the city along the sea wall, we took in the gorgeous sights of Reykjavik on this beautiful morning. There were many sculptures and works of art along our way, including one of the highlights of my trip – the Sun Voyager. The Sun Voyager is a large, abstract, metal sculpture resembling a Viking longboat. We took some great photos here with a view of Mount Esja on the other side of the bay. It was most impressive!

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Our group continued down the seawall and headed to the Harpa Concert Hall. Sitting on the bay in Reykjavik, this glass and steel, architectural building is nothing short of breathtaking. It is an impressive, contemporary structure with colorful, honeycomb-type windows that change colors in certain light. The Harpa is a city-owned building that hosts concerts, cultural events, movies, and exhibitions. We stopped in for refreshments, restrooms, and shopping at the high-quality gift shops. 

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We continued our walking tour and headed away from the bay to locate the Hard Rock Cafe (for shirts!). We also had plans to find a local lunch spot. I was leaning towards the Icelandic hot dog stand that Bill Clinton made famous on his visit to Reykjavik years ago. After a couple of inquiries from locals, we found Baujarins Beztu (translates as “the best hot dog stand in town”). We stood in a long line before ordering our hot dogs and cokes. We found outdoor seating nearby and sat and enjoyed our lunch. The hot dogs were unique and delicious!

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After lunch, we found ourselves in a very popular shopping area. A few of us wandered into the Flea Market, a large, indoor shopping area where the most interesting section was a fish market in the back building. The vendors here were entertained by tourists trying samples of the local delicacy “hakarl” which is the national dish of Iceland. It consists of a Greenland shark that is cured by a fermentation process and is hung to dry for 4-5 months before being cut into bite-sized cubes. Two brave souls in our group actually tried a sample and described it as tasting like urine, ammonia, and rotten fish. No thank you! I passed.

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Our group then walked around a nearby historic area that housed the Old Harbor, the Parliament Building, City Hall, the Pond, and the Cabinet House. We saw some very beautiful buildings, gardens, and  interesting local architecture. The next stop on our agenda was the Settlement Exhibition. This was an unusual, underground museum (due to it being built around an actual archaeological dig). In 2001 when nearby buildings were being renovated, relics were found and archaeologists were called in. This area turned out to be the oldest remains of human habitation in Reykjavik and included a tenth-century Viking longhouse. This was a most impressive museum and the site was very well-preserved. The longhouse dated back to 1000 AD where Iceland’s first settlers made their home. This was a very informative exhibition with original artifacts, iron-works, carpentry, etc. We enjoyed our time here and learned a lot about the Viking way of life.

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We ended up walking to the Old Harbor and “hopped” back on the bus. We rode a complete route back to the hotel after seeing most of Reykjavik and its highlights. The next morning we left on our bus tour.

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After a week touring southern Iceland, we returned to Reykavik midday. Several of us checked back into the hotel and spent the afternoon at the Perlan, a well-known sight in the city. The Perlan is a distinctive glass dome museum that rests on five gigantic water tanks perched high on top of a hill. We had a wonderful lunch here in the revolving restaurant that overlooks Reykjavik and enjoyed the great views. This was a very modern museum with many interesting videos, exhibits, and interactive displays. We watched the featured film about the Northern Lights. We learned about Icelandic glaciers, lava, and wildlife. We then dressed in cold weather gear and explored the Ice Cave. It was a most enjoyable afternoon!

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Reykjavik is a very vibrant European city with a diverse cultural scene. There are plenty of parks, museums, restaurants, galleries, shops, and bars to enjoy here. It is very modern but without tall skyscrapers, congested traffic, and crime associated with most large European cities. Reykjavik is also the perfect base from which to experience some of Iceland’s breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders. The famous Blue Lagoon is only 40 minutes away. You can go on a Golden Circle tour that leads you to geysers, valleys, waterfalls, and basalt mountains. Or you may choose to visit the South Coast from here and see the Glacial Lagoon, the Black Sand Beach, and Diamond Beach. 

