Wandering Rose Travels is the story of a couple of baby boomers, living the dream of exploring the world and being active outdoors. This blog is our perspective on traveling, from the seat of a bicycle to the top of a mountain. It’s staying in unique places and sampling local food and drink. It’s rambling through quaint Alpine villages, the Florida Keys, and a little bit of everywhere in..
Mt. Rainier, Redwoods, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Acadia
Have you ever planned a vacation around eating a slice of pie? We have.
My wife and I have visited our national parks for almost four decades. And a handful of restaurants stand out as special and iconic.
Copper Creek Inn is a great restaurant near Mount Rainier.
Copper Creek Inn, near Mt. Rainier National Park
Several times a year we take turns saying to one another, out of the blue, “Is it time for vacation pie?” which is our code for visiting Mt. Rainier National Park and our most favorite restaurant of all – Copper Creek Inn. The restaurant is located just outside of the park’s west entrance. The eatery is small, unassuming with a to-die-for, locally-sourced menu and homemade flair.
And yes, we ate blackberry pie, more than once. As a matter of fact, during a three-day stay in Mt. Rainier, we ate at Copper Creek four times. We usually enjoy trying different places but, with food as superb as this, we made an exception. The cod and chips, the breads, seafood chowder, stew, sandwiches, everything was exceptional. And by the way, I normally don’t eat pie, but that’s how hypnotized I became with blackberry.
Mashed potato cone with "the works" from The Lighthouse, near Redwoods National Park.
Larrupin’s and The Lighthouse, near Redwoods National Park
Completely different restaurants, but both are incredible, so it’s a tie. At Larrupin’s, which is more upscale, I feasted on the best slab of fish that ever crossed my taste buds – a grilled steelhead, which they prepare differently on some days. The menu mentioned that every meal came with an appetizer board, which seemed odd to us, until it arrived. The contents were unique, local and better than any breadbasket, which is the more common free starter. Just a great upscale national park dining experience.
The Lighthouse, a small diner lower on atmosphere, made up for ambience with great service and very tasty menu items, including homemade soups, fish, sandwiches, homemade ice cream and one of my favorite items of all time – a mashed potato cone that I ordered with the works, including beef brisket, gravy, cheese and bacon in a waffle cone. I drooled again on my keyboard while typing this. We went back for seconds on consecutive days. Great burgers on homemade buns or bread and excellent craft soups.
Antonio’s Pizza, Rocky Mountain National Park
Located in Estes Park, Antonio’s Pizza serves up great salads and some of the best pizza we’ve devoured. And our family considers pizza its own food group, even though the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics disagrees.
Seating at Antonio’s was very limited and it’s so popular that I would only recommend takeout. We normally like to eat “outdoorsy” stuff after hiking the great outdoors, like bison, trout, beef and greens. But we ate Antonio’s pizza twice because we were afraid we’d never again taste Italian heaven.
The Garage Soup Shack & Mesquite Grill, near north Yellowstone National Park
One route to Yellowstone is through Bozeman, Montana. If you choose this way, stop at the Garage. It’s a converted corner gas station in downtown that delights patrons with unusual and traditional homemade soups and great bison burgers. Of course, there are other great menu items, not to mention sandwiches, a great spicy blue veggie platter and local craft beers.
We also liked the Garage because it was casual and modestly priced, with a lot of family patrons. And the young staff provided great service.
Galyn’s, Acadia National Park
Near the park, the town of Bar Harbor is loaded with tourists. And gift shops. And restaurants. And lobster dishes.
Galyn’s topped our list here, starting with the warmest of greetings from a hostess who knows the value of first impressions. What followed was an incredible meal that included – you guessed it – lobster. We ate one of the best appetizers during a vacation, the lobster puff pastries. We followed those up with a fish sandwich, lobster roll and lobster enchiladas. And this restaurant served a great sloshing selection of local beers.
In closing, we chose restaurants for this article that we’ve patronized during the past five years, several within the past year. These places could have changed since we’ve eaten there, so be sure to check out your favorite food app for current reviews. And then start planning your own “pie” vacation, because life’s just too short to simply climb a mountain or comb a beach.
