Nova Scotia Touring

We didn’t have as much time in Nova Scotia as we would have liked, as we had a flight in Boston to make for a trip to France with David’s family (more on that later). We managed to fit in quite a lot though, as has become our style. We are working on slowing down our pace and not always feeling rushed, but it is tough! Our top activities in Nova Scotia beyond the Cabot Trail included:

Port Hawkesbury Cèilidh

A Cèilidh is a traditional Scottish event involving music and dance. We lucked out and happened to be in Port Hawkesbury on the night of their weekly Cèilidh. We were actually doing some internet catch-up at a Dunkin Donuts across the street from the civic center. I was looking for any bars in the area with traditional Scottish music when I stumbled on the civic center’s website and the weekly Cèilidh. What luck! Port Hawkesbury is a relatively small town and I didn’t have any expectations for the event, but figured it was worth a try. Wow was I impressed! Several of the musicians were from the nearby Gaelic college and alternated instruments throughout the performance. Below is one video I took at the end where each person took turns getting up and stepping. I didn’t want the music to end and would have gladly sat and listened for a few more hours.

Halifax

We spent an afternoon wandering around the Halifax waterfront. I especially loved a farmer’s market in an old building on the Seaport. I learned on the market’s website that it is “the oldest, continuously operating farmers’ market in North America.” We also went to the Canadian Museum of Immigration just down the block from the market, which is held in Pier 21. The pier served as a gateway for immigrants between 1928 and 1971, primarily arriving by boat. The museum was fascinating and super well done, with a big mix of exhibits. We spent at least half a day there and could have stayed longer if we hadn’t gotten so hungry! We also loved Tidehouse Brewing Company which is the smallest brewery I have ever been to. The brewery has seating for 7 and standing room for 2! We lucked out and arrived just as two others were leaving. The beer was delicious and the bar seating guarantees that you’ll meet others. We got some good recommendations from the people sitting around us and loved the chance to get to meet some locals!

Peggy’s Cove

Peggy’s Cove is a tiny fishing town about an hour from Halifax and known for having one of the most photographed lighthouses in Nova Scotia. We were also warned by several people how dangerous the rocks around the lighthouse are, as unsuspecting tourists can easily get pulled out to sea by waves. We stayed far from the water’s edge and spent an hour or so wandering around the rocks. We found a delicious seafood restaurant nearby where David continued his fish and chips streak (I think this was the fourth fish and chips in two weeks!).

Tidal Bore

Our final stop in Nova Scotia was Truro to see the tidal bore. We had wanted to observe the dramatic tides on the Bay of Fundy, but this was the next best option. A tidal bore is when a river flows back upstream as the tide comes in. The Bay of Fundy produces some pretty significant tidal bores given its dramatic tides. The tidal bore wasn’t too epic when we were there, but it was still pretty neat to see! We got up early to see the 6:30 a.m. tidal bore and surprisingly found one other couple there as well. Luckily the tidal bore was a little late so it was a bit lighter out when it came through.

After the tidal bore we hightailed it to Boston (with a quick overnight in Portland, Maine) for a flight to France for a trip with David’s family. This started a few week hiatus from the van for some family visiting, to be covered in a future post!

The Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail is a 300 kilometer loop around Cape Breton Island in northern Nova Scotia. To be honest, I hadn’t realized that the northern part of Nova Scotia was a separate island from the rest of the province until writing this article. Cape Breton Island makes up about 19% of Nova Scotia and is connected to the rest of the mainland by the Canso Causeway. One of the benefits of keeping this blog is I typically learn much more about a place fact checking my posts or researching more context to provide! This is how I learned that John Cabot, the Venetian explorer, supposedly landed on Cape Breton Island in 1497 and claimed it for the King of England. However, logs are incomplete and he may actually have been in Newfoundland (or Labrador or Maine). I’ll admit I didn’t know the reasoning behind the name of the Cabot Trail until writing this.

The Cabot Trail is largely known for its scenic viewpoints and hiking, which we enjoyed much of. However, one of my favorite parts of the Trail was the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. As a side note, the annual pass for national parks in Canada is especially great because it includes all kinds of historic sites like this one! I never remember to take photos at museums, but the site had some really neat models and actual examples of planes that Bell worked on. I had no idea of the scope of his inventions, which include much more than just the telephone. He also worked extensively with the deaf, using his dad’s visible speech system, which is a mind-boggling method for representing the position of the organs involved in speech. Bell worked on hydrofoils, tetrahedral box kites, early airplane models, and a variety of other odds and ends. I was especially interested to learn that Bell experimented with a number of environmentally-minded inventions, including methods for purifying salt water and composting toilets. What an impressive guy and certainly an inspiration!