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I loved my time spent in Reykjavik and would go back in a heartbeat! The sights were amazing, the people were friendly, and the food was very enjoyable. Who knew? We were lucky enough to have great weather, see the Northern Lights, and have some memorable adventures. It was a wonderful experience and we all had a fantastic trip. Two thumbs up for Reykjavik!

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Safe travels!!

 

Diamond Beach

Iceland

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A recent trip to Iceland was filled with surreal environments. I saw moss-covered lava fields, towering volcanoes, basalt walls, gigantic glaciers, powerful waterfalls, and steaming geysers. One of my favorite sights of the entire trip was the beautiful Diamond Beach near Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.

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Diamond Beach is about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik along the southern coast of Iceland. This area is a constantly changing, natural environment and is breathtakingly beautiful. Every minute provides a different experience according to the weather, the lighting, and the number of icebergs and ice chunks that have made their way to the shore.

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Diamond Beach is exactly what it sounds like, except for the fact that there will not be any sunbathers on this stretch of sand! The sparkling black, lava sands are filled with bits and pieces of passing icebergs as they break away from the nearby glacier. These 1000-year-old ice blocks break from the melting glacier, make their way through the glacial lagoon, float down a glacial river, and enjoy their last moments before being washed into the Atlantic Ocean. This is where the smaller bergs come to rest as they are scattered along the coastline and the sand becomes covered in ice. Sizes range from tiny, glittering shards to car-sized behemoths.

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These polished pieces of ancient glacial ice get caught up in the ocean current and end up scattered back onto the black sand beach. Each one reflects the light and they sparkle like “ice diamonds” – hence the name Diamond Beach. The ice takes on may different forms and colors, ranging from clear to white to blue. Walking among the ice chunks was like visiting an outdoor ice sculpture garden. The experience was very unusual, beautiful, and unforgettable.

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My travel group visited the Diamond Beach one morning in early October. Luckily for us, the beach was not crowded. The weather was rather messy (cold, cloudy, and windy) and the tides were pretty rough so we had to use caution (sneaker waves are very dangerous in this area).  Fortunately, we got to take advantage of some great photo opportunities and we enjoyed every minute spent here.

 

It was a truly magical experience.

A few of us may have accidentally gotten our feet very wet and cold. Just sayin! 🙂

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The Blue Lagoon

Iceland

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I recently planned a trip to Iceland with my husband and four other couples to see the Northern Lights. We had an entire week to see some of the famous sights in the Land of Fire and Ice. One thing on our list of “must do” was to visit Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon.

Located about 40 minutes from Reykjavik, the trip from our hotel to the Blue Lagoon was quite interesting. The highway took us over miles of moss-covered lava fields, beside rocky shorelines, and over barren volcanic wasteland. One common sight along the way on this cold morning was plumes of steam shooting out of vent holes from hot springs far underground. The landscape looked like a movie set from Land Before Time. Cue the dinosaurs! 

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First off – the Blue Lagoon is not a natural spring, though there are many in the area. The landscape is natural, as is the lava that shapes the pool area. The warm water is actually the result of runoff from a nearby geothermal plant in the area. The lava field here was formed in the 1200s and is called Illahraun (Evil Lava). It is currently a very active volcanic area. Yikes!

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The Blue Lagoon compound was much larger than I had ever expected. There was an expansive parking lot and a huge monolith of a sign on the walk to the entrance. A multi-storied, very modern building towered over acres of lava rocks and milky blue streams of water flowing in all directions. I was very impressed. So far, so good!

Check-in was a breeze since we had made reservations and purchased our tickets ahead of time. The cost was approximately $80 for the basic “Comfort” package that included the entrance fee, towels, silica mud mask, and a drink. We were each fitted with electronic wristbands that let us into the locker rooms, lockers, and shower area. The wristbands were also a brilliant way to pay for purchases in the water without having to keep an eye on a purse or wallet.