Brookgreen Gardens showcases American sculpture plus Lowcounty nature and history
Planning a trip to Myrtle Beach or somewhere along South Carolina’s Grand Strand? If you need a break from the beach, pool, golf, shopping and crowds then check out Brookgreen Gardens.
B seeks out botanical gardens when we travel and has seen some of the best. We were surprised and impressed to find one of the top-rated botanical and sculpture gardens in the United States is only 17 miles from the crowds and traffic of Myrtle Beach. Located at Murrells Inlet, Brookgreen Gardens showcases the world’s largest outdoor collection of American sculpture, thousands of flowers, centuries-old trees, and a zoo housing native animals
It’s not just us that are impressed. Brookgreen’s accolades include:
Listing on the National Register of Historic Places
Brookgreen Garden includes the largest outdoor sculpture garden in the U.S.
Huntington winter home becomes a showcase for American sculpture
Brookgreen Gardens began as the winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. An accomplished sculptor, Anna quickly saw the potential of the property and set out in 1931 to develop a place to showcase for American sculpture. Brookgreen’s mission then as now is to collect, exhibit and preserve American sculpture plus plants and animals of the Southeast. You know you are in South Carolina Lowcountry with the setting of beautiful old oak trees draped with Spanish moss. If the Huntington name seems familiar, it’s because Huntington State Park across Hwy. 17 was originally part of the family property.
Bring your walking shoes. There is no set path for exploring the sculptures and gardens at Brookgreen, so you’ll find yourself delightfully wandering everywhere. We spent a half-day at Brookgreen and left plenty unseen for a future visit.
We did not tour the zoo/wildlife refuge, but it would be a great place to take the kids or grandkids. Narrated boat and minibus tours are options to go deeper into the park if you have the time. There is an additional fee for these tours.
Thorny often balks at botanical garden and art tours, but he went along for this one and was impressed. Even if you’re not a fan of art and gardens, the history of this place is tasteful and informative. Brookgreen admission is reasonable at $18 for adults. Seniors get two bucks off and kids are $10.
Our photos don’t do the place justice. You need to see this for yourself.
Looking for things to do next South Carolina beach vacation? Visit Brookgreen Gardens.
Brookgreen Gardens is rated Top 10 attractions in South Carolina.
Brookgreen Gardens is a must-see combination of botanical and sculpture garden plus zoo and historical site.
What's not to love about Brookgreen? You're outdoors walking in art, nature and history.
Buildings house some of Brookgreen's collection.
Brookgreen showcases American sculptors.
You are literally walking through South Carolina history as your stroll the trails of Brookgreen.
Wandering Rose Travels has been ranked #16 of the Top 30 Baby Boomer Travel Blogs by Feedspot. We’re thrilled that our blog, barely one year old, was chosen. We’re honored to be featured among some of the best in the business and congratulate all who made the list.
Feedspot selects “websites actively working to educate, inspire, and empower their readers with frequent updates and high-quality information.
Travel blogs are ranked based on:
Google reputation and Google search ranking
Influence and popularity on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites
Quality and consistency of posts.
Feedspot’s editorial team and expert review
Part blog, part travel and gear tips, Wandering Rose Travels serves up weekly content meant to encourage others to be active and explore confidently. We’ll give you the scoop on everything from the best local hangouts in Key West to the best e-bikes out there that keep B cycling through her struggle with asthma.
We give back in other ways, too, providing support to nonprofits that share our passion to end homelessness, provide affordable housing and preserve public lands.
I don’t use the word “surprised” very often, unless I’m truly taken aback, flabbergasted or stunned. But that’s the word I use when describing our visit to Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Utah and Colorado.
I hope you enjoy this photo story. The dinosaur wonderland draws only 304,000 visitors a year, mainly because of its remote location. Compare that to the 11.3 million tourists in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and you can imagine why we’re planning to return soon.
The park’s main attraction is its world-renowned Jurassic fossil beds and the most impressive visitor center we’ve experienced, built over a cliff embedded with hundreds of dinosaur remains. But we’re glad we planned three days here because we loved hiking, studying rock pictographs and scenic driving at dusk. We arrived in mid-September, during the antelope, elk and mule deer mating season, which treated us to exceptional wildlife viewing and experiences.
