When we initially booked our Scandinavian excursion, Oslo was merely a city to pass through on our way from point A to point B. We were spending a quick half day there before moving on to Bergen, our intended destination. However, as soon as we walked out of the train station that opened up into the center of this metropolitan, I knew we were very, very wrong.
While the city center is reminiscent of New York City’s little sister with towering buildings, floods of taxis and city buses, along with bright, vibrant billboards, walking just a block or two takes you back to the northern European styling we’re so used to seeing. Unique architecture, quaint parks and a beautiful main road that opens up to the Royal Palace make Oslo a cosmopolitan all its own.
Although known for costing a pretty penny, it is definitely possible to explore Norway without draining your savings account. To get the most bang for your buck, consider purchasing the Oslo Pass that gives you free entry to over 30 museums, as well as free public transportation.
Conveniently, Oslo’s buses travel all over the city. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll get on the bus the wrong way and get to see the entire city before actually arriving at your destination. Yay. But really, the maps are easy to follow as long as you read the direction of the bus ahead of time. Our first stop, after our unanticipated hour tour, was to Bygdøy Peninsula.
This peninsular is home to five of the national museums, a royal estate, along with beaches, forests and parks. Basically, it’s your one-stop-shop if you’ve only got a day in the city.
We thoroughly researched the museums before our arrival to make sure our time was well spent. We started at the Viking Ship Museum which was filled with, you guessed it, viking ships (along with tools and supplies from that era). The ships are extremely well preserved and you can get up close to their construction and read stories about their assumed travels.
Next, we rode the bus further down the peninsula to The Fram Museum, which displays the ins and out of Norwegian polar exploration. The Fram is the strongest wooden ship ever built and still holds the records for sailing farthest north and farthest south, as noted on the museum website. The short introductory film is well worth your time before exploring the museum. The exhibits hold nothing back and go so far as to offer a polar simulator to give you a taste of the arctic, brrr.
Lastly, we went to our favorite museum of the day. Although the Kon-Tiki Museum is often passed over for larger museums, we found this to be the most fascinating. The Kon-Tiki was a lightweight raft constructed of balsa logs built by writer and explorer Thor Heyerdahl and crew in 1947 to sail across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. The museum is set up like a movie come to life, providing you with a trail to follow to read about the events that occurred in a timeline style. Along with the raft itself, the museum also exhibits many artifacts and crew interviews to go along with the information.
Now museum’d out, we took the bus back to the main land and stopped at Vigeland Sculpture Park within Frogner Park. The beautiful landscaped area is perfect for an afternoon stroll or an evening picnic. Sculptures by Gustav Vigeland are located throughout the park and create an interesting, almost eerie, presence.
For our final stop, we made our way down the open markets on the street leading up to the Royal Palace as the sun set. A bustling city that offers so much variety in such a rich urban environment is one not to be miss.
Have you ever been to Oslo? Do you like to go to museums when you travel? Or do you skip them?
Surrounded by scaling mountains and awe-inspiring fjords, Bergen is tucked into the southwestern coast of Norway. While you can fly into the local airport, it is far more dramatic to enter from one of the most scenic railways in Europe, a ride from Oslo through Flåm that offers a true taste of what Norway has to offer. But, I digress, more on that another day.
Known for its overwhelmingly wet weather, Bergen experiences far more rain than sun each year, often leaving the city in a blanket of fog with only the steeples peaking above the low clouds. While the weather might not be on Bergen’s side, what it lacks in sunshine it makes up for with character. Colorful wooden houses line the cobblestone streets as visitors meander through the renowned fish market for a meal so fresh you can see exactly where your fiskesuppe (fish soup) came from. Due to its northern location, the summers mean long hours of sunlight if you’re lucky enough to score a rain free day.
Despite being the second largest city in Norway after Oslo, Bergen can easily be experienced in a day or two, offering a variety of activities from tours of fortresses to strenuous hikes between mountains overlooking the city.
Luckily, our first evening in Bergen was filled with clear blue skies and a sunset for the books. After dropping of our bags at the cheeky and elegant boutique hotel, we were a block or two from all the hustle bustle. The smell of fresh seafood led us to the center of town. The Fish Market is easy to identify immediately, salty tanks filled with lobsters, crabs and fierce looking swimmers were located in front of each shop. I played it safe with shrimp and rice, but admired my neighbors who opted for dishes that looked straight out of Stranger Things. Prefer my food with out eyes, thankyouverymuch.