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Each person was required to strip down, shower nude, use provided shower gel and conditioner, and then put on a swimming suit (showers were private – changing rooms were not). Attendants made certain that no person entered the lagoon without first showering. Several of us females had read how bad the chemicals/algae/minerals/silica could be on our color-processed hair so we knew to bring and apply coconut oil, tie our hair up, and don’t submerge! The water doesn’t really damage your hair – it just leaves a thick, mineral build-up. We were prepared!

After showering and putting on swimsuits, we stepped from the locker area into the lagoon. What a view! Black lava rocks, green moss, black bridges and walkways, and beautiful milky turquoise waters spread out before us in all directions. We hung up our towels and stepped in. The water was not hot – it was more like warm bathwater. Swimming around to different areas, we did find that the water temperature changed from area to area. This particular morning, the temperature was in the high 40s Fahrenheit which made the lagoon nice and toasty and not so cold that walking outside was like a Nordic torture experiment. It was perfect!

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We explored for a few minutes and took in the surreal scenery. Steam was rising off the water and the cloudy skies were starting to clear. What a gorgeous day it turned out to be. The water felt awesome! We decided to try our complimentary silica masks from a swim-up bar. Attendants spooned the white silica into our hands and we used  mirrored panels located nearby to smear the mask on our faces. The rules were pretty simple: avoid your eyes, leave the mask on for 10-15 minutes, then wash off for smooth, hydrated skin. We had a lot of laughs while looking like poor imitations of clowns/mimes/geishas with our streaky white faces and oily, slicked back hair! Thank goodness one brave soul in our group brought a phone to snap a few pics (though the steam hampered the camera lens and the photo quality). Note: go outside and take photos with your nice camera or phone before entering the water, then return it to your locker. 

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We explored all the nooksskyr and crannies of the lagoon. There were bridges, overhangs, private coves, and lots of wide open spaces. There were rock “islands” to set your drinks on. The bottom is smooth like a swimming pool so it was very easy to walk or swim around. Most of the water was waist-deep to chest-deep.

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Several of us went to the swim-up bar together after washing our masks off and exploring the area. Our wristbands allowed us one free drink but we could purchase up to two more. I drank the frozen Strawberry Skyr (yogurt) smoothie which was delicious and refreshing. Several in our group had cocktails, Icelandic beer and imported wine. This is the memory I will keep in my mind – blue skies, turquoise water, friends & family standing around – laughing, drinking, and talking.

It was a great day and a very memorable experience!

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The Blue Lagoon was more than just the “lagoon.” It also had a sauna and steam room, spa treatments, and floating massages. There were a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, a lounge, and a gift shop. Everything was neat, clean and modern. All the service we encountered was very accommodating and friendly. The experience was a little pricey….but so is everything in Iceland! We expected that going in and still felt like it was worth every penny. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I highly suggest experiencing the Blue Lagoon if you ever get a chance to visit Iceland. It was a great place to spend a few hours or all day. It is a memory that I will never forget, especially sharing this wonderful experience with family and friends. LOVED IT!

Safe travels!

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Additional tips: No outside food is allowed in.

Leave all jewelry in your locker to prevent damage from the high silica content of the water.

Don’t wear expensive eyeglasses or sunglasses (or anything you value) in the lagoon. If they fall off, you will never find them in the milky water and the silica can damage certain materials.

Plastic bags are provided for your wet swimsuits.

Hairdryers are provided but you need to bring your own hair products and brush/comb. 

No one can go into the lagoon area in normal street clothes. Swimsuits only.

 

 

Majestic Yosemite Hotel

California

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Now is the time to start planning your next vacation! Early fall and late spring are perfect times to visit Yosemite National Park and avoid some of the summer crowds. My husband and I went  to Yosemite this past April and the weather was perfect. The crowds were also very manageable this time of the year.