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Alexander Graham Bell

Cape Breton Highlands National Park makes up a sizable portion of the Cabot Trail. We did a hike on both the east and west side of the park to get a feel of the environment in both areas. The first day we hiked the Franey Trail on the east side of the park, which is about 4.5 miles. We thought we would have plenty of time for the hike, but like most days time sped by and we didn’t end up starting the hike until late afternoon. On the plus side, this led to some nice colors from the top of the hike and zero crowds! We spent most of the hike in the trees, but at the top looked out over the Clyburn Brook canyon and coastline. After spending the last few weeks in cities and small towns, getting back out into nature was very needed. I find myself missing the wild nature and backpacking from the first part of our trip and longing to capture that awe and excitement. I’m worried as the fall and winter come closer that it will be awhile before we experience anything like the Bugaboos, Glacier National Park of Canada, or the North Cascades again. The mountains are definitely my happy place and I find I am most content when hiking as far from civilization as possible!

Our second day on the Cabot Trail we hiked the Skyline Trail on the west side of the park. The landscape was very different here, with fewer trees and more fragile headland plants. A section of the trail is all boardwalk to protect the vegetation. We were both pretty upset to see a few people wandering off the boardwalk to take pictures, despite the multitude of signs urging you to stay on the trail. Leaving the trail has become one of my biggest hiking pet peeves! A section of the forest was gated as part of a test the park is conducting to determine the impact moose are having on the boreal forest. The moose population in the area has gotten too high and is adversely impacting the forest ecosystem. I was curious about this effort and found a lot more information online here. Below is a short summary of the problem:

Hyperabundance occurs when a population grows unnaturally large and begins to have a negative impact on other species and the health of the ecosystem. A healthy, balanced forest typically supports around 0.5 moose/km2. Moose density in Cape Breton Highlands National Park was 1.9 moose/km2 and the forest ecosystem was severely impacted by these high numbers. This was a huge concern, and the reason why we took actions to restore the forest such as the moose harvest. 

Parks Canada

We didn’t take any pictures, unfortunately, but we ended our time on the Cabot Trail at the very delicious Aucoin Bakery. Based on our experience, we can recommend the baguette, whole wheat bread, and brownies. I have to imagine anything there would be delicious.

While we had a great time on the Cabot Trail, we couldn’t help but think many times how much more beautiful the views would be a little later in the fall. We saw a few hints of the coming color change, but were too early for the dramatic views we had seen in pictures online. More reason for a return trip in the future!

Prince Edward Island

To get to Prince Edward Island by car (or van) you take the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick. The bridge was opened in May 1997 and is about 8 miles long, making it the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered water. The history of the bridge is pretty interesting and we enjoyed reading about it during our crossing here. In short – Canada is required to provide year-round access to the island, as part of a negotiation in PEI’s decision to join the Confederation back in 1873. Given that the Northumberland Strait ices in the winter, providing reliable ferry service proved difficult. Ideas of a railroad bridge to the island were floated, but improved ferry boats over the years kept this idea from gaining traction. It never fully went away though, and in the 1960s the Prime Minister at the time suggested funds would be dedicated towards a future causeway for trains and cars. Debate about the fixed connection went on for decades, with some PEI residents concerned about the environmental impacts of a bridge and resulting changes to island life. Ultimately the government of PEI approved the construction of the bridge, with some conditions to ensure economic benefits for the island. Construction started in 1993 and four years and 840 million (Canadian) dollars later the Confederation Bridge was complete!

Sadly you can’t bike or walk on the bridge – maybe this will be a future addition!

Anne of Green Gables

I was shocked to learn that David hadn’t heard of Anne of Green Gables, written by PEI resident Lucy Maud Montgomery and inspired by time spent at her aunt and uncle’s house on the island. The island is very proud of the book series, and offers lots of ways to immerse yourself in Anne of Green Gables. I didn’t want to overwhelm David with too much Anne, so picked my top two activities: a visit to the home that inspired the book (Silver Bush, still owned by Montgomery’s family) and the musical. I was surprised to learn just how popular the book is internationally. One of the guides at the museum was from Japan and told us the book has been very influential there, especially after World War II, providing for young Japanese girls of an outspoken, caring, generous female role model.

As you would expect, the setting of Silver Bush was idyllic – green fields, large trees, a nearby pond. A plaque contained quotes from Lucy Maud Montgomery describing the place. In a letter to her cousin, she said “I love this old spot better than any place on earth.” I can see why she was so fond of the area. Much of the island looks very similar to Silver Bush, with lots of farms, ponds, rolling hills, and expansive views of the sky.

I didn’t need to worry about David enjoying the Anne of Green Gables musical. It is held in the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, the largest city in PEI. It has been on stage since 1965, making it the longest running annual musical. Both our expectations were exceeded – we loved it.

To end my Anne of Green Gables promotion, here is one of my favorite quotes from the book, that I think is very applicable to our trip (and life in general).

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Bike Trails

PEI has an amazing amount of bike trails, especially considering its size. The main trail is the Confederation Trail, which use the old railroad lines to cover the island tip-to-tip (and more), with 270 miles of trail. I risked the cloudy weather, which turned to heavy downpour, to experience the trail. The results included soggy shoes and socks and no photographs or regrets! Fortunately, we had much better weather for our bike ride in Cavendish, which followed a paved path along the coast. When I suggest a ride to David he has started asking if it is a ride for fitness or a ride for fun. I like to think every ride can be both. I think David prefers the “fun” rides which typically include a brewery stop and relaxed pace. This was a ride for fitness.