Try including this destination with a trip to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. And plan to take a few selfies with an allosaurus, stegosaurus or your favorite saurus.
We don't usually call out a visitor center, but the one at Dinosaur National Monument is the best we have seen.
The town of Sonoma is a great base for your cycle tour
What’s the best place to stay when visiting Sonoma and Napa Valley wine country? The town of Sonoma is high on our list.
You’ll figure this out quickly, so I will disclose now that B and I enjoy visiting vineyards and tasting a variety of wines very much. But our wine knowledge would fit in a mini tasting glass. If you’re looking for a great wine country experience, read on. If you are looking for a blog from a knowledgeable wine connoisseur please leave immediately and seek another source.
Our son and his wife live in San Francisco, so our first outing into California wine country came as we left the kids in the city to work while we got away for a few days. We debated the towns of Napa vs. Sonoma to start of adventure and chose Sonoma because it is more spread out and feels less crowded.
Cottage Inn and Spa is a great place to stay for your Sonoma wine country adventure.
Where to stay, what to do in Sonoma
We seek out small, boutique properties when we can, and based on TripAdvisor reviews, we picked the Cottage Inn and Spa as our base (see dedicated blog). Our only regret is we did not stay longer and truly enjoy this property. We plan to visit again and remedy that.
The property is tranquil and peaceful, yet a few steps away is Sonoma Plaza – a pedestrian and biker paradise that combines history, wine, restaurants, shops and galleries in a setting that makes it the top attraction to visit in Sonoma Valley. This was the perfect setting to wind down after a day exploring the region’s wineries.
The lightly-traveled roads around Sonoma make for peaceful cycling.
Bicycle tour of Sonoma wine country
We chose to winery-hop on bicycles from Sonoma Valley Bike Tours. This is a great outfitter with additional locations in Napa and Yountville if you are so inclined. They offer half- and full-day guided tours or rental bikes with maps and advice for those who prefer a self-guided adventure. With 11 wineries within five miles of town, you’ve got more tasting choices than you can accomplish in a day (and still cycle responsibly).
We believe the best way to learn about a new area is with some kind of guided tour, so we spent day one on the full-day tour with a guide. We were so impressed with the bike paths and lightly-traveled roads of Sonoma. Even without the payoff of wine at the end of the road, the scenery was beautiful. It’s relatively flat with some hills leading into the wineries. Our guide told us about the region, the wine and how to enjoy the tastings. We stopped along the way to view the grape fields and learn about grafting, pruning and growing techniques.
Walking tour of the Ravenswood vineyard just outside the town of Sonoma.
Bicycle touring lets you experience California wine country up close.
Visiting Ravenswood, GunBun and Homestead wineries
First stop was Ravenswood Winery where we enjoyed a tasting and a vineyard walking tour. The tour ended with a visit to their barrel room with a sample of wine right from the barrel. Seeing the process from vine to barrel was a great way to begin our first trip to California wine country.
Ravenswood is a newer, but very successful winery. For a step back in history, pedal over to Gundlach Bundschu (GunBun to the locals) where grapes have been grown since 1859. The tasting room sits in a building that dates to the 1870s and still serves as a winemaking facility. You’ll experience the history of wine in Sonoma Valley while enjoying a guided tasting.
A few miles down the road is Homestead Winery. It is winemaker’s David Homewood’s goal to produce small batches so that he touches as much of the winemaking as possible. Homewood limits production to about 3,000 cases yearly. David came out and visited with our group during the tasting which was a treat. Include this on your tour to sample the smaller, hand-crafted approach to winemaking. This was one of my favorites of the trip.
E-bike tour of the vineyards surrounding Sonoma.
The town of Sonoma sits close to Napa but tends to be less expensive and less crowded.
Day two tour of Sonoma. What a difference an e-bike makes!