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Plan your trip far enough ahead of time to stay at the beautiful Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which now may be called The Ahwahnee Hotel (after an age-old, legal name dispute). This architectural gem is located inside the park and provides premium lodging for a visit to this area. The hotel was built in the 1920s and was designed to fit in with, and reflect, its natural surroundings. It has a striking granite facade, magnificent log-beamed ceilings, massive stone hearths, large public spaces, and richly colored Native American art throughout. I was intrigued with the rather unique blend of Native American design and Art Deco. The 1920s era shines through in the woodwork, light fixtures, elegant stained glass, tapestries, and ornate stenciling on walls and overhead beams. It is beautiful.

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The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is all about location, location, location. Parking is hard to come by all throughout the park, even in off-season. If you stay at this hotel, you park in the property’s own parking lot (with a hotel pass) and never have to drive inside the park again. It is situated in the heart of Yosemite Valley near the base of Half Dome and Glacier Point and a short walk to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Village. Many locations within the valley are very easy to walk to on well-marked paved trails. You may also choose to take free park shuttles from the bus stop right in front of the hotel. Staying at this hotel makes everything very convenient and hassle-free.

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Not only did we enjoy the convenient parking, walking trails, and shuttles – we enjoyed all the amenities that the Majestic Yosemite Hotel offered guests. There was a great bar/restaurant for drinks and casual dining on the ground floor. There was a very fancy dining room (reservations needed) for fine dining and nightly entertainment. There was a large gift shop, a candy/snack shop, daily kid activities, nightly star-gazing, afternoon tea and cookies, heated swimming pool, and large lawn area for relaxing. On the Sunday afternoon that we were here, the hotel had a full orchestra performing for its guests. It was most impressive.

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The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks. It has been the destination of queens and presidents, and now ME! We stayed in the El Dorado Diggins Suite which in the 1940s was a private dining room, a cocktail lounge, and a chapel. Now it has a king bed, a sunken living room, large windows, impressive tiled bath and jacuzzi, and a private, slate entry way. It was a large, roomy, and quite comfortable suite – loved it! If you can’t reserve this suite, try the Mary Curry Tresidder Suite where Queen Elizabeth actually stayed on her visit to Yosemite National Park in the 1980s. That room would be well-worth the bragging rights!

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I hope you get an opportunity to visit Yosemite Valley and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel sometime in the future and enjoy it as much as we did. Maybe our experiences will help you and others pick an opportune time to travel and influence you to stay at this wonderful, historic hotel.

Wishing you all safe travels!

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Desert Botanical Garden

Phoenix, AZ

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I credit my love of plants and flowers to my dear grandmother. She was one of those people that could grow just about anything and loved all kinds of flowers, caterpillars, bees, and butterflies.  It was from her that I learned names of insects, plants and flowers. She taught me how things grew and how to care for them. Today, I share my grandmother’s love of gardening and currently have a house and yard full of blooming things. Some friends and family might even say that I may have “a problem” (especially with my collection of orchids!).

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While planning a trip to Arizona this past May, the Desert Botanical Garden kept popping up on my “things to do” research. After reading several articles and reviews about DBG, I knew this place was something I definitely wanted to check out. Luckily I had a couple of like-minded friends traveling with me, so a day was set aside for us to check it out. Bags were packed. Agenda was planned. Arizona, here we come!

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The Desert Botanical Garden is located in Phoenix on 140 acres – 55 acres being the actual garden. It is nestled among the gorgeous red rocks of the Papago Buttes in the Sonoran Desert.

The DBG was actually started in 1939 when a small group of concerned citizens saw the need to conserve this area with its flora and fauna in a modern, fast-changing, and destructive world. Hats off to this far-seeing group of conservationists for this is now the home for several rare and endangered species of desert plants found no where else in the world.

