Our spring break 2017 trip took us back to the desert southwest. Here’s some statistical info on how it all went down. Click the image for larger view.
Images from our trip through Arizona and California, April 6-16, 2017.
Click to enlarge, read captions and view slideshow.
A few fun facts and some infographics (scroll down) about
the major National Park Service sites we’ll visit:
- Protects the park’s namesake cactus and the Sonoran Desert ecosystem
- Contains the Tucson Mountains and Rincon Mountains that flank the city of Tucson
- A mature saguaro can reach 60 feet in height, but they grow so slowly it can take 50-70 years just to develop the first arm
- There are an estimated 1.8 million saguaros in the park
- Between May and September daily highs average more than 100 degrees
Our Lodging: Lodge on the Desert – Tucson, AZ
- Named for its large deposits of fossilized trees that were buried during the late Triassic period when the area had a tropical climate
- Northern sections of the park cover the Painted Desert, featuring the brightly colored badlands of the Chinle Formation
- More than 600 archaeological sites have been located
- Remnants of Route 66 pass through the park
- Elevation ranges from 5,300 to 6,235 feet
Our Lodging: Wigwam Motel – Holbrook, AZ
- Among the most visited national monuments in the country
- One of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America
- Preserves ruins of early tribes and the three major canyons that contain them, de Chelly, del Muerto and Monument
- The most famous landform is a 750 foot spire of red sandstone called Spider Rock
- Tours of the canyon floor are only allowed when accompanied by a ranger or native guide
Our Lodging: Thunderbird Lodge – Chinle, AZ
- The one-mile deep gorge is often considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world
- Total length of the canyon is 277 miles and maximum width is 18 miles
- Second highest visitation of the 59 national parks after Great Smoky Mountains
- The Colorado River has carved through nearly 2 billion years of geologic history, which is visible in the multi-colored layers of rock in the walls
- John Wesley Powell led the first successful expedition through the canyon in 1869
- Weather conditions vary greatly by elevation and season, with everything from blizzards to 100 degree + temperatures during the year
Our Lodging: Maswick Lodge – Grand Canyon Village, AZ
- Largest U.S. national park outside of Alaska
- Hottest and driest place in North America, some areas receive less than 2 inches of rain a year
- Record worldwide observed high air temperature of 134 degrees was recorded in 1913
- Contains Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, while 14,505 ft Mt. Whitney is just 85 miles away
- Few developed trails mean most hiking in the park is cross-country
Our Lodging: Stovepipe Wells Hotel – Death Valley, CA
We’ve been lining up our next road trip for several months, but now that it’s less than two months away we can reveal the planned route. It’s a return to the American Southwest this April, highlighting Arizona and California. Travel partners Emily and Jake are also joining us for the first time since Alaska 2014! There will be three new national parks added to our tally: Saguaro, Petrified Forest and Death Valley, plus a revisit to Grand Canyon, and at least four National Monuments.
The week begins by flying into Tucson, Arizona, where we’ll spend time at Saguaro National Park. Next up is a day exploring Petrified Forest National Park before continuing to far northeastern Arizona and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Turning west, we’ll take a peek at Meteor Crater on the way to spending two nights in and around the city of Flagstaff. Several National Monuments dot the landscape around Flagstaff, so finding activities won’t be a problem. We can’t go this close to the Grand Canyon without stopping by, so we’ll make a quick return visit to try out a trail we didn’t hike on our 2012 excursion. Following Grand Canyon, we’ll enter California for the first time in five years and stay 2.5 days in Death Valley National Park. The flights home will be out of Las Vegas.
After this route, we will have just 13 more national parks to visit, only five of which are in the continental U.S. Don’t worry, we’ll still manage to find plenty of destinations, our in-progress summer plans are shaping up and we’ll be helping celebrate the 150th anniversary of our northern neighbors come July and August. More on that to come.
2016 was another busy year of exploring. From the lonely landscapes of western Texas and New Mexico in April, to the watery world of the upper Great Lakes in July, we observed wildly contrasting parts of the continent. Internationally, we had a memorable rowboat border-crossing into Mexico and made an arc through the surprisingly rugged scenery along Canada’s Lake Superior shore. We even threw in a long weekend in Door County, Wisconsin as a quick fall getaway. Plans are currently underway for 2017 travel, and it’s looking to be another active year!
As always, click the image below for a larger view.
It’s that time again, when we look back and remember the best of our year in travel. Spring break found us in the southwest, with one meal even happening after crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. In the summer we took a northern route, circling Lake Superior and Lake Michigan and passing through Canada. A long weekend in Door County, Wisconsin in October added to the already impressive cluster of amazing food and drink in the northern Lake Michigan region. We’ve narrowed our list to 15 food items, 15 beverages and a handful of our favorite overall restaurants, bars and hotels.