We enjoyed the bike/winery combo so much we decided to bike again on day two. One member on our day one tour rode an e-bike. Curious, we asked and the woman explained that her husband and teenage kids were accomplished cyclists and the e-bike allowed her to keep up with their pace and enjoy being with them. She explained the biker provides most of the power, but the pedal-assist feature gives a little extra boost when climbing hills. This sounded perfect as asthma had made day one challenging for Libby on hills leading into the wineries.
We secured an e-bike for day two and explored on our own, guided by a great map and advice from Sonoma Valley Bike Tours. We explored the town and then set out to see new sights.
Area artists use Bartholomew Park Winery as setting for Plein Air painting.
Don't let the rusty truck and rustic appearance fool you. Fremont Diner is a great place for lunch on your wine tour.
Bartholomew Park, Fremont Diner, The Swiss Hotel
First stop was Bartholomew Park Winery, situated on 21-acres inside a 400-acre park just blocks from the center of Sonoma. We picked Bartholomew because it was along our route; we stayed for hours because it was a stunning place. Pedaling into the property we were struck by how many locals were spending their day painting, strolling and jogging the grounds. In addition to the winery, the property includes a museum tracing the estate’s 150-year history and three miles of hiking trails.
Next stop was not a winery, but The Fremont Diner. While Sonoma and Napa boast a number of starred and fancy eateries, this place thrives as a vintage Americana diner that takes you back in time. Don’t let the old rusty truck out front fool you, this is a go-to destination for many exploring wine country so visit at off-hours or expect a wait. The menu is Southern-style.
There are lots of good places to for dinner in Sonoma within a walk or short drive. One of note is The Swiss Hotel in Sonoma Plaza. The food is excellent, prices are fair and the building dates backs more than 100 years.
Two nights in Sonoma gave us a taste of what’s there, but there is so much to do. Stay longer if you can. We will be back.
Sonoma Coast State Park let's you get a little hiking into your wine country trip.
Healdsburg is an ideal base to explore deeper into Sonoma Valley
We left Sonoma to head deeper into the valley for the next leg of our trip. The wineries are more spread out here so we toured by car instead of bike. Central to the region, Healdsburg is a good base to explore this area.
With a population 11,000, Healdsburg combines small-town charm with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, tasting rooms, galleries and bars. This is a great place to get your craft beer fix one if someone prefers beer to wine. Healdsburg sits at the junction of Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys – making it an ideal base for exploring the region.
If you need a break from wine tasting, the Sonoma Coast State Park boasts beautiful trails along the rugged coast where Russian River dumps into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a haul along windy roads to reach the park, but the payoff is worth it.
I think most people would like to step outside for one minute to experience the shock of 128 degrees. But would you plan a vacation to achieve that?
We did not. So instead, my wife and I explored Death Valley National Park in mid-March and enjoyed highs of 75 degrees and early morning lows of 50. The park surprises on many levels, delivering the harsh landscape implied by the park’s name but also flaunting a dazzling array of textures, colors and vistas. And with sites called The Devil’s Cornfield and The Devil’s Golf Course, the park will surely play with your imagination.
Surprisingly, the extreme summer heat attracts a lot of tourists who want to check off the experience from their bucket lists. I understand the appeal. Consider this true story: rangers bake cookies inside their sweltering vehicles, on what is known as “Dashboard Cookie Day.” But interesting sidebars like that can distract visitors from heeding the number one threat in Death Valley: dehydration, which can occur rapidly and disastrously. You should enjoy the park using a sense of foreboding caution.
Death Valley hikes and overlooks
This park includes good hiking for the active park goer and impressive overlooks for the more passive visitor.
First, the overlooks. Walk the short distance to Zabriskie Point in the morning while the sun glances off Golden Canyon and the Panamint Range – one of my favorite scenic spots. Artists Palette features incredible color in this arid land, along a nine-mile paved drive – great photo ops in the afternoon sunlight. And you can park feet away from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and absorb their beauty, or walk a couple of blocks or few miles along their crests.