Seafood

Another highlight of PEI was the seafood. I think photos can best describe the food:

If you find yourself in PEI, I highly recommend a stop at the Lobster Barn in Victoria (picture 1 and 3).

Charlottetown

Charlottetown is the capital and largest City in PEI. For some reason I struggled throughout our visit to say Charlottetown, perhaps because I went to college in Charlottesville. We spent about a day here, and enjoyed a nice stay at the local Walmart! We enjoyed wandering around looking at the colorful houses, sculptures, and coastline.

Charlottetown was the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference in 1864. This was a grand social affair that set in motion the idea of Confederation. While the meeting included delegates from just New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, they ultimately worked for the union of all the British North American colonies. PEI ultimately joined the Confederation in 1873.

The Gaspé Peninsula in Pictures

The name Gaspé probably derives from a Micmac word meaning “land’s end.” 

The Canadian Encyclopedia
I’ve taken to marking locations on Google Maps to help guide our stops as we go. This gives an idea of where we stopped around the Peninsula.
A sign at the park indicated that gannets fence like this to protect their territory. We could have watched them for hours! We did have a boat ride back to Percé to catch though.

The south side of the Gaspé Peninsula is more developed without as many scenic spots, and I therefore didn’t take any pictures. We hightailed it to Prince Edward Island soon after our visit to Bonaventure Island. More on that soon!

Canadian Cities

After some much needed time visiting family and friends, we re-entered “adventure” mode and also Canada. We planned to spend a few days zipping through Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City, en route to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

On our way to Toronto, we stopped at Niagara Falls. David remembered seeing Niagara Falls on a trip with his family as a kid, but I had never been. I hadn’t realized that the falls actually includes three separate waterfalls. The volume of water going over the falls is pretty hard to comprehend. We opted to just view the falls from the Canadian side and lucked out with a parking spot right by the falls and one of the most chaotic streets we’ve seen yet – Clifton Hill. I’ll admit that I was almost as fascinated by everything on the road as by the falls.

Another striking aspect of Niagra Falls was the poverty just outside the tourist area. Just blocks away there were streets of boarded up buildings and broken down cars. I did some reading on this online and learned that poverty is also a problem in Niagra Falls, New York. This destitution was hard to see, especially after the lavish hotels and flashy destinations of Clifton Hill.

After leaving the falls, we headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small town right on the water probably most well known for the annual Shaw Festival and ice wine – we sampled both. David’s great aunt and uncle, who we visited in Bloomington, attend the Shaw Festival each year and gave us several play recommendations. We hadn’t seen any plays or music since we started the trip, and enjoyed the chance to soak up some culture. The town is beautiful, with flower-lined streets, small shops, and numerous vineyards. Regulations for the wineries require only the production of wine made with 100% locally grown grapes, so we were surprised with the huge variety of wine types. I haven’t had much sweet wine before and loved the ice wine, although it was hard to imagine drinking more than a small glass.

Toronto

Toronto was definitely a bit overwhelming of a city, especially from a traffic perspective. David always tries to learn the local rules of the road (for example, in Pittsburgh at a traffic signal if the first opposing vehicle in line is turning left, it is customary to let them go first), but this proved impossible in Toronto. It seemed like when the roads got congested, whoever was most aggressive had the right of way. I did think Toronto was a neat city with a lot of great aspects, but I’ve realized I’m much more comfortable in the van in small towns or out in nature for a few reasons:

  • Traffic: luckily David does all the driving and is very skilled and confident thanks to his time in Boston. However, I still find driving around cities stressful and getting stuck in traffic is inevitable. I also feel like we spend more time in the van in cities driving from place to place to see the top sights.
  • Meals: I typically prefer to make food in the van, but when we are in cities one of the easiest ways to experience the area is eating out. Inevitably this leads to lots of research on restaurants as we try to find out what the best local food is and make sure we pick a good spot.
  • Sleeping: in cities we normally sleep on a residential street or Walmart, which means putting the blackout curtains up at night and staying in the van. On public lands or in campgrounds, we spend more time outside of the van in the evenings, or at least keep all the windows open.
  • Activities: it takes a lot more effort to research city activities and typically the top destinations are museums or historic sites. This leads to a lot of cities feeling similar and less time outdoors, which is my favorite.

With that said, I did genuinely enjoy our time in Toronto and include it on the list of places to go back to without the van for another visit. My favorite Toronto activities included an indoor food market, wandering around the Distillery District, Allan Gardens, and another Graffiti Alley (although honestly not as impressive as the Boise one!).

The very best part of Toronto, however, was that my sister had a last minute work trip there the same night we were in town! Luckily my mom had talked to her earlier in the day and made the connection. Not only was Lauren in the same city, but when I learned she was there we were less than a mile away!

We also had lunch while in Toronto with a family friend of David’s who recommended we stop in 1,000 islands on the way to our next stop, Montreal. I don’t know if he knew we’d actually take him up on it, but we have a policy of taking as many suggestions as possible. We also have been taking more scenic detours off the main highways, so we enjoyed getting off Highway 401. As another perk, we found a town with a public washroom and shower thanks to iOverlander! While we used to be content to so shower in the van, thanks to a spree of free public showers we’ve gotten a bit spoiled.