Here’s the 2016 collection in chronological order by category:
1 Cheese Enchiladas – Boquillas Restaurant: Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico
2 Guacamole – Starlight Theater: Terlingua, TX
3 Lasagna Bolloco – Trinity: Carlsbad, NM
4 Blue Corn Pizza Crust – Rooftop Pizzeria: Santa Fe, NM
5 Cheddar Nuggets – Ethel’s at 250: Bayfield, WI
6 Burrito – Natural Harvest Food Co-op: Virginia, MN
7 Home-cooked meals – Arrowhead Lodge: Kabetogama, MN
8 Fried Walleye – Kettle Falls Hotel: Voyageurs National Park, MN
9 Athenian Pork Souvlaki Salad – The Foundry: Thunder Bay, ON
10 Pasty – Tahquamenon Brewing: Tahquamenon Falls State Park, MI
11 Trois de Pork – Bistro FouFou: Traverse City, MI
12 Cream Puff – Trattoria Stella: Traverse City, MI
13 Fire Roasted Brussels Sprouts – Hotel Washington: Washington Island, WI
14 Tartine – Island Cafe & Bread Co.: Washington Island, WI
15 Bratwurst Potstickers – Brown Bottle: Milwaukee, WI
16 Prickly Pear Margarita – Chisos Mountains Lodge: Big Bend National Park, TX
17 Gin Gimlet – Cochineal: Marfa TX
18 Green Smoothie – Natural Harvest Food Co-op: Virginia MN
19 Blueberry Blonde – Boathouse Brewpub: Ely, MN
20 Lake Superior Water – Isle Royale National Park
21 Vanilla Latte – North Perk: Petoskey, MI
22 Whiskey Margarita – Traverse City Whiskey Co.: Traverse City, MI
23 Cabernet Franc – 2 Lads Winery: Old Mission Peninsula, MI
24 Sparkling Rosé – Bowers Harbor Vineyards: Old Mission Peninsula, MI
25 Beer Flight – The Filling Station Microbrewery: Traverse City, MI
26 Iced Latte – Redolencia Coffee: Ludington, MI
27 Greyjoy – Staymaker at Journeyman Distillery: Three Oaks, MI
28 Barrel Aged Old Fashioned – Boone & Crocket: Milwaukee, WI
29 Silurian Stout – Door County Brewing Company: Baileys Harbor, WI
30 Angostura Bitters Shot – Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub: Washington Island, WI
Lodging of the Year: Arrowhead Lodge – Kabetogama, MN
Summer’s Inn – Ludington, MI
Chisos Mountains Lodge – Big Bend National Park
Hotel Paisano – Marfa, TX
Jackson Harbor Inn – Washington Island, WI
El Rey Inn – Santa Fe, NM
The final leg of our summer road trip took us through both the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. We’ve previously traveled to Detroit, Grand Rapids and the southwestern shore, but this was our most extensive visit to the Great Lakes State. Here’s the breakdown on what we saw, and why you should visit beautiful Michigan, in order of appearance from north to south.
After reentering the United States at Sault Ste. Marie, our first stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park. This is where the Tahquamenon River plunges over two sets of waterfalls, the upper is a 200ft wide, 48ft high single drop, while the lower set is a collection of five smaller cascades. We headed to the larger upper falls, which is the third most voluminous waterfall in the eastern U.S. during the spring runoff (after Niagara and Cohoes Falls.) A short trail leads from the parking area to the river, with two sets of stairs leading guests down to dramatic viewpoints, one right at the brink and one a little farther downstream. Tannins leached from cedar forests stain the water brown, giving it a unique appearance. Conveniently, Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub is located on the premises, so the park stop doubled as our lunch stop. When dining in the Upper Peninsula, don’t forget to have the local specialty, Pasty.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
Continuing the thread of gorgeous Lake Superior shorelines is the 42-mile stretch known as Pictured Rocks. Sandstone cliffs up to 200 feet tall tower over the lake. Minerals embedded in the porous stone create colorful streaks where groundwater leaches from the cliff face. Iron stains red and orange, copper creates green and blue, manganese oozes black and lime turns white. We began our visit at the park’s eastern edge near Grand Marais, viewing the lake and Au Sable Lighthouse from the Log Slide Overlook. We then drove the full length of the park through thick forests to the town of Munising, headquarters of the park and departure point for cruises. A cruise is the best way to truly capture the views of the namesake cliffs, but there are also hiking, camping and boating opportunities in the park. We chose the 3-hour Sunset Cruise with Pictured Rocks Cruises, departing the Munising dock at 7:00 pm. The trip was wonderful, but one thing to keep in mind is that Munising does not have many options for late evening dining, so plan to eat ahead of time or order a giant pizza from Main Street Pizza afterwards like we did. Our lodging was at the Terrace Motel, which had friendly service, a lounge in which to eat the aforementioned pizza and one of the best bedspreads of all time (see at left).