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On the morning of our visit, parking was free and plentiful. Beautiful yellow Chihuly sculptures welcomed us at the entrance – that was an added bonus for me! A wonderful volunteer (thank you, David!) quickly approached my group of five women just inside the entrance gates. He gave us a map, some great tips, reminded us to drink our water, and had a joke or two for his captive female audience. He was most friendly and helpful, as were all the other volunteers we met throughout our day in the gardens.

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There were five main thematic trails in the gardens to be explored. Each garden trail was well-maintained with easy-to-follow signage. There were restrooms, water stations, and plenty of shaded places to sit and take a break from the desert sun. Every turn had something new and surprising. We wandered through the 50,000+ plants! All of the cacti, trees, and flowers were showcased in beautifully landscaped, outdoor exhibits – each more spectacular than the last.

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We walked under huge, towering cacti. We gawked at the colorful desert wildflowers. We enjoyed the shade under lush desert trees. We were buzzed by iridescent hummingbirds. We spotted doves sitting on their nests high up in holes of the gigantic saguaro cacti. We dodged huge bumblebees and butterflies that were searching out the brightly colored red, pink, orange, yellow, and purple blooms all around us. It was all wonderful. Mother Nature was alive and well in the desert.

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My favorite memory of the day was our visit to the Butterfly Pavilion. I have visited several butterfly exhibits in several different places throughout the years, but this one was by far the best. You could not step, stand, or walk inside the pavilion without sharing space with a brightly colored butterfly! They were everywhere!! The butterflies were gorgeous and all the flowers were breathtakingly beautiful. It was a sensory overload of colors and I loved every minute of it.

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As we followed the trails through each area, we saw many beautiful displays of plants and flowers. There were huge decorative pots, fountains, water walls, sculptures, native art, sundials, trellises, gardens, etc. We even saw squirrels, lizards, and native birds.  Every area was picturesque and every turn brought something new and interesting.

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My main regret visiting here is that we just didn’t have enough time.  A night-time visit would have been perfect. The Desert Botanical Garden hosts several night events including a florescent “Electric Desert Show” and  a “Flashlight Tour” (here snakey, snakey!). They also offer all types of gardening classes and specialized tours, as well as concerts and musical entertainment. This just gave me more reasons to return in the future!

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The Desert Botanical Garden was truly exceptional. The volunteers were all very friendly and helpful. The cacti and trees were spectacular and some were most unusual. The flowers and butterflies were gorgeous. The gift shops were first class. There is not anything negative that I can report on this fantastic place. It was hot – as are most deserts – so dress accordingly, take water and wear hats.  I would suggest going early (as we did) or at night and certainly not in the heat of summer. I do hope all of you plant-lovers get a chance to visit this wonderful place and enjoy it as much as we did.

For me, it was a lot like stepping into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting – pure desert magic!

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Yosemite Valley

California

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In early April this year, my husband and I visited California and explored three national parks – Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park. My previous blog detailed our trip to the first two parks and our journey along the Majestic Mountain Loop. Now we venture on to Yosemite.

After spending a busy couple of days exploring the previous two parks, we drove to Oakhurst, California and spent the night in this lovely little town located fourteen miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park. We felt like we needed some rest, a good meal (had some great Italian food!), and some time spent outside of the rental car. It turned out to be a smart choice for us.

We awoke that next morning, had a great breakfast, and began our short drive to the park. It was only a twenty minute drive until we crossed the border into the park but little did I know that Yosemite Valley and our hotel were at least 90 minutes ahead. The slow speed limit, road construction, winding roads, morning traffic, and park entry lines took a little longer than expected. Luckily, the drive was entertaining. We spotted mule deer by the roadside. I enjoyed seeing the snow that was still packed on the shaded sides of the road from the heavy winter snowfall. We passed through acres and acres of total devastation from last summer’s horrendous forest fires (this caused the traffic delays with crews removing trees and debris from the main road). Overall, it was an enjoyable and very scenic drive. About an hour into the park, following the curvy mountain roads – we entered Wawona Tunnel.