Montreal

I’ve been excited about visiting Montreal since David went for New Years many years ago and sent me pictures of the graffiti. I’m not sure when my fascination with street art began, but I love the scale of it, color, and creativity. I’ve taken to making my own Banksy replicas at home and David suggested I paint a section of our fence, which I hope to pursue when we return (I think it was a serious suggestion…) The graffiti in Montreal did not disappoint. I also enjoy trying to decipher the meaning of the images. Some of my favorites are below – any guesses on their stories?

Montreal also included much tasty food, including bagels, vegan poutine, and Indian food!

I also loved Montreal because we found an excellent neighborhood parking spot on a quiet street near Mont Royal, where I was able to do a morning run. I love running in a new city, and especially in the morning. I think this is when I feel most like I actually live in the city and can get the best feel of what life would be like there. David and I both concluded that we could see ourselves living in Montreal.

Quebec City

We finished off our three cities in three days with Quebec City. I think the three cities could be put on a continuum based on size (largest to smallest) and degree of Frenchness (least French to most French). Old town Quebec City definitely felt European, with its cobbled streets, castle-like architecture, and bustling store fronts. We loved it. I also enjoyed visiting yet another indoor market (a new theme of the trip). We got some delicious fresh pasta, green beans and peas, local beer (David’s favorite), and 3 liters of strawberries (my favorite).

The Best of the Midwest

We finished our trek east with visits to a number of friends and family members. We loved telling stories from our travels and getting to see the homes of friends and family we had never visited. It certainly was nice to have a guaranteed place to sleep, laundry facilities, and an unlimited shower. Our time was a bit more rushed than I would have liked, so it felt like we had barely arrived at each place before we were pushing off again. Of course we didn’t do as much relaxing as we had imagined, feeling the need to keep moving east before the summer is over and our trip to France with David’s family. The time was still nourishing and restorative and I think we both felt ready to get back out there adventuring once we had paid our last visit. We didn’t take as many people pictures as we should have, but below are some photos to capture our stops.

Minnesota

Ever since I learned our friend in Portland, Meghan, was from a farm I was eager to visit and had lots of questions to pepper her with. When I was growing up I had an unusual fascination with farming and especially the Amish culture. I wanted to live in nature and liked being able to see the results of hard work. I’m curious how I would have actually liked growing up on a farm versus how much I idealized the lifestyle. I have come to appreciate the complexity, uncertainty, and decision-making that is involved in farming, elements that I would find challenging. When talking about our van trip with Meghan, she mentioned her parents live just off I-90 and would welcome a visit on our way through Minnesota. Therefore, I’ve been looking forward to this stop on our trip for quite a while.

We spent a lovely day with Meghan’s parents (Don and Teresa) and also got to meet her brother’s family, including his two adorable kids. I can’t gush enough about what a great time we had. Don and Teresa are warm, open, and gracious and made us feel so at home on their farm. They happily answered my many, many questions and we loved getting to see where Meghan grew up (and where Don grew up as well, as the farm was originally his parents’). We spent a couple hours walking around the farm, which is about 750 acres. I was so amazed by the amount of equipment needed to run a farm, especially one that grows organic produce like the Chirpich farm. David loved the chance to operate the combine and tractor, which involve an impressive amount of technology. It was hard to comprehend just how much corn and soybeans the farm produces, but viewing the massive grain storage containers gave me a bit of an idea. We are excited for a future trip back during harvest time so we can witness all the action.

We made a quick stop in the town of Spillville, Iowa after leaving the farm. Don had recommended the Bily Clocks Museum and mentioned the upstairs included an exhibit on Dvorak. David was immediately excited, as Dvorak is one of his favorite composers and he had remembered that he lived in Iowa for a summer. The clocks were fascinating, with intricate carvings inspired by locations around the world (although the brothers never traveled more than 35 miles from home). They designed and built the clocks in their spare time and never sold them, intending them to support their younger sister when they could no longer work the farm. Sadly, their sister died young and so they decided to leave the clocks to the town of Spillville, with the requirement that they never be moved. I haven’t included any photographs, as the museum requested that we not share them. However, you can read more and see a photograph on this Visit Iowa page.

Madison, WI

We made a quick stop in Madison to break up the drive from Minnesota to Chicago. Madison has also always been on my list to visit based on what I’ve heard about biking and beer. We didn’t have too much time to explore, but managed to fit in a brewery stop, morning run (for me), delicious brunch, and stop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison cheese shop – delicious! This definitely gets added to the list for a future visit of its own.

Chicago

We stopped in Chicago to visit Ben and Deirdre. David lived with Ben in Boston (and they went to school together) and they did the hike in Newfoundland together that we plan to tackle in a couple weeks. We unintentionally timed our visit to Chicago for their last night there and Deirdre’s 30th birthday party. We loved seeing their apartment on the first story of a cool old house and making plans to meet up for some winter skiing. David and I rode on the trail just a half-mile east of their house along the water for some nice downtown views. We couldn’t believe how many bikes, people and scooters were on the path. I was too busy trying not to hit anyone else to take any photos or videos, but it was wild. While bikes and walkers were separated on some portions of the trail, in pinch points (or where the lake overlapped the path) everyone shared a narrow path. I did some reading on the path and learned that significant improvements have been made in the past couple years.