Large sailboats and extravagant yachts sailed in and out of the harbor all through the evening, illuminated by the day’s last light. We were constantly fooled by the time of day as the sun didn’t start to go down until after 10pm. Luckily, we were able to soak up as much wandering as we could. Directly across from the Fish Market is one of the most notable postcard-esque sites. Bryggeen Hanseatic Wharf is made up of earthy colored houses uniformly lined up along the water’s edge. What used to be the center of a major trading empire is now filled with trinket gift shops and casual dining. Because of their wooden structure, many of the buildings in Bergen have been ravaged from various fires throughout the past few centuries. However, the rebuilding of this town stuck to the traditional construction and reflects the historical look of Northern Europe. Once the sun finally settled itself below the horizon, we headed back to our beds to prepare for an early morning.
After a quick breakfast of sugary skillingsbolle cinnamon rolls, a local delicacy, the Fløibanen funicular up to Mount Fløyen was next in line. This popular mode of traveling going up one of the mountains surrounding the city gets crowded quickly so it’s best to arrive within the first hour it opens. The cable car-like ride takes you to one of the most scenic points in the city in less than ten minutes. From here you can truly absorb Bergen’s jagged coast, colorful skyline and cobbled street ways. Even better, you get to meet the locals in their natural habitats, mountain goats and sheep are constantly ambling around the mountains to keep the grass trim. They were not as interested in me as I was of them.
Mount Fløyen is also the starting point for the hiking trail through Vidden to Ulriken. Due to the threat of a storm, we skipped this adventure in exchange for some solitude this morning.
The top of the mountain holds another Norwegian tradition. The folklore of trolls and fairy tale creatures is thriving in the country as evident throughout the town, especially on Mount Fløyen. The top of the mountain is decorated with troll statues, hidden figurines, and even an obstacle course that lets you view the world through the trolls’ eyes…seriously. As hokey as it might appear to an outsider, the fable is fun to fall into, at least for our stay here.
When we’d had our fill of troll hunting, we opted to forgo the funicular back down to instead walk the switchbacks that led to a secluded part of the city. While Bergen is filled with many attractions and museums, mostly due to the exuberant amount of rain, the culture is best understood by getting lost in the crooked alleys and deep staircases into gardens and small parks.
As the clouds opened up once we reached the city, we went to seek shelter at the Bergenhus Fortress, one of the oldest and best preserved castles in Norway. Overlooking the harbor, a quick tour leads you through the royal chambers, medieval hall and defensive tower. More importantly, this allowed us to learn more about the power behind Bergen and how devastating the fires were to the city and its culture.
Bergen felt like one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Although the center of town was flooded with tourists, one turn off the main road led to romantic passageways filled with quaint bakeries, local shops and intricately decorated homes. Whether you’re looking for a stop along the way to Oslo, or simply an escape to kayak through the Fjords, Bergen’s overwhelming charm is hard to resist. Although you should be weary of trolls or witches casting spells, you will be sure to visit again and again.
I first stumbled across AirBnB (<– click here for more info!) when I was weighing my options for hospitality on a past trip to Europe. In between hotels, hostels and farm stays (it's a thing, really), it can be a bit tricky to determine which place is the most conducive for your trip. However, ever since my first AirBnB visit in a cabin tucked away in Bar Harbor, Maine, I've been hooked. After having stayed in dozens of AirBnB's along the way, I've realized these opportunities offer so much more than a place to take your shoes off. It has allowed me to stay in a condo over looking Millennium Park in Chicago, make a studio apartment on Las Ramblas in Barcelona feel like home, and even sleep in a trailer-turned-bedroom underneath a volcano in Iceland (seriously). Places that were formerly off limits are now accessible to those looking for a better way to immerse themselves in their new surroundings. More than a roof over your head, the ability to interact with locals is priceless. I've spent evenings enjoying dried fish, a local delicacy, with my AirBnB host trading stories about our native cultures. While traveling to new places will always be exciting, it's interacting with the people that allow you to truly understand a different way of life. So how do you know who's worth a visit? It's still a scary thought, randomly showing up to someone's basement apartment to hole up for the night. Nevertheless, there are ways to make sure you're safe while not abandoning your adventurous soul.
The first thing to look for when scoping out places on AirBnB are the reviews noted by stars on each location. I aim to look for at least 10-15 reviews depending on the place (smaller, less touristy areas will logistically just have less visitors). While a large number of reviews are a good sign, it’s just as vital to take the time to read through a range of scores as well as the host’s reply to any criticism. Some of the one star reviews can be passed off as a fluke (no shampoo in the shower doesn’t totally merit one star for me), but keep an eye out for difficulty with checking in and checking out, surprising fees, and environmental issues. Is there a club downstairs that means little sleep? Make sure that’s something you’re willing to deal with. This is also a good time to scan the details to ensure there’s WiFi and parking available if needed. These are biggies that can’t be fixed once you arrive!