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All I can say here is WOW!

You exit the tunnel and you are at Tunnel View, the first of many astonishing sights. This view places you at one end of the valley looking straight out at Half Dome, El Capitan, granite walls, waterfalls, rivers, and vast evergreen forests. I understood immediately why this valley is referred to as “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” The Yosemite Valley is only seven miles long and two miles wide and this lookout point pretty much presents it to you in all its glory.  We parked in one of the large parking lots and joined dozens of others taking photos from this gorgeous, panoramic spot.

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After this photo-op stop, we  drove down into the valley and followed the circular one-way road that leads you past all of the major Yosemite landmarks. Sights that I had only seen in books, photos, and on screens appeared before me in real life: Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Arches Rock, and the Merced River. Everything was larger, higher, brighter, and more spectacular than I had ever imagined. I stood in the footsteps of John Muir and Ansel Adams and soaked it all in – another one of life’s “pinch me” moments.

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David and I were lucky enough to stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Lodge (awesome place!) located within the park. The parking, rooms, restaurants, amenities, and location couldn’t have been any better. We could easily walk to several of the park sights or catch a shuttle at the hotel to venture farther. The free park shuttles run every 20-30 minutes and allow you to “hop on / hop off” at any stop within the valley – they were very convenient and saved us a lot of time.

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We hiked up to the rock-strewn base of the three-tiered Yosemite Falls. We hiked to the base of Bridalveil Falls and got drenched with the ice-cold spray. We walked the trails through Ahwahnee Meadow and stood still as a herd of deer fearlessly walked by us. We stood and gazed up at the gigantic El Capitan. We enjoyed the visitor’s center and  the film that covered the history of the park. We browsed through the Ansel Adam’s Gallery and saw photographs from this area that brought him fame and fortune. We walked along the Merced River and relaxed a bit on the beautiful, sandy Cathedral Beach. We sat out on the hotel lawn one evening after a fantastic dinner and watched the stars in the night sky. We took a two-hour guided bus tour of the valley and learned a lot about Yosemite’s history, geography, geology, wildlife, and sights we saw along the way that are not in the guide books. When all was said and done, we crammed as much into two days as we possibly could and enjoyed every second!

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There was no way we could see as much as we wanted to in such a short amount of time, but we gave it our best effort. Yosemite National Park actually covers 1200 square miles and over 95% is wilderness, with the valley being a very small part of the whole park. Luckily, April turned out to be a perfect month to visit. The temperatures ranged from the fifties at night to the seventies in the day – and we experienced warm days, blue skies, spring flowers, and fewer tourists than other months of the year.

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The hotel, the weather, and the sights of Yosemite Valley were all better than we could have ever anticipated. Everything seemed to work in our favor. My one and only wish that was not fulfilled was a bear sighting! Maybe next time…

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Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

California

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I belong to a book club that read a lovely little book last year called “Dear Bob and Sue.” This book tells the story of Matt and Karen Smith’s travels to all 59 U.S. National Parks written as a series of emails to their friends, Bob and Sue. The book is funny, irreverent, unpredictable, and sarcastic – all in the spirit of humor. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, I got some great travel ideas from it. I learned about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a three-day trip where you can visit Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite all in one fell swoop. I was sold!

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My husband and I flew into Fresno, California from Dallas and rented a car there. Fresno is a small airport and proved very convenient to getting a rental car and starting off on our merry way. We stopped for a wonderful lunch outside Fresno in Sanger and headed up the mountains to Sequoia National Park and the Wuksachi Lodge. The drive was spectacular! We went from wildflowers, farmland, and sunny, citrus groves to cloud-covered mountains and snowy roads in less than two hours.