We usually allow ourselves one tourist trap per trip, and this fit the bill. Interestingly, the historic island in Lake Huron was designated the second National Park after Yellowstone, but in 1895 it was decommissioned and returned to the control of Michigan, which now operates part of the island as a state park. Each day, thousands of tourists pile into ferry boats that shuttle them to the village on the island’s southern shore. Upon disembarking, they’re immediately herded onto a Main Street lined with restaurants, ice cream & fudge parlors, cheap t-shirt stores and bike rental shops. Crowds of people mill around the sidewalks while bikes and horse drawn carriages clog the street. The whole island is car-free, which is its most unique quality. We found a good lunch at Millie’s on Main and then rented bikes to escape the circus. An 8-mile loop trail circumnavigates the island and allows somewhat of an escape from the chaos. We also rode our bikes to Fort Holmes (on the island’s highest point) and Arch Rock before eating some ice cream and ferrying back to the mainland. There are some lovely views, but it wasn’t enough to move Mackinac Island out of our tourist trap column. After leaving the dock at St. Ignace, we continued south by car to the lower peninsula by crossing the spectacular 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge, an attraction in its own right if you’re into nerdy things like that (we are).
Wilderness State Park:
Now that we camp (see Isle Royale) we’ve opened up a whole new set of overnight opportunities. The northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula is full of hotels, inns and B&Bs, but with them all charging peak-season rates, and knowing we’d have our tent in the trunk, we expanded the search to include campgrounds. We found exactly what we were looking for at Wilderness State Park, just 11 miles from Mackinaw City. Their newly created “tent-only rustic campground” contains 10 sites along the Lake Michigan shore that can be reserved for only $20 per night. To be honest, being located right next to the park road and the full hookup RV sites full of families made it less rustic than we were expecting. Each of the 10 sites has a parking space so you can drive right up, but they are pretty well separated by trees, so it’s possible to pretend you’re actually in the wilderness. There is an outhouse and running water in the area, which further eases the experience. Two general stores nearby meant food options were much more luxurious than our dehydrated meals at Isle Royale. We built a raging campfire and dined on cheddar brats, green beans and beer while lounging in our camping chairs. Wilderness State Park is also adjacent to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, which allowed us to watch the Milky Way glow into view after a stunning sunset.
We spent two nights in northern Michigan’s largest town. Traverse City‘s well-known food and beverage scene is what initially attracted us and we took full advantage. With so much of this trip taking place in low population areas, having multiple gourmet options was a welcome turn of events. We tasted our way across town with stops at North Peak Brewing, Filling Station Microbrewery and Traverse City Whiskey Company. The cocktail bar scene is happening too, with Low Bar and The Parlor being our favorites. There’s more to do that boozing here, with beaches for lounging and shops for browsing. On the dining side, we indulged in dinners at Bistro Foufou and Trattoria Stella, both being excellent choices. Traverse City officially erased any fitness gains we achieved during the active portions of the trip. Oh well.
Old Mission Peninsula Wine Country:
This skinny 18-mile strip of land poking into Grand Traverse Bay provides an ideal microclimate for growing wine grapes. Ten wineries line the central road providing the perfect opportunity for a wine crawl. We started the day at the peninsula’s northern tip by visiting the Mission Point Lighthouse, then made our way south via three wineries. We kicked things off at Two Lads, where we loved both the wine and the super modern tasting room overlooking the bay. This proved to be our favorite of the bunch, and the helpful server helped us decide where to drink next. Our other two wine stops were the charming Bowers Harbor and the massive Chateau Chantal. For lunch, Bad Dog Deli offers delicious homemade sandwiches. The laid back vibe and quality wines made for a perfect “Pure Michigan” kind of day.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore:
Just a half hour from Traverse City lies what has been called the most beautiful place in the country. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects 35 miles of eastern Lake Michigan shore plus North and South Manitou islands. A lighthouse, life saving stations, farmsteads and coastal villages are also within the Lakeshore, providing a good balance of natural and cultural amenities. Sand hills towering up to 450 feet above the lake line the shore, giving views far out over the blue and green water. The Dune Climb is a popular activity that we did not partake in because of the 90 degree weather during our visit. The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station contains an informative maritime museum of the Great Lakes shipping industry and shipwrecks in the region. Stop for lunch at the famous Art’s Tavern in the Village of Glen Arbor.
Northern Michigan is full of charming small towns frequented by summer guests. Some of the more popular ones can feel a bit too touristy and artificial (see Mackinac Island), but Ludington is a town that successfully blends it’s visitor friendliness with the feel of a real working place. Highlights for us included coffee at Redolencia, mac and cheese dinner at Barley & Rye, and a live rockabilly band at The Mitten Bar (which was called one of the best beer bars in the country by Food & Wine.) Summer’s Inn was one of our favorite hotel stays of the whole year, with its wine tastings, backyard garden, guest library and wonderful breakfast. If crossing Lake Michigan by ferry sounds interesting, Ludington is also the eastern port of the SS Badger, with twice daily service to Manitowoc, Wisconsin during the summer season.
We never pass up a good brewery or distillery on our route, so when we discovered that Journeyman was just off I-94 in Three Oaks, Michigan, our lunch break planned itself. The new restaurant, Staymaker, is in part of the same former corset factory (stays, get it?) as the distillery. It offers cocktails made with Journeyman products and a full menu of lunch and dinner options. We each selected a Detroit-style pizza and a cocktail to toast to our last meal on the road. In less than two hours, we’d be back home in Chicago after nearly three weeks and over 2,400 miles on the road.
Previously: Isle Royale National Park
Previously: Apostle Islands, Voyageurs and Grand Portage
View the whole gallery of images from our trip here.