Now, the hikes. Golden Canyon topped our list, with multiple loops from which to choose. If you’re a photographer, hike this trail from Zabriskie Point in the morning, or from Badwater Road in the afternoon. Mosaic Canyon is also fun, but in the morning you’ll be hiking into the sun and will barely notice the colors and scenery – start late morning or afternoon if the temps permit. And while Twenty Mule Team Canyon doesn’t offer trailheads, I highly recommend pulling off the road and simply hiking up the hills and ridges. Keep your car in sight while you peek over the hills and gullies at a variety of hidden views.
Titus Canyon should be on your list of top things to do in Death Valley.
Scenic and challenging drives
Rent an SUV or 4×4 for Death Valley. The park features some very interesting drives on rocky and narrow roads. We drove a mid-size SUV and it barely cleared several of our excursions. The highlight? Titus Canyon. It’s a 27-mile drive with a huge payoff in the middle. We also loved the shorter drive into Twenty Mule Team Canyon, which was much smoother. And if you decide to drive “The Racetrack,” you’ll definitely need a four-wheel drive vehicle, advice from the visitors center and nerves of steel. But these locations are fantastic.
It's a surprise to many that Death Valley includes a few water features like shot of Darwin Falls.
Yes, a waterfall
My biggest surprise? The park’s water. It’s sparse but interesting. Hiking to Darwin Falls is a bit of a novelty because you’re in a famous desert. It’s no Yosemite or Niagara falls, but we enjoyed the short trek. Hummingbirds buzzed by as they enjoyed one of the few green riparian areas inside the park. We drove to this west side destination early in the morning and gawked at the snow-covered landscape near Pinto Peak.
We also became enthralled with the Pupfish that live in Death Valley. They have survived since the Ice Age – quite an accomplishment. The Pupfish have adapted to live in warm waters, where other fish cannot. And its playful nature and antics led to its naming. We watched them goof off for a long time along the Salt Creek interpretive trail.
Mining played a big role in Death Valley's history.
Mining and its history
The park showcases mining history, including the excavating of lead, silver, gold, borax and iron. We visited the outdoor Borax Museum within the grounds of The Ranch resort, plus we walked the Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail. But there’s more, including mining ghost towns, the Charcoal Kilns and the tram tours of the Keane Wonder Mill and Mine site. Mining history also gives you insight into the park’s amazing rock and landscape colors created by oxidation of metals and volcanic remains.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Rufuge is a short drive from Death Valley.
Nearby Ash Meadows and Vegas
At nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, you can visit the stone cabin of gunslinger Jack Longstreet, a mysterious man of the Wild West. The refuge also features a series of springs with colors reminiscent of Caribbean lagoons, which attract birds and other wildlife.
We flew into Las Vegas and arrived in Death Valley after a two-hour car ride. You have several options for accommodations inside the park, including the opulent Inn at Death Valley and the more conservative choice, the Ranch at Death Valley. No matter where you stay, eating lunch or dinner at the Inn should be tops on your culinary list.
Death Valley is an amazing destination. Tie your visit into a Vegas or Grand Canyon vacation. And drink lots of fluids!
The view of St. George's Chapel inside Windsor Castle from our room at Harte & Garter Hotel.
That’s the good news. The bad news is our hotel dates did not coincide with the royal wedding dates. Still, our recent visit to Windsor, England and our troves of photos of the wedding site are a bit exciting whether you are a royal watcher or not.
Wedding aside, Windsor is a great locale for immersing in England’s history, the royal family and enjoying a slower pace than found in nearby London. Windsor is a $20 ride to Heathrow Airport, making it a great place to begin or end your next trip to England and the United Kingdom.
We’ve toured many castle ruins and castles that serve as museums. What makes Windsor Castle unique is its pristine condition and the fact that it is a fully working facility. Around 150 people live and work on the grounds.
Surrounding Windsor Castle is the historic town of Windsor.
Queen Elizabeth II considers Windsor Castle her home and Buckingham Palace her office. She spends most weekends at Windsor. Wonder if she’s home during your visit? When in residence, her flag flies above the castle.
Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it has since been the home of 39 monarchs. Windsor is the largest inhabited castle in the world and the oldest continuously occupied.
Tour groups day trip to Windsor from London, so be prepared for a crowd. The beauty of staying in Windsor is we had the crowds from morning to mid afternoon and then the crowds went home and we were free to stroll the quaint historic town without the mobs.