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On our first day in Sequoia National Park, we visited the Lost Grove (the densest concentration of sequoias in the park) and General Sherman – my “must see!”  The General Sherman Tree is the largest living organism on the planet and the largest living tree in the world. It was just as magnificent as I had imagined! If you want to feel small and insignificant, just stand at its base and gaze up at its top 275 feet above you. I stood and wondered about all that this tree has lived through and witnessed in its 2200 years. If only it could talk…

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The next day we left for Kings Canyon National Park. The two parks intersect each other so you go from one to the other without much fanfare. We started at the Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center in Grant Grove Village and enjoyed the exhibits and a movie detailing the history of the parks – very interesting. The rangers were very helpful in letting us know which roads were open or closed and helped us plan our day.

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The park is at a high elevation (up to 14,000 ft) and on this particular day in April we experienced rain, sleet, and heavy fog – all in a matter of hours. Then lo and behold, the afternoon turned out to be sunny and clear. Luckily for us, the weather was a deterrent for crowds and we got to visit Grant Grove pretty much by ourselves. Grant Grove is only a mile from the visitors center and proved to be one of my favorite excursions. It consisted of a half-mile walking trail through the forest that loops to the German Grant Tree (third largest in the world and a “young” 1,650-years-old). The paved trail was easy to walk and we passed by fallen trees, crossed over streams, and wandered through giant sequoia groves.  The forest here was breathtakingly beautiful and on this particular day, the towering trees seemed ethereal and unworldly. There was no wind, no sound, sparse light, and a mystical fog all around. I loved it!

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Many of the higher altitude roads in Kings Canyon were closed to vehicles this time of year so we drove to a lower elevation and visited beautiful Hume Lake (a park ranger’s suggestion). The sun was shining, the water was glistening, and the temperature was perfect for exploring the area around the lake. We ended our afternoon after a relaxing stop here and headed for Yosemite National Park – our third and final stop!

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There is not anywhere else in the United States where national parks are located so close together as these three here in California. We spent a full twenty-four hours in each Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park before heading on to spend three days in Yosemite. I highly suggest trying the Majestic Mountain Loop whether it be for three days, a week, or maybe more.

I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did!

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Mission San Jose’

San Antonio, TX

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I had a lovely girl’s trip recently to San Antonio and one of our highlights was visiting a couple of the old Spanish missions along the Mission Trail. I am quite the art history buff and had always wanted to see a couple of the missions besides The Alamo, which I always enjoy visiting. 

The Mission San Jose’ y San Miguel de Aguayo (proper name) is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It was built in 1720, just two years after The Alamo was founded and only five miles downriver. Upon completion, it had the reputation of being the most beautiful church along the entire frontier of New Spain. It is the largest colonial mission still standing today.

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The five remaining missions are located near the San Antonio River and not far from downtown San Antonio. There is actually an official Mission Trail where one can walk, bike, or drive to each of the missions or just choose to visit a couple – which is what we did on this day. Mission San Jose’ was quite easy to find and parking was plentiful. We actually approached from the rear wall which gave us very impressive views of a garden, statues, the church, dome and bell tower.

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The church itself is quite stunning. It was constructed out of locally quarried Texas limestone by Spanish and Native American craftsmen. The flying buttresses, carvings, statues, bell towers, an ornate rose window, and quatrefoil patterns are very indicative of the European influence. The building surfaces are now worn and weathered but at one time were covered with brightly painted stucco. I imagine that 300 years ago the church facade was quite a sight to see with vivid blues, golds, and reds painted in large geometric patterns. I am certain the locals and natives had never seen anything quite like it!

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After walking around the outside of this main building, we passed through the large decorative doors into the sanctuary of the church. It was simple, ornate, and quite beautiful (regular services are still held here). We walked the expansive grounds of the mission and explored the walled fortification that provided workshops, storage spaces, a granary, visitor lodging, and homes for the priests and Native Americans. There were also wells and stone ovens scattered throughout the property that gave me a hint of what life was really like inside these walls in the 1700s.