Indiana

We took a scenic route from Chicago to Cleveland in order to stop in Indianapolis and Bloomington. David’s Grandaunt and Granduncle (Sue and Murray) live in Bloomington, which is a lovely town about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures, but I went on a nice run around Indiana University and through downtown. We enjoyed lunch with Sue, Murray and a couple other relatives before continuing the drive to Cleveland.

Cleveland

We spent a couple days in Shaker Heights (just outside of Cleveland) where David primarily grew up. Unfortunately his mom was out of town visiting her mother, but fortunately his sister, Sara, was also in town from Dayton. While we had dreamed about spending this time lounging on the couch and sleeping in in a real bed, we ended up spending the majority of it doing a full clean of the van. We removed everything except all the pantry contents in order to do a deep clean and reorganization. While we didn’t end up getting rid of too many things (mostly a couple kitchen items and extra clothes), we did make some good adjustments to our storage. We added another layer of bins in the back so now the bed is a little higher than it was before. This helped remove some of the clutter accumulating around the bikes and on the bench seat. Our goal is to have a place for everything so we don’t have to pick up a lot of things in order to put the kitchen table up, the bed down, or cook a meal. Can you believe everything in the photo below fits inside the van?

Verona

Our last stop in the United States before entering Canada was Verona, just outside Pittsburgh. My Aunt Lisa recently moved here from Florida, making the Pittsburgh area home to both my aunts and cousins on my mom’s side. We were so lucky to enjoy a homemade dinner with the whole family! What a treat it was to see so much family at once, especially since we live across the country and time together is rare. We were sent on our way with some delicious brownies and Iron City beer, which was much enjoyed! David, who has become quite the dog fan, enjoyed doing a small photo shoot of my aunt’s dog Diesel, who proved very photogenic.

We Head East

We have spent the last two weeks making our way pretty quickly across the Country, with the goal post of eastern Canada. Our time has been filled with driving (for David, napping for me), visiting friends and family, scenic stops, and of course seeking out breweries, bike rides, and trail runs. This hasn’t left too much time for blogging as I’ve been using coffee shop stops for trip planning as we continue to make things up as we go. So as not to be endlessly behind on the blog, I’ll give a quick run down on the last couple weeks.

Bozeman, MT

We have developed a thing for western ski towns, and Bozeman is no exception. I love the multitude of outdoor activities, walkable downtown, breweries, and relaxed atmosphere of Bozeman. We spent a couple days here to recoup after a spree in the outdoors (and wait for an Amazon package). We didn’t have any problems finding things to do, including an unexpected computer and robotics museum, sour beer and kombucha festival, delicious pizza, and a fun bike trail through farm fields to an overlook.

Wyoming

Our time in Wyoming was defined by amazing skies. David was delighted to stumble upon some storms, which brought some pretty crazy clouds. We also made a detour to Devils Tower. The National Park Service says this about the tower:

The Tower is an astounding geologic feature that protrudes out of the prairie surrounding the Black Hills. It is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians and indigenous people. Hundreds of parallel cracks make it one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America.

National Park Service Website

There are a few theories on how the Tower was formed, but most agree that the Tower originally formed below the Earth’s surface and was exposed as the surrounding area eroded. The columns of the Tower are hexagonal, with lots of straight lines and sheer surfaces. We saw one climber on the Tower and heard one Ranger tell of the awesome experience of climbing to the top. We were content to do the paved trail around the Tower.

South Dakota

I’ll admit South Dakota wasn’t high on my list of must-see destinations when planning the trip, and I assumed we’d drive through as quickly as possible. However, we ended up spending a couple days here and it was certainly a highlight of the trip. We paid an evening visit to Mt. Rushmore, which was both more touristy and impressive than I expected. We learned it was carved for the explicit purpose of promoting tourism in South Dakota, and nearly a century later I can say it is successful. This is the first National Monument or Park where we have had to pay for parking ($10) and Keystone is certainly the most touristy place we’ve seen yet (featuring adventure parks, mini golf, gold mines, a wax museum, and similar establishments). Despite the cheesiness of the area, I had to admit Mount Rushmore itself was pretty neat, even in its unfinished state. I enjoyed looking at photos of the carving work on this site.

After spending the night in national forest near Mt. Rushmore, we spent the morning in Custer State Park. David was attracted by a couple scenic drives in the area while I was hopeful of seeing some more wildlife. Neither of us were disappointed. We saw hundreds of bison on the Wildlife Loop Road and I enjoyed petting a few burros (although we seemed to be the only ones that hadn’t brought carrots, so it was hard to compete for the burros’ attention). While in the Park and texting with my parents, my dad mentioned that he had hiked to Black Elk Peak while there a few years ago, which is the highest natural point in South Dakota. Once I knew about this hike, I didn’t think I could leave without doing it so I ran up to the peak while David enjoyed some time by the beautiful Sylvan Lake. The highlight of the Park (at least for David) was probably the Needles Highway scenic drive, which involves navigating a few tight tunnels. Luckily the tunnels proved no problem for David and the Gnar Wagon.