Message the Host
If you’ve found the rental that meets your requirements, message the host to let them know of your interest before booking. AirBnB’s policy enforces an open communication line so you can get to know your host, vice versa, before your stay. Make use of this time to inquire about house rules, number of guests, cell service, and ability to reach them. Also ask about the security of the room for rent. If it’s a shared home, does the door have it’s own lock? Is it a key pad, or an actual key? Knowing this ahead of time will save you the headache when you arrive. It’s important to note that while AirBnB does ‘verify’ their hosts as well as users, it means little more than connecting your account with another account or your ID. This mostly ensures that this person is ‘real’ but doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve passed a background check.
How many rooms do they have for rent? Is this their actual home, or do they own multiple rooms they’re renting out? While it doesn’t make it safe or unsafe either way, it can change the experience. Double check that if it appears that a bunch of rooms for rent have a single host, double check that they actually all exist and are not a scam but following the process above.
The concerns with AirBnB are on level with those of any hotel. Except with AirBnB, you at least have a direct line of communication if an issue were to arise as well as specific and target reviews to prepare for your experience (unlike a hotel where it’s for the whole building and the staff as a unit). Still, that doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind. Always check your nearby surroundings and let others know where you’ll be staying.
If you’re interested in checking it out, click here to get $20 off your first visit! (Full disclosure it’ll help contribute to my next AirBnB stay as well!)
Have you ever rented through AirBnB? What’s the most unique place you’ve stayed in?
The southern coast of Iceland is known for its unpredictable weather, icy mountain caps and steep cliffs. Which, while offering panoramic views in every direction, was taxing on the travelers passing through, to say the least.
It had been less than a week and our hiking boots had already been thoroughly broken in, covered in ash and dust. Although it was a bittersweet goodbye, we were looking forward to a calmer few days in the north coast, a reprieve from the the challenges we had endured. If you’re just diving in, click here to check out the first half of our trip around Ring Road in Iceland!
After climbing back over the mountain from Seyoisfjorour, we made our way to Dettifoss, and its baby sister, Selfoss, two of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. The falls themselves were a magnificent sight to see, but the desolate rock fields leading up to them were even more intriguing. Looking something like District 13 in the Hunger Games, the deserted land offered the solitude one could only find on the moon. At one point, I wasn’t even sure if we were on planet earth anymore.
While continuing to drive through the volcanic lands, we headed up to the Krafla Volcanic Region where we would find Hverir, a geothermal area at the foothill of Namafjall.
If you can survive the strong smell of sulfur hanging in the air, you’ll be able to to witness a contrast of colors only few have seen in nature.
Spending the past week in temperatures hovering near freezing, we were looking forward to a group of natural hot springs that an AirBnB host had told us about on our way to Akureyri. While Iceland is often symbolized by its Blue Lagoon, the hot springs exist all through the country, although some are far too hot for people to go in or even near. Beyond the toursity appeal of the Blue Lagoon, the Myvatn area offers hot springs for the locals, or the few visitors who make it outside of Reykjavik.
A good soak rejuvenated us to venture onto the second largest city on the island, Akureyri, a colorful urban area at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord. At the center of the city sits the 1940s Akureyri Church that overlooks the main streets. Graffiti decorated the pathways in a tasteful and clever way, adding to the city rather than detracting from its beauty.
Instead of staying within Akureyri, we found a once in a lifetime farmstay in a van a couple miles outside of town.
The Icelandic farm sat on the edge of a lake pillowed between mountains, the perfect vantage point for the midnight setting sun.
We spent the evening enjoying a home-cooked meal by the owner and gossiping with her 14 year old daughter, who dreamed of one day moving to L.A. After trading our stories, we cozied up in our camper van with the sunlight still hanging in the sky.
The never-ending daylight meant another early wake up as we prepared for our longest drive yet. Our kind host left us some freshly baked bread to take on the road. A much calmer drive than before, we headed to Snafellsness, a peninsula often overlooked on others’ trips around Ring Road. We stayed at another farmstay and took recommendation on where to explore.
We started at Dritvik and Djupalonssandur, another black sand beach where you can see the bright orange remnants of shipwrecks from hundreds of years ago. Not to waste the day, we quickly made our way to Vatnshellir Cave for a caving tour below the earth’s surface.
With a full day behind us, we savored another night on a new farm and set up a time to ride the farmer’s horses in the morning. Despite the chill in the air, we were eager and ready at 8am to ride off through the volcanic fields, observing lava tubes and glacier cuts through the mountains around us while on horseback.
After learning more about life on the peninsula from our horse riding guide, we were fascinated to learn that most people on the peninsula move back to the city during the winter. Only a farmer or two stay around to feed the horses, whose thick fur keeps them warm no matter what the weather.