A former protective Windsor Castle moat is now a beautiful garden.
Tips to make your Windsor Castle visit more enjoyable
Purchase Windsor Castle tour tickets online prior to arrival to save time. Ticket price includes a great audio tour. We suggest budgeting three-plus hours once inside the castle walls. Windsor Castle is full of fascinating objects, astonishing rooms and wonderful works of art. Mornings tend to be more crowded than afternoons.
One of our tour highlights was changing of the guard, which occurs at 11 a.m. most days (check the website for schedule as it may vary). The guards march through Windsor town into the castle, where the guard change takes place.
Your ticket includes various buildings in the castle walls, including wedding site, St. George’s Chapel. The chapel is still an active church with three or more services daily.
Changing of the guard at Windsor Castle.
Royal wedding facts:
The wedding is on a Saturday, breaking tradition of royal weddings being held on weekdays with a local holiday being declared.
So folks won’t get the day off, but one royal wedding tradition will continue… the pubs will be allowed to stay open later Saturday night so folks can celebrate the occasion.
Prince Harry will walk down the aisle of the same church that his mother, the late Princess Diana, carried him to be christened.
Only 600 guests are being invited to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. We say “only” because brother Prince William had 1,900 guests at his Westminster Abbey wedding and mother Diana had 3,500 guests attend her marriage to Prince Charles.
St. George's Chapel sits inside the walls of Windsor Castle.
The 75 West Window stained glass panes were removed in 1940 to protect them from German bombs.
Located within the walls of Windsor Castle, the St. George’s location allows the couple privacy for the wedding and reception to follow. This doesn’t mean you won’t get a view of the couple without a wedding invite. Following the ceremony, they will tour the streets of Windsor by horse-drawn carriage, including a procession down the Long Walk, a three-mile avenue that was once the royal hunting grounds for Windsor Castle.
Other recent weddings at St. George’s include blessing of the civil marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (a church wedding was ruled out because they were both divorced) and the wedding of Prince Edward (Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son) to Sophie Rhys-Jones, now the Duchess of Wessex.
St George’s Chapel is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England. Construction of the present chapel began in 1475 under the reign of Edward IV.
The chapel’s West Window is believed to be the third largest stained glass window in England. The window’s 75 panels were removed in 1940 to protect them from German bombs.
Within the chapel are the tombs of 10 monarchs. Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, the mother of his only son, rest under the chapel floor.
George’s is home is home to Order of the Garter, the world’s oldest order of knighthood in continuous existence, with a history stretching back to King Edward III in medieval times. It is said that the king was inspired by tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
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Lot of reasons come to mind for vacationing in San Francisco. We’ve always saved the city as our urban playground to finish a long outdoor adventure in California.
I won’t insult your travel I.Q. by reviewing the obvious attractions: streetcars, seafood by the wharf, Ghirardelli chocolate square, winding Lombard Street and that big orange bridge thingy. Instead, I’m sharing a few personal favorites from recent San Fran visits that I hope you find interesting.
Beach Blanket Babylon is billed as the world’s longest running musical review.
Beach Blanket Babylon
My top recommendation – hands down. Beach Blanket Babylon is billed as the world’s longest running musical review. I’ve seen it twice. The performance combines music, song, theater, incredible costumes, humor, satire and pop culture that burst from the stage. They constantly change the show to mimic current events. And they’re always spoofing the First Family, no mater who occupies the White House.
And the performers’ hats! They’re epic and, by themselves, worth the price of admission. We loved Beach Blanket Babylon and will attend a third, fourth or tenth time, depending upon how often we return to San Fran. My prediction? One look at Babylon’s website and you’ll start planning your trip to the West Coast. Performed in a relatively small theater, get your tickets online well in advance.
Former Alcatraz inmate William Barker poses with Jim's better half, Jenifer.
True confession – I don’t like tours. Maybe one or two in my lifetime. But Alcatraz rocks! I hope you get that witty play on words. The prison’s nickname is “The Rock.” Okay, this short paragraph was a waste of your time.