We ended our time in South Dakota with an evening drive through the Badlands. We’d paid a quick visit here back in 2014 when David moved across the country to Portland. Then we had a moving truck that was towing the Saabaru, so the van seemed small and nimble in comparison. Of course we had to stop at Wall Drug first, as you can only ignore so many road signs before the appeal of 5 cent coffee, fresh donuts, or ice cream gets you. The Badlands were just as wild as we remembered, with sunset further adding to their beauty. I especially enjoyed this quote from the National Park brochure:

Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water — without an animal and scarce an insect astir — without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.

Thaddeus Culbertson

Clearly my attempt to keep this quick was unsuccessful. I find that I don’t want to skip over anything because each part of the trip feels significant and special. Therefore, to be continued with our time in Minnesota, Chicago, Indiana, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh!

Yellowstone’s Greatest Hits

We spent just a couple days in Yellowstone, as we both started to realize how quickly summer is going by and how long our list of summer destinations still is. Even with 15 months to travel I somehow always feel like we are in a rush. I don’t think we’ve yet reached that elusive balance of seeing a lot of neat places while taking the time to appreciate each one. It is hard to get away from the mentality of maximization that seems to be so pervasive these days. Our Yellowstone visit was definitely an example of efficiency, as we packed most of the park’s top destinations into just two days. David’s ankle was bothering him a bit after the backpacking trip in the Tetons so we had extra reason to not wander too far off the beaten path. Below are some photos of our Yellowstone stops.

We were pleasantly surprised to find the park not too crowded. We think we might have hit the park when most kids are headed back to school, and were relieved to find it easy to get a campground and park at the different stops throughout the park. I found a really interesting website with lots of statistics on National Parks, and learned that Yellowstone is significantly more crowded in July than in August. I also learned that while Yellowstone is typically in the five most visited National Parks, it doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as the Great Smoky Mountains, which I found very surprising.

Our visit to Yellowstone marks the end of what I consider the first chapter of our trip, focused on the outdoors and the northwest. The second chapter will be a short one, comprising our quick move across the United States to eastern Canada.

Jackson & the Tetons

I have been looking forward to the Tetons/Yellowstone since we started planning our van route. My family visited the National Parks with some friends when I was young (maybe 12?) and David has only been to Yellowstone in the winter at the age of 6 (he distinctly remembers the awesome winter vehicle they traveled through the park in). I was old enough on my visit to remember the geysers, springs, and most especially the boiling mud pots. I was excited for David to see these exotic natural wonders and to have some more variety in the trip. Although I think I’d be pretty content to spend weeks at a time hiking in the mountains, David especially was ready for something new. I was worried we would stop appreciating all the natural beauty around us after so much time in it. It is sad how quickly you can become desensitized to a mountain top view or alpine lake. David and I have had a lot of conversations about this on our trip – how easily we can forget how lucky we are to be traveling everyday. While we were walking through Yellowstone, David wondered how many people there had been planning their vacation for months, years, or even a lifetime, while we were just passing through with Yellowstone as one of many stops. I read a few articles on this topic with ideas on how to keep yourself excited and appreciative of beauty. I especially liked this quote from The Alchemist cited in one article:

When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

While we set out with the intent to practice more mindfulness strategies on our trip and limit our cell phone time, we haven’t yet been too successful. I realize that you have to be intentional about changing your mental patterns and mindset or it won’t happen. I’m going to start trying to think of one thing that I’m grateful for each night before bed and spending a few minutes focusing on it (an idea from a kid’s science podcast “Brains On!” that I found myself listening to on a run. It was previewed on my favorite podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and it was my only downloaded episode. However, I may be checking out more of their episodes as it was really interesting!)

We were also excited about visiting the Tetons because we planned Jackson as our base camp, where we have a couple friends. We spent our first night in Jackson getting the royal treatment from Mike, who we met through one of our good friends in Portland. Mike is a brewer at Roadhouse Brewing Co. and very kindly shared some extremely tasty beer with us, and stocked us up for the next 3 months! We especially loved the hazy beers and hearing some of the details on how Mike thinks up new beers and experiments with different flavors. We’ve both wanted to try home brewing, and were especially pumped up about it after talking to Mike. While in Jackson we also visited David’s college friend, Katie, who lives in Teton Village. It was super interesting to hear about life in the Village, where only about 30 people live full time. It is hard to imagine living literally next to a ski resort!

We did a few hikes in the Tetons and most enjoyed a backpacking trip of Paintbrush Canyon and Cascade Canyon. We were fortunate to snag a permit for the trip, as a portion of permits are reserved for walk-ups the day before the night of the permit. We camped in the Upper Paintbrush Zone where we enjoyed both sunset and sunrise colors on the surrounding mountains. As David remarked, it is hikes like this that help us snap out of nature snob mode. I think it also helps to spend the night out in nature and enjoy some solitude. In the morning we finished the elevation gain of the hike and reached Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet, which has incredible views of Thor Peak, Mt. Moran, West Horn, Mt. Woodring, the Cathedral Group, and Rockchuck Peak (we couldn’t recognize any of the mountains by name, but I learned this from Teton Hiking Trails.com). From here it was about 10 miles to the van, which felt very, very long. A moose sighting helped increase morale a few miles before the end, as well as a good supply of Sour Patch Kids.