As we packed up our things from our last stay around the island, we made our final list of sights to see on our way back to the capital. After a quick detour to Kirkjufell Mountain, the most photographed mountain in Iceland, we headed to Mount Esja for our closing hike.
Mount Esja overlooks Reykjavik and felt like the most fitting final stop on our adventure. The mountain appears to glow a lime green from the mix of wild flowers growing around the base.
A steep climb leads up to fresh spring water where you can fill your bottle straight from the creek, along with an extraordinary view of the city we had only left 11 days ago.
Heavy-hearted, we leisurely made our way back to Reykjavik, already planning our return to this unparalleled island.
For even more Iceland fun, follow us along as we tried out best to film through the wind, ice, fog and magic.
Stay tuned for a recap of what to do in Reykjavik! While I highly recommend traveling Ring Road to truly immerse yourself in the Icelandic way of life, a weekend in the capital will give you a taste of why Iceland has become loved by so many. I mean, Beyonce was here, wasn’t she?
The people in airports fascinate me. I often wish that travelers were required to wear a label when flying sharing where they came from and where they were going. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way (although I get that’s where I’m headed), but more so because I believe you can learn the most about a person by seeing the places they value. Are the going home? Or faraway from it? There’s so many details that can be learned by merely scanning one’s boarding pass. It was during a conversation like this with the woman sitting next to me on a plane back from California when we got to talking about the greatest places we’d ever been. Without a moment of hesitation, she said that Iceland not only changed how she traveled, it changed how she lived. That sounds like a bit much, I thought to myself, but it didn’t stop me from doing a little research when I got home.
It quickly became apparent that the land where lava meets glaciers was drawing the appeal of millions. I, too, was not immune to its magical pull. Two months later, my best friend and I planned and booked 12 days driving around Ring Road for the middle of July (which allowed for optimal daylight hours and least chance of blizzards). Now that it’s been some time since our trip came to a close, I finally feel ready enough to pull out my journals and photographs to revisit the most enchanting country I’ve seen. Given the extent of this trip, I’ve split it up into three parts. Part one will follow us along Ring Road on the southern coast, part two is Ring Road leading up the northern side, and lastly, a separate post for all the gems to be found in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
So go grab your hiking boots and sheep’s wool, it’s time to explore this land of beautiful contradictions. Welcome to the the place where fire meets ice.
After landing at Keflavik, the Reykjavik airport, we headed over to Sixt to pick up our rental car. A small hatchback we would use to travel around the highway circling Iceland. Given that we were traveling in the middle of the summer and planned to stick to main roads, four wheel drive wasn’t necessary. However, we did opt for the WiFi router and GPS (life saver!). Although it’s difficult to get lost when going in one direction, the street signs are less than stellar, especially if you’re not keeping up with your Icelandic. It was reassuring to have a safety net in case we got lost. Lastly, we stocked up on groceries since towns were sparse along the way. This is what they created trail mix for.
Our first day was spent exploring the Golden Circle. This charming park is filled with rushing waterfalls, volcanic craters, steaming geysers and awe-inspring outlooks along the way. The route is easy to follow and we were able to see mostly everything in one day.
We spent the night at the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik and were up early to join a day tour to explore the glaciers. This hostel was more than just a bed to sleep in. We enjoyed the free breakfast in the morning and the ability to chat with others in the common area (and use the speedy Wifi!). It was the perfect spot to get suggestions from others who had been in the country for several days ahead of us.
This was our only pre-booked adventure, as we were determined to have the freedom to travel wherever the road took us. Yet, I couldn’t suggest this group enough. Although the high winds prevented us from walking across much of the glacier, a common weather disruption here, we were able to make up for it with other sites.
History buffs will be enamored with the Sólheimasandur plane crash that occurred on Saturday Nov 24, 1973 when a United States Navy airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland due to severe icing. All of the crew members survived, and many of the Icelanders would visit the plane to use its leftover fuel.
Since we were in the land of waterfalls after all, the guide took us behind the sheets of water to view the world from another perspective.
Sometimes the smallest waterfalls were the most moving to stumbling upon, a hidden secret you weren’t exactly looking for.
In between waterfalls, we encountered grass huts built into the sides of mountains. The folklore of trolls and elves is alive and well in Iceland. So much so, Icelanders reroute their highways to respect the land of the trolls.
Lastly, we visited Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs and the Black Sand Beach. Known for its high wind, you could full let your body fall against the strong gusts and feel your weight being supported. While difficult to breath, the thin air only added to the dark contrasts of the black sand against the icy water. Straight out of Game of Thrones, the area looked more like a movie set than an actual landmark.