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After exploring the property, we headed to the Visitor Center (located outside the walls) and enjoyed the displays and artifacts. We also watched a 23 minute film in the park theater that told the history of this mission, the land, and the people. It was most interesting and I highly suggest taking the time to learn more about Mission San Jose’ to fully appreciate its history and purpose. I now understand more about the pageantry, art, food, celebrations, and architecture of San Antonio after seeing how the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures began here and created the “Tejano” culture that we know today.

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Mission San Jose’ is an expansive, well-maintained property that includes the historic mission and grounds, a book store, a visitor’s center, free parking, and restrooms. It is well worth a visit when in the San Antonio area. Very interesting!

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The five San Antonio Missions are actually part of the National Park Service and are also  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  U.S. Park Rangers offer guided tours at Mission San Jose’  (check times at the visitor center).

Poston Gardens

Waxahachie, TX

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I may never have the opportunity to travel to Holland in my lifetime to see tulips, but I have made it to a couple of tulip farms in Texas. That may be as close as I ever get! Does that count?

Last year my husband and trekked a hour north of Dallas to Texas Tulips in Pilot Point, Texas. This year, we drove an hour south of Dallas to quaint Waxahachie, Texas to check out the new Poston Gardens. 

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We visited  Poston Gardens this past weekend and were some of the first visitors on a beautiful Sunday morning. Parking was on-site and the entrance fee was $10 per person. Tulip stems run $3.00 each and you may keep both the tulip and bulb. The staff was most helpful and very friendly. We soon had a plan and a large plastic basket and were off on our way to pick tulips. 

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Several staff members drive carts throughout the fields and we quickly hitched a ride to the bottom (and largest) field that is home to over 400,000 tulips. The colors were a sensory overload! After picking and exploring here, we worked our way back up to three other fields on foot. Walking is easy, all the paths are well-marked. Rows of tulips are spaced far enough apart to make it all very easy.

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The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful! Candy colors, neon colors, soft pastels, pale whites – you name it – they are in full bloom!! There were 26 types of tulips planted this year and I loved and wanted them all. We managed to come home with 40 fresh stems (quite a few bulbs) and currently have two gorgeous tulip bouquets brightening up our home. A staff member gave us info on how to preserve our tulip bulbs so that we can plant them ourselves this winter. Hopefully we will be growing a few beautiful tulips in our yard next Spring! Fingers crossed.

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These tulip fields in Waxahachie are very new. Poston Gardens just opened on March 15th of this year. The owner, John Poston, has planted 40 acres of this 60 acre farm with over 1 million tulips. Mr. Poston decided to use his farm land to grow and sell tulips to help support Daymark Living (a facility located next door to Poston Gardens). Daymark is a resort-style community that teaches people with intellectual and developmental delays to live more independently. Poston’s 23-year-old son was born with Down syndrome and once he turned 18, there weren’t a lot of options for him to live a normal, independent life. Frustrated, Poston planned and built Daymark to help his son and others like him gain valuable life skills.  For every tulip sold, a portion of the profits goes directly to Daymark and its mission. Some of the Daymark residents even work in the gardens.

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The four large tulip fields are spread throughout the gently rolling farmland with some beautiful views. There are tents at a couple of locations where staffers will count, wrap, and prepare your tulips for the trip home. There are also restrooms, food trucks, and picnic tables located on the property. You can spend as little or as much time here as you choose. 

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If you are interested in tulip picking this year, GO SOON!  Poston Gardens will only be open for a few more weeks or as long as the tulips remain (usually through April). It was a fun experience for us both and makes us feel even better knowing that we contributed to a good cause.

Enjoy!

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(Suggestions: 1. Take a trowel if you want to extract the bulbs with the blooms.  2. Take a large container of cool water to place tulips in for the ride home  3. Wear gardening gloves to keep hands and nails clean!)  

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