Idaho!

One of the most common questions we get when we tell people we are traveling for 15 months is whether we have the trip all planned. The short answer is ‘kind of…’ As detailed on “The Plan” tab of the blog, we have a rough idea of where we want to go and when. We developed this plan over a couple of years, compiling a list of cool spots from articles online, friends’ trips, and recommendations from all sorts of people with a variety of interests. While we love the outdoors and national parks, we wanted to make sure our trip has variety and that we don’t overlook lesser known gems of the country. I knew I didn’t want to do more driving than we needed to, so wanted to ideally just do a single loop of the US, with minimal retracing of steps. Our rough trajectory came together by talking through our route with our friends and family and making refinements each time we talked about it. The route really took shape when I spent a week in Bend with my parents and sat down to look at the map with my Dad, who had some very helpful recommendations (including extending our trip from a year to 15 months to get two summers!).

Before we left Portland, my goal was to have a detailed plan for the first month of the trip, including a rough idea of where we would spend each night and how long we’d spend at each stop. This didn’t really happen, partly because it was overwhelming to think about and because it seemed hard to make so many decisions without knowing how we would feel when we got there. Maybe I also felt less motivated sitting on our couch at home and it was easier to just say we’ll figure it out as we go. So when we left Portland we really only knew our first three stops – Seaview, Seattle, North Cascades. Fortunately, it has been way easier to plan on the road than I expected and a lot less stressful than I imagined. I worried our days would be consumed just trying to figure out where to sleep and what to do, so we’d spend more time planning than doing. In reality, I feel like we spend very little time planning and I can mostly figure out things between searching on my phone while David drives (if only I didn’t get carsick this would be enough), coffee shop stops every few days, and some phone time before bed.

To try and better illustrate what our planning looks like, here is how we figured out what to do in Idaho:

  • Initial internet searching to develop a map of places we wanted to stop. I like to look at a mix of blogs, with at least a couple focused on the outdoors and backpacking. I’ll also typically look at tripadvisor and state tourism sites. For Idaho, I heavily relied on the Traveling Spud and Visit Idaho. I mapped the spots on our Van Locations google map. The spots included: Hells Canyon, McCall, Boise, Sawtooth National Forest, Sun Valley, Craters of the Moon, and Arco (the lowest green spot is Bruneau Sand Dunes, which we added to the list later).
  • Google Maps experimenting to determine a desired route. I put the locations in Google Maps in the order I thought would make the most sense, starting with our current location and ending with our intended next stop after Idaho. Then I played around with it a bit to optimize the route and make sure none of the stops would add a ton of extra time. If something is really out of the way, I then do a little more research to decide if we want to drive that far. The map below shows the route I originally developed, although we ended up adding Bruneau Sand Dunes after I saw a sign about it at a rest stop and remembered one of my coworkers, Molly, talking about stopping here on a Boise trip. The sand dunes are located southeast of Boise, so with this stop it made sense to go to Sun Valley and then the Sawtooth National Forest (and then retrace our steps back to Sun Valley and on to Craters of the Moon).
  • Detailed planning for the first stop. While in Missoula, I did some planning for our first Idaho stop, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. We spent about an hour before bed at Big Sky Brewing laying out on their lawn watching the sunset, and I mixed in some phone searching. I wanted to go backpacking, so did some Google searching of “backpacking Hells Canyon” and read a few blogs and All Trails reports. Smaller destinations like this are harder to find information on compared to major national parks or big cities. I cross-referenced recommended backpacking trips with our route, and determined the most on-the-way stop was Seven Devils Loop. I also saw a few references to a lookout near the loop, Heavens Gate, so we decided to stop here.
  • Changing plans as needed. Typically our plans morph at least a little as we go. In the case of Hells Canyon, we ended up changing our plans significantly given predicted storms. I usually do some more phone searching while David is driving to get a better sense of the area and, in this case, knew about a free campground at Seven Devils (some people referenced staying here before hiking the loop). Therefore, when we decided backpacking wasn’t a good idea with the weather it was easy to adapt our plans.
  • Continuing to plan as we go. The next stop after Hells Canyon was McCall. I did some quick searching as we started the drive, focusing on where to stay, bike rides, and breweries. We like to alternate between hiking and biking to avoid overuse injuries and keep things more interesting. When thinking about where we’ll stay, I usually look at iOverlander, which has a huge variety of places to stay, including official campgrounds, public land camping, random free spots like Walmarts and casinos, and acceptable boondocking locations on public roads. I’ll also check prices at campgrounds in the area, as I’ve found there is a huge range, generally from $12 to $50. Sometimes I’ll do some google searching to see how accepting it looks like the City is of parking overnight (some cities seem to be much stricter while others will list places overnight parking is allowed). I’ll also look for good spots in residential areas (defined by me as areas with commercial mixed in, rental properties, or a park where we can avoid being in front of someone’s house). We hadn’t decided what to do for the night when we arrived in McCall late morning, but found parking on a street with a mix of houses, businesses, and new home construction. While we hadn’t intended to stay there for the night, we realized after parking it would be a good overnight spot and that we could just bike around for the day. In terms of where to bike, I rely on the app Trailforks, which is super comprehensive and provides detailed information on bike trails (which helps us figure out if our gravel bikes are up to the trails). I saw a loop near downtown McCall in Ponderosa State Park that looked like a good distance and difficulty level. Since the trail was near a lake and the weather was warm, we brought along our swimsuits and tagged on a jump in the lake afterwards, which served as a good cool off and easier alternative than taking a shower. If we want to stop at a brewery, restaurant, or coffee shop, I typically use google maps and its reviews, while occasionally looking at blogs or other websites to get intel on the most interesting breweries. In McCall, I picked Broken Horn Brewery, as the Google Reviews made it sound less touristy than a couple of the breweries right downtown. It was also an easy bike ride to the brewery from our van on a bike path. The last thing I typically check is an events calendar for cities we go to in case there are interesting concerts or farmers markets. In McCall, we visited the Saturday morning farmers market before leaving town.
  • And repeat, repeat, repeat. This is the approach we take to most of our stops, varying things a bit if we are in city or at a nature area. We also do a search every couple days of dump stations using sanidumps.com and gas prices on gasbuddy.com so we can be strategic with our stops. Typically if we plan ahead, we can find free dump stations and water fill ups and avoid the places with fees. I think so far we have paid for maybe two dump stations.