We stayed overnight in a small AirBnB in Hvolsvöllur and prepared our snacks for the next day. It was important for us to always check the weather for impending storms and make sure we dressed accordingly. Our next night would be in Hofn, a small fishing town in the southeast. We woke up early to beat the rain and headed off to Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park (say that three times fast..or actually just try and say it once) and Skaftafell to hike to Kristínartindar Mountain and the Svartifoss waterfall, which tumbles over black basalt columns. A popular walk, we felt as though we were on the edge of the earth. Each turn led to a view across mountain tops and the glaciers sliding in between until we reached the diamond shaped rock of the basalt falls, signaling it was time to turn back.
Since we still had time left in the day, we drove past Hofn in search of another hike before doubling back for dinner. We began to notice a series of cars pulling off the road towards large sand dunes. Curiosity got the best as off as we followed their lead. After climbing over the mountains of sand, we were rewarded with one of the the most unique scenes of the north.
A large lagoon reaching towards the edge of a glacier lay on the other side of the sandy mounds. Ice chunks had fallen off the glacier and turned an electric blue when they hit the water, creating a pool of neon ice cubes.
When we’d had our fill of nature’s miracle, we trekked to our hostel in Hofn after a meal of skyr and langoustine, Icelandic lobster. We mingled with the locals and conversed with a geographer from Europe who was staying up near the glaciers to create topographic maps.
Our bed for the night overlooked a inlet of water with the mountains in the distance we would be driving to the next morning.
We enjoyed a communal breakfast in our hostel the next morning as we planned our trip up the eastern fjords. Little did we know that some of the most dangerous moments lay ahead of us as we penciled our route. One small turn off the main highway led us to a dirt road a mere inch away from the edge of a disastrously high cliff. I never realized how much I took guard rails for granted, or double yellow lines tbh. As we held our breath for the entirety of the drive, we were finally able to relax having reached our hike of the day, Hengifoss.
We lucked out that the Icelanders we spoke to were more than eager to offer suggestions for their favorite trails left off of google searches. This is how we came across Hengifoss, a strenuous trail tilted at a 45 degree angle with a rushing river below. Yet compared to what we just came from, this would be a breeze. Hiking through the bright green moss to reach a towering single stream of falls was worth the fire and ice to get there.
Although we believed we had had enough heart attacks for one day, our journey had one more in store. We found a quaint hostel in Seyoisfjorour, a small town that is typically only reached by boat from the east. Thus, the only way to get there from inland was to drive up a steep mountain with so many switchbacks that made you began to question your car’s breaks after each turn. To add to the fun, a thick cloud laid on top the mountain for a darling zero visibility.
Finally, we arrived on the other side, our hands still shaking from the day’s unintentional adventures. We made a modest dinner in the abandoned hospital-turned-hostel and recapped our snafus with the older gentleman who had just come off a boat from Norway for a fishing trip. After briefly considering leaving our car behind to sail away, we shook off our fear and got back in the saddle…er driver’s seat. After a restless sleep, knowing we would have to go back across the mountain a second time to make our way to Akureyri, we prepared for the second part of a trip filled with a little more than we bargained for.
Stay tuned to learn how you can go spelunking underneath the glaciers and horseback riding through volcanic ash as we continue around Ring Road. Check out part two here! SPOILER ALERT: we survived.
P.S. I lucked out to have a best friend who is an incredible photographer. I suggest you make sure you have one as well so you can catch these sights from unique perspectives. Check out more of her talents here.
After covering many miles in our first couple days in the park, we decided to switch it up and view the valley from the river. We were eager to find Zephyr Rafting in El Portal along the Merced River as we drove along highway 140, the main entrance into the park. We opted for an early morning whitewater rafting session so we’d have the afternoon to recuperate. After arriving around 8am for our time slot, we were introduced to three of the tour guides as well as the other participants. We were split up into three rafts and would be riding with our tour guide, Jake through class three and four rapids. Rapids are rated on a scale of 1-6, six being non-raftable (it’s a word, swear). So, I was a bit eager/anxious to make my way through rapids being such an amateur paddler. After the necessary safety lesson, we dressed up in wet suits, wool sweaters and rain jackets, all included in our tour package. I ended up using a pair of water shoes left over from a previous trip so I could spare my sneakers, though gym shoes were fine to use. Given it was an overcast 43 degrees out (brrr!), we were only expecting to get chillier as the day wore on due to the water melting straight of the snow covered mountains. We would soon find out it was impossible not to get wet on this adventure.
After splitting up into our rafts, we had a brief practice run on the nearby rapid. Emphasis on the brief, we were about to hit Cranberry Run, our first rapid, in less than a minute.
The rapids each had their own unique names which made it all the more fun. Although we were soaked, we managed to stay warm as long as we kept paddling. On the most difficult turn at Ned’s Gulch, a boy felt out of the raft behind us, followed by an entire boat behind them turning on its side, dumping everyone out. Luckily, our mini-rescue lesson allowed us to save the swimmers near us.