But I was enthralled during this tour overseen by the National Park Service. We participated in the self-guided cell house audio tour, hearing firsthand accounts from inmates and guards inside this notorious federal penitentiary, which provided a much more vivid description of life on The Rock than if a professional narrator had recorded the entire tour. And as an added bonus during our visit, one of the last living former inmates conducted a book signing in the gift shop. William Baker wrote “Alcatraz #1259” and he gladly posed with visitors. Now that’s a selfie!
San Francisco Dungeon.
The San Francisco Dungeon
We had some time to kill, so we spontaneously bought tickets for what we thought might be a tourist trap. We were in the mood for campy amusement. However, the San Francisco Dungeon really surprised us. We had loads of fun inside this attraction themed after the Barbary Coast and its murky past and perils.
Not many attractions can successfully combine fear, laughter, history, thrills and audience participation. Live actors and actresses – talented ones – interact with guests inside creative sets with great costumes and special effects, all connected by an underground boat ride. The cast picked my wife out of the crowd (I volunteered her) and put her on trial for the punishments she deserved! Plus, The Dungeon has added a drop thrill ride since we’ve visited. This attraction is also replicated in seven other countries, with San Francisco being the only U.S. city to host it. And don’t worry; the scares are playful but well performed.
Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.
Golden Gate Park
Yes, the bridge is awesome. But Golden Gate Park is the bridge’s playground that contains a great diversity of gardens, lakes, trails, museums and culture. It’s an urban oasis where you could spend several days taking it all in or just an afternoon exploring a specific element of interest.
Personally, we enjoyed the Japanese Tea Garden, its flora tapestry and authentic teahouse. Just a great place to relax and savor the sights, smells and tastes. Check out the de Young Museum, Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco Botanical Gardens and Dutch windmills. The California Academy of Sciences includes an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. In addition, outdoor activities and special events decorate this city refuge.
All four of these attractions are accessible from the famous downtown area by foot, cab or bus. You really don’t want to drive in this city, unless you enjoy tension headaches and creative hand gestures.
Looking for other new things to do in San Francisco? Check out our walking tour blog.
When the alarm clock sounded at 5 a.m. that first morning in Yellowstone National Park, we wondered why the heck we had booked an early morning tour called “Wakeup to winter wildlife.” We dragged ourselves out of bed, bundled up for the frigid morning and arrived at our meeting place before the sun was up.
Our destination was Lamar Valley in the park’s Northern Range. Its grassy valleys receive less snow than other parts of Yellowstone, making it easier for animals to graze. Animals that spread out among the park’s 3,000 square miles of mountains and ridges other times of the year are concentrated in the valley areas for winter. The result: Lamar Valley is one of the best winter viewing areas for wildlife in Yellowstone.
Bison (also called buffalo) frequent the Lamar Valley during winter.
Winter offers great opportunities to view and photography Yellowstone wildlife.
Some 100 wolves live in the park, so spotting one is rare. Our guide had intel where a wolf pack had been sighted the day before so our hopes were high and we weren’t disappointed. Through the lens of spotting scopes we watched a pack of wolves run and play along a river with the fascination of a child. We also spotted coyote and fox that morning – completing what they call in Yellowstone a “three dog day”.
We watched bison walk single file through fields of snow; saw bighorn sheep delicately walk down a rock face to graze on some tasty grass; watched as a fox listened for rodents under 2 feet of snow and then sprang into the air and did a headstand to snare its breakfast; saw elk and moose and trumpeter swans. By the time we returned to Mammoth Hot Springs for lunch our cameras had hundreds of amazing photos and our minds were spinning with the majesty of what we had seen.
We spotted this elk on our winter wildlife viewing trip.
Bighorn sheep are among the animals that call Lamar Valley home for the winter.
We watched in fascination as a fox detected a rodent under 2 feet of snow and then leapt into the air and did a dive into the snow to snag his prey.
Wildlife is easier to spot in winter because animals move into the valleys where grass is easier to access.
The only traffic jam you'll experience in winter is when bison or other wildlife use the road to move to a new grazing spot.
I love wildlife. Maybe more than people. Since retiring five years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time enjoying the outdoors and exploring new and familiar places. I’m a frequent visitor of our national parks and I also trek through nearby national wildlife refuges almost every week.