All in all, we greatly enjoyed our time in Idaho and can tell why it is tied for the fastest growing state in the United States. The huge variety of scenery, lack of crowds, amazing skies, eclectic breweries, and bike trails made for a great visit. Here are some photos to tell the story of our other Idaho stops.

Boise

Not pictured – we had an amazing dinner with my former coworkers Andy and Sonia and their adorable two girls and a fun lunchtime visit to Kittelson’s Boise office. Boise remains one of my favorite cities (I loved it ever since my mom and I stopped in during our road trip for my Portland move). The proximity to the outdoors, lively downtown, cool neighborhoods, and bike trails make for a lot to do!

Bruneau Sand Dunes

We almost didn’t stop at the sand dunes, as they made for a bit longer route to the Sawthooths. I’m so glad we did, as I found the sand dunes fascinating! The park includes the “tallest single-structured sand dune in North America with a peak rising 470 feet above the surrounding desert floor” according to Idaho State Parks and Recreation. David made the mistake of wearing sandals for the short hike around the dunes, so he turned back after we hiked up the first dune as his feet were being burned by the scorching hot sand. I continued on, thinking I’d be back at the van in no more than an hour. Several hours later I called David to send in a search party for my Fitbit. I broke the band a few days ago so it had been falling off constantly and I lost it somewhere near the end of the hike. I couldn’t find the trail through a large section of brush so after searching for about thirty minutes just pushed my way through some small trees and bushes, still in the sand. When I got through and saw the trail on the other side, my excitement was quickly sapped by my realization I was no longer wearing my Fitbit and couldn’t remember when I last had it. I assumed it was lost in the brush, but couldn’t find it after retracing my steps several times. I worried the sand had buried it as each step resulted in a small sand avalanche. I eventually climbed all the way back up the sand dune, but still no Fitbit. David saved the day by coming with a water bottle and an app to search out the Bluetooth signal of my Fitbit and after about 15 minutes of collective searching we found it, in the brush just where I thought it had been lost. My delay was not just a result of the lost Fitbit, but also the fact that I couldn’t stop taking pictures and videos because I was so in awe of the sand. There weren’t any other footsteps on the top of the sand dunes (the hike walked for about a mile along a ridge) and my footsteps caused small sand avalanches and left all kinds of neat patterns in the sand.

Sun Valley

We spent an afternoon and night in the resort town of Sun Valley. It was sunny and beautiful.

Sawtooths

We had intended to do a backpacking trip to Alice Lake in the Sawtooths, but had some plumbing problems at home to deal with so didn’t want to be out of service for too long (thanks, parents for going to Portland and saving the day with a shower repair job!). We still managed to have a great time in the Sawtooths, between a day hike, bike ride, and delicious breakfast in Stanley at the Baking Company.

Craters of the Moon

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but this place is a must-see.

Arco

What an interesting little city! Arco was the first city to be powered by atomic power and Idaho National Laboratory still owns a lot of land east of Arco where it houses a variety of labs. We visited Experimental Breeder Reactor-I (EBR-I), which was fascinating. I won’t try to explain too much about it, because a lot of it was over my head (despite the excellent displays and explanations!). If you want to know more, check out the INL’s website. It provides the fast facts below:

On December 20, 1951, EBR-I became the first power plant to produce electricity using atomic energy.
EBR-I was the first reactor built in Idaho at the National Reactor Testing Station (forerunner to today’s INL)
In 1953, testing at EBR-I confirmed that a reactor could create (or breed) more fuel than it consumes.
This pioneering reactor operated for 12 years before being shut down for the last time in December 1963.
President Lyndon Johnson dedicated EBR-I as a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

– Idaho National Laboratory Website