Although this was the biggest fear I had (uh, no thanks to the ice bath, please), it wasn’t that rare of an occurrence. Given the life jackets and helmets, the swimmers just rode down the currents until a boat was near them. It almost looked like fun. *Almost*.
After about two hours of rafting, we exited the river where a bus took us back to the start. At this point, I began losing feeling in my toes and was ready to dry off and warm up. We thanked Zephyr Rafting for an awesome experience, and headed back to our condo to spend the rest of the day warming up by the fire. A huge pot of tomato soup hit the spot, and we had a kick out of laughing at the pictures from the day’s event.
For our last morning in Yosemite, we didn’t want to miss a beat and were up at 5:30 am. Luckily, we were staying in West Yosemite close to Tunnel View, an easy access point to witness the sunrise over the valley.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones with this fantastic idea. We unknowingly inserted ourselves into a photography class already staked out, and got to pick up a few pointers!
Having been so early in the morning, we took this time to hit up some of the trails that had been mobbed the last few afternoons.
Bridalveil is a gorgeous walk to the bottom of a powerful waterfall that’s viewed afar from Tunnel View. It took only seven minutes to reach the end of the trail to take a few pictures of the mist flowing off the rocks like a veil (thus, the accurate name).
As we continued our drive around the valley, we captured a few last moments of the sun peaking over El Capitan before we headed on our way.
Although we were limited to open areas in the park because of the heavy snow fall, we has zero issues filling our days. In fact, we would have easily run out of time if we had tried to reach every corner of this incredible region. This way, we were able to fully enjoy all Yosemite had to offer, minus the suffocating crowds and long wait times to reach the summits. If you haven’t made the time to visit this national treasure yet, now is the time to experience the world as it was hundreds of years ago.
Do you like hiking in the snow? How do you stay outdoors when the weather gets chilly?
I’ve always referred to myself as a ‘park person’. I’m most comfortable in hiking boots with unwashed hair and only the slightest idea as to my exact location at any given point in time. I find comfort in falling off the grid and only interacting with those I meet on the trail or at the general store.
Visiting national parks is an unparalleled experience, so much so that you are going to meet people who are just like you, other *park people*. Folks who abide by a different clock than the outside world. No morning is too early, no mountain is too steep, no person is a stranger. We’re all here for very similar things: fresh air, peace of mind, adrenaline rushes…and distance from anything and everything that hinders all of the above. Nothing brings people together quite like the desire to escape from daily routines, albeit how different those routines might be.
Which is how we decided on visiting Yosemite in April. Although peak season isn’t until June since many of the park areas are closed due to snowfall this early in the year, we wanted to immerse ourselves in nature, not tourists. Visiting Yosemite in the off-season allowed us to venture from trail to trail uninfluenced by mass crowds trying to sneak a peak of this waterfall or that overlook. There’s something magical about this time in-between, the empty roads, the chill in the air, the determination to overcome obstacles that cease to exist in the summer sun. The secluded cabins up in the woods where it’s just you and the bears. And the other park people. The people who live there year round and are so eager to suggest where to go during this down time. The travelers who come every April to witness the gushing waterfall flow that is all but a trickle in August. This is the best way to spend four days in Yosemite in April, and how to prepare for any obstacle that comes your way.
After landing in San Francisco, we rented a 4WD SUV to take us the four hour drive into Yosemite. While chains are needed in the thick of winter, we kept our fingers crossed that we would avoid this hassle. The scenic drive into the park is only a small taste as to what you’ll witness once in the valley. We made a quick stop near Livermore to pick up groceries to last the week. With limited access in the park, we wanted to be sure we’d have enough food for all three meals, plus hiking snacks, each day. Luckily, the studio condo we rented out came equipped with a tiny kitchen which made soup and pasta nightly favorites for us.
Driving into the park feels like you’ve entered into a different world. The towering cliffs framed with strikingly tall evergreen trees is the only preview needed for what’s to come.
The winding roads with snow banks on either side led us to our condo in a small neighborhood in Yosemite West. Fitted with a living space, kitchen area, large bed and fireplace, we were excited to call this home for the next few nights. While there were many people who opted to camp, I wasn’t yet ready to give up my hot shower each morning. After settling in, we prepared for a long day ahead of us.
After an early meal of oatmeal and bananas, we headed down towards the village to plan out our adventures for the day. However, the park had other plans. Since it was the off season, many of the roads were in the process of being repaved, causing an unbelievable amount of detours. After failing to find the Visitors’ Center, we got hike suggestions from a hotel lobby we stumbled on and headed on our way.