Before I share my tips for seeing more wildlife, let’s cover a few credentials. My friends constantly tease me about my wildlife photos, speculating on how I get so close to creatures large and small. I’m not a professional photographer, wildlife ecologist, zoologist or “ologist” of any kind. I do, however, enjoy studying wildlife and pride myself on making connections with park and refuge experts who help quench my thirst for more knowledge and understanding. So, let’s get started.
Rainy days and Mondays
I’d cancel a luncheon with Aaron Rodgers or the Pope if it rained out the day before. I see a lot more wildlife, especially during forest hikes, when the leaves and canopy floor are soggy from rainwater. It makes sense – my footsteps are quieter which allows me to sneak up on birds and animals that don’t hear me approaching. In addition, some wildlife hunker down during rainstorms and then become very active the following day.
Weekdays are my best days for seeing wildlife, for one simple reason: fewer people. I realize that this strategy may not suit your lifestyle and schedule but, if it does, avoid weekends. In general, I do like meeting people, just not when I’m hiking. And not surprisingly, dusk and dawn are great times of day, for early risers.
Mobile duck blind
In addition to hiking in wildlife refuges, I also drive through them, since many maintain networks of unpaved roads meandering between ponds and fields. And when we’re visiting national parks, we hike during the daytime and often finish our day with an evening drive to look for animals. So, why is this important? Your vehicle acts like a mobile duck and wildlife blind, especially for birds. Most wildlife are used to hearing and seeing vehicles; it’s humans they’re more concerned about. And a note of caution: when you spot a bird or animal, getting out of your vehicle will often result in instant flight.
Several of my favorite wildlife photos have been captured from my SUV. In addition, I drive with the windows down, which increases the chances that I’ll hear wildlife before I see them, especially hawks and songbirds. I learned these vehicle tips from refuge staff.
Rangers and websites
Websites, especially those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which manages our national wildlife refuges), contain good info about viewing plants, birds and animals. I’ve planned many hikes and adventures based upon their “seasons of wildlife” pages that highlight what you might see throughout the year.
In addition, I always stop at the visitor center to talk with a ranger, naturalist or wildlife officer. Ask about recent wildlife sightings. On occasion, however, I find that park and refuge staff are sometimes reluctant to share specifics on locations. And for good reasons. Many tourists hassle animals and disrespect the landscape, which ruins it for the rest of us. When I stop to chat with staff, I make sure they get a sense of how respectful I am towards nature – I want them to trust me with their insight. In one instance, a ranger asked for my cell number and said he’d call me with any interesting wildlife updates. And he did!
Patience is a virtue
Not my best virtue, but patience produces wildlife. I’ve encountered a lot of birds and mammals when I paused, sat on a stump, listened and surveyed the trees and meadows. Many times, a movement or sound will reveal an animal’s location. For example, while hiking at Cape Romain National Wildlife in South Carolina, I stopped along the beach and rested on a piece of driftwood. After several minutes with just my thoughts, I heard a large swoosh of air behind me, turned and faced the osprey pictured here in this article. She stayed briefly, just long enough for me to snap a few photos while my goosebumps exploded.
Mouse or moose?
Everybody wants to see a bear, moose or Sasquatch. I get it – big creatures are cool. But you’ll miss out on other wildlife that, in my opinion, are even more interesting. The pika may be one of the most fascinating animals we’ve encountered. Also referred to as the “rock rabbit,” pikas can be heard squeaking and singing in rocky alpine areas. After hearing one while hiking in Canada’s Yoho National Park, my wife and I camped out on a boulder and just listened and watched for 20 minutes. Several pikas scampered closer and closer to us until I snapped the photo included here.
We also love looking for butterflies and birds. Of course, we enjoy spotting an elk or pronghorn, but many of the smaller creatures exude just as much majesty.
In closing, consider taking binoculars for wildlife viewing. We recently upgraded to a Nikon Monarch 5 binocular and the image clarity is markedly better. Viewing wildlife is special. But seeing the color of their eyes is spectacular. Good luck and keep your distance.