Our first walk was to Lower Yosemite Falls. A short one mile hike with close-up views of the bottom falls. The ice that clung to the rocks before it had a chance to melt only added to the pristine view. Looking for more of a challenge, we trekked towards Upper Yosemite Falls which is made up of 6-7 miles of steep inclines and snow-covered trails. After passing a family of deer, we headed into the most challenging hike of our trip. Yet, with spectacular views of the entire valley, it was easy to get lost in the hike rather than focused on how many miles we had left.
The ice had frozen onto the tree branches and would drop off in solid chunks whenever the wind blew, knocking us with hail-like balls of ice periodically. Luckily the day warmed up quickly and the ice *almost* felt refreshing. We made it to the top fall and stopped for lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix (which will reappear each afternoon) were easy to travel with and fueled the long days. It took us about four hours in total and with just a little steam left, we had one stop left for the day.
The free Yosemite Valley bus took up to Happy Isle for us to check out the most popular Yosemite hike. The Mist Trail is heavily-trafficked, even during the spring, for good reason. It’s a quick hour hike to cover 3 miles if you stick to the Vernal Falls. Another four miles if you want to head all the way up to Nevada Falls. The waterfalls are at full force and colorful rainbows spread across the wet stones. With limited daylight left, we headed back to warm up with soup and sandwiches and to plan the next day.
Having spent the previous day in the valley, we headed south to the Wawona region of the park. Chilnualna Falls, a lengthy 8 mile hike up a mountain along side a powerful creek, was one of the highlights of our trip. After driving through the small town of Wawona and prepping our whistles and flashlights in case we encountered any mountains lions (a real concern in these parts), we set off around 9am.
The trail varied from rocky hills to flat fields to staircases dipping below the waterfalls. We didn’t pass another hiker for four miles, and only then saw a few groups of people on our way back. The summit opened up to the top of Chilnualna Falls, large boulders overlooking the valley. We ate our packed lunch on top of the falls and soaked in the warm afternoon sun until we made our way back down the mountain.
Since we were in the area, we had one final stop for the day at Nelder Grove. Although Mariposa is closed for the next few months for restoration, we were set on seeing some Giant Sequoias, trees so large that the diameter of their trunks are twice my height. After stopping at the Wawona General Store for directions, we made our way down the series of dirt roads to the park entrance. Sadly, the park was filled with giant stumps, very few live sequoias to be found. Fittingly, the trail was named “Graveyard of the Giants”. We only walked a mile of so into the park and actually found the walk to be more depressing than we anticipated. It was devastating to see the impact humans have had on nature, the dead trees a symbol of the irreversible damage done to these woods. We stuck to the trails so as not to destroy anymore of the treasured area, and made our way back to Yosemite West before the second half of our trip.
Although Yosemite is a beautiful learning environment for all who visit, it’s also a reminder of the carelessness of mankind and its impact on the land. Black trees stick out along the highway like burnt toothpicks from past forest fires, and constant warnings to stay away from the endangered animal life are posted everywhere. It’s with optimism and subtle confidence that one hopes that the more people visit national parks, the more knowledge and power they’ll have to protect them.
Stay tuned for the second half of our trip, including a view of the park from the river and an early sunrise over Half Dome! Make sure to visit part 2 here!
Have you ever been to Yosemite? What is your favorite national park?
If you’re interested in learning more about our rental, check it out here!
When this post goes live, I’ll be cozied up in an economy seat on my way to San Francisco, CA then on to Yosemite National Park. Well, more likely stuck in the middle seat trying to avoid resting my head on the stranger next to me, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t a new trip for me and even I am shocked that I’m heading back to the exact place I visited a few years earlier. But, as they say, I left my heart in San Francisco and I keep coming back for more. It could be due to the political haze hanging over D.C., but I’m in dire need of some west coast sun.
As I packed up my winter jackets and hiking boots last week for the five days we’re spending exploring the redwoods and sequoias, I attempted to pinpoint why, exactly, I chose to go to Yosemite, CA in the cold. I had imagined April might lead way to a little more spring-like temperatures in the park, but that turned out to be a false conclusion as soon as you step away from Yosemite Village. So, fleece leggings and wool gloves it is.
Inspiration for a trip usually strikes when I’m not expecting it…scrolling through my Instagram feed and stopping short on the straw huts in the Maldives, or eavesdropping on my neighbor’s recent trip to the south of France. If I’m anything, I’m eager to a fault. It can take a mere thirty seconds for me to go from oh-that-looks-nice to what-are-the-local-airports-I’m-booking-this-trip-NOW. So how do I chose where my next adventure should take me? My full time job and bank account are the first reality check, but after that, the world is fair game.
TBH, the expense of traveling has to be worth more than a well-liked photo edited to perfection.
Establish Your Intention
We all define vacation differently. While some enjoy some R&R by the pool, others might find hang gliding through the Grand Canyon the way to let loose. Before you can plan any further, ask yourself what the overall goal is of your trip. Is it to become rejuvenated? Perhaps consider a retreat that focuses on well-being. Maybe you’re looking for new experiences out of your comfort zone? Hiking Manchu Picchu might be on your radar.
Check Your Budget
There are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to pricing a trip. Consider setting a side a portion of your pay check each week for your ‘travel fund’. The most important part of saving up is determining whether you’d like to have a bunch of little trips throughout the year or save up for your dream excursion. Once you have the numbers down, you can plan accordingly by estimating flights and boarding. While I fully support splurging on once-in-lifetime-moments, make sure it is something that will not be easily forgotten. Spending an exuberant amount on a Carribbean cruise won’t mean much if you hate boats.
If you can have your cake and eat it too, by all means cut another slice. But for most of us, it’s necessary to be selective with where your funds go. Aim for trips in the off-season or near major airports that offer more flight options. The same location can vary in cost drastically month to month. A beach trip in early spring can give you the peace of mind you need, but at the exchange of swimsuit weather. Jot down what is most important to you, as well as what you’re willing to compromise.
Find people like you, and ask where they like to visit. This works especially well when you’re involved in hobbies that bring you joy. When you’re on the hiking trail, ask a fellow hiker their favorite place to trek. If you like spending your time trying new dishes, ask the chef where he got his inspiration from. Even if you don’t know these people, you at least know you already have at least one passion in common.
When you’ve generated a list of ideas that comply with all of the above, read up on the ins and outs of the locales you wish to visit. There are times when you simply might not be ‘ready’for a particular adventure. It’s okay to move it towards the bottom of your bucket list because your head space isn’t ready for what that trip entails. If you’re in a point of overwhelming transition in life, a hectic schedule of planes,trains and automobiles might do more harm than good. Likewise, if you’re feeling stagnant, you might need more than a leisurely cabin in the woods to feel inspired and engaged.
Or, you know, throw that dart on the map and pack your bags. All we have is now.
I’ve been a huge travel blog reader for years, finding solace in reading about other people’s glamorous jet-setting lives while I was trapped in my small college dorm room writing papers on Hemingway and Milton. I spent my time following others’ elaborate experiences, reading through their detailed itineraries and expanding my list of places to see. In essence, I was simply waiting until I would no longer be a passive traveler, but an active one. When I finally got a passport in 2011 and took my first trip overseas to Santorini, Greece, I thought my experiences were too messy, too unorganized, too imperfect to be valid enough to share. Getting lost on an island ten minutes after arriving did little to boost my self-esteem (there’s only so far you can go on a island!). Yet, I realized that because I was always immersing myself in other people’s perfect images of how adventure should go, I became overly self-aware of my short-comings in the travel-writing world…there was always so much more behind the beautiful instagram photos and free travel perks. It took me five years to realize that waiting for the perfect time to start Namastay Traveling was like waiting for an Uber to arrive that I never actually booked (been there, done that). It was never going to come.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I started to view myself through a new lens. After diving into 12-hour days of an intensive yoga certification process, I began to see my views as valuable not only to me, but perhaps to others as well. The more time I spent on my mat, the more time I allowed myself to reflect on the journey I wanted to take. Both literally, and metaphorically. After all, people don’t practice yoga to get better at yoga, they practice yoga to get better at life. I started to find purpose in the screw ups, in the missed flights, in the accidentally ordering fish eggs for breakfast, or maybe even that one time I took a trip to the beach and forgot a swimsuit. Each misstep broke down the walls I had laid down, brick by brick, for myself. We, as humans, constantly live behind the barriers we build, sticking to our imposed story lines of how we think our lives should look. Yet, little do we realize that the more we push our limits, the less they seize to exist.
And so, it accumulates to this: a little corner of the internet where I can speak to the lows and highs I have not only on the road, but in embracing my new experiences outside of the comparison trap we all tend to fall into. In essence, I will be sharing more than the Top Ten Places to Eat in *Insert Newest City of All the Rage*, but on how to fully immerse yourself into new cultures, new places, and new ways of being. It’s only when we see ourselves in a different context can we truly find who we are to begin with.
As I continue to practice the culture of yoga around the globe, not just the postures, I hope you’ll join me as we reignite the purpose of our daily lives, both abroad and in our own living rooms (or mine, if you wanna come over for tea). Instead of always feeling as if there’s more to see, more to do, more to eat (real talk), we’ll find peace in where we are, and enthusiasm for where we have left to go. Cheers to the beginning of Yet Another Travel Blog.