Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

An Afternoon Kayaking in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

We arrived at our arranged meeting point promptly before 3 at the Walgreens parking lot in Kill Devil Hills, a sprawling seaside town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A tall young man, barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, greeted us with a smile and introduced himself as Brett, our tour guide from Coastal Kayak Tours.

Brett would be taking our family of four to kayak in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an area of over 152,000 acres of protected and preserved wetland habitat that is home to black bears, red wolves, snakes, birds, and American alligators. He advised our group to use the facilities and buy any water at Walgreens before we headed out in the 12-passenger van to the refuge. It would be around a 35 minute drive over two bridges and an island, to reach the refuge and once there we would only have access to a Porta Potty.

Grinning ear to ear as he told us to climb inside the van, I could tell that Brett was going to be an excellent guide. Originally from Ohio, this was Brett’s first summer spent working as an adventure tour guide in the Outer Banks with Coastal Kayak Tours. The Alligator River Tour was one of his favorites and the weather was perfect for a late fall day. Bright blue sky, no wind and temperatures in the 80s. We couldn’t have asked for a more picture perfect day.

As we headed east towards Roanoke Island, Brett told us a bit about the history of the area as well as the wildlife refuge. Unbeknownst to me, the first group of English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, three decades before the Pilgrims arrived in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA. The mysterious, unexplained disappearance of these settlers gave the name “The Lost Colony” to this area which later became called Manteo. I was amazed to have never known this important historical fact.

As we continued east along Highway 64 past Manteo and onto the mainland, the windows were rolled down and the music on. I watched the beautiful landscape out the passenger seat of the van, the place I always prefer to sit so I can get the scoop on my surroundings from the driver.

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is located on the eastern shore of North Carolina. It is bordered on the west by the Alligator River and the Intracoastal Waterway, which is crossed by the 2.8 mile Lindsay C. Warren bridge; on the north by Albemarle Sound; on the east by Croatan and Pamlico Sounds; and on the south by Long Shoal River and corporate farmland. Map used with permission from VisitOB.com.

Nestled by the Alligator River in the west and the Intracoastal Waterway in east of North Carolina, lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1984 to protect the unique wetland habitat that runs roughly 28 miles from north-south and 15 miles from east-west along North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. There are many diverse types of habitats in the refuge however the most dominant habitat is known as “pocosin”, a name given by the Algonquin Indians meaning “swamp on a hill”.

In addition to pocosin habitats, there are also pine and cypress-gum forests, fresh and brackish water marches, swamps, bogs, rivers and lakes as well as farmland. The refuge is home to the densest population of black bears in the eastern United States and also has the world’s only population of red wolves. If we were lucky, perhaps we would see some wildlife.

We arrived at a long gravel road that brought us to the entrance of the refuge. A few bumpy minutes later, we pulled alongside one of the many creeks in the refuge and unloaded the kayaks. We had both single and double kayaks, and all in all our group of nine were on six. I had my son with me and my husband brought my daughter. I figured I’d sit up front so I could take lots of pictures and let my son do the arm work when I needed a break (silly me, I forgot he is only 12 yet he already towers over me in height).

Slowly, we drifted into the dark murky waters of the creek and paddled out to a larger, open waters of Mill Tail Creek which feeds into the Alligator River. All I could hear was the splashing as our paddles hit the water and the cry of the birds.

Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

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Tenorio Volcano National Park/Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica

Exploring the Rio Celeste at Tenorio Volcano National Park

We met out guide Wilson early in the morning at our hotel and were on our way to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Although the park is only about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, the Rio Celeste Hideaway, we drove and in the end it was a good decision due to the high heat and humidity that day.  It was overcast and had just rained that morning leaving a thick humid mist to the air and lots of mud.

Wilson recommended we pay the $4 to rent a pair of mid-length plastic mud boots and despite the discomfort it ended up being an excellent decision. The trails were slick in fresh, thick mud and my new hiking shoes would have been ruined had I worn them. The only downside was the boots were too big, a bit cumbersome and needed knee-high socks to avoid rubbing. I clumsily walked last in line during our three hour hike but at least I saved my shoes.

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Tenorio Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio) was created in 1995 and encompasses over 18,400 hectares of rainforest and cloud forest as well as the Tenorio Volcano itself. Although the volcano is no longer active, there is still a large amount of volcanic activity present. There are hot springs and bubbling water within the river where the volcanic gases are released way below the ground.

The prize possession of the Tenorio Volcano National Park is the Rio Celeste “Blue River” that meanders through the jungle. As you hike along the trail, you can visit a spectacular waterfall as well as see where two rivers converge to create the celestial blue Rio Celeste, a natural phenomenon.

As we entered the park, the first thing Wilson pointed out was the green walking trees which are endemic in this park. They can live in water because it passes through them and a special sap drops off the ends for animals and birds to eat. Although they don’t actually walk the trees do move a small amount each year.

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Bear Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Best Hikes in Tucson: Bear Canyon’s Hike to Seven Falls

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

Nestled within the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona lies Sabino Canyon, one of Tucson’s most popular parks for exploring the spectacular desert landscape and wildlife of Southern Arizona. Ever since my parents moved to Tucson in the mid-90s, it has been like a second home to me and Sabino Canyon has been my playground. Less than a five minute drive from my parents’ home, Sabino Canyon affords an endless supply of hikes and walks within some of Arizona’s finest scenery.

The formation of the Santa Catalina Mountains began over 12 million years ago during a period of massive transition and upheaval. Over time, two magnificent canyons were formed, Sabino and Bear Canyon, that would eventually become the lush, verdant desert oasis we see today.

A massive earthquake in 1887 centered in Northern Mexico caused even more change to the area. Enormous boulders dislodged and crashed down thousands of miles below creating an even more dramatic landscape.  In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created and took over the administration of Sabino Canyon. Nothing much happened to the area until the 1930s. The onset of the Great Depression prompted the US Government to put people to work by building infrastructure and one of the places that benefited was Sabino Canyon. The Sabino Dam as well as over nine bridges were built during this time, creating a 4.5 mile paved road up through the canyon.  Plans had been made to continue the road all the way up the canyon to Mount Lemmon but fortunately they ran out of money and the project was dropped.  Had the road been built, the entire beauty of Sabino Canyon would have been destroyed and lost.

Sabino Canyon officially opened as a State Park and recreational area in 1978.  Today, it ranks as one of the top tourist destinations in all of Tucson and is a haven for hikers, walkers, bikers and anyone else who wants to enjoy its raw beauty. Although Sabino Canyon is the largest of the two canyons and offers the most hikes, neighboring Bear Canyon is equally as beautiful and also delights the visitor with spectacular views and hikes.

The most popular hike in Bear Canyon is to Seven Falls. The Hike takes about 3-4 hours depending on pace and number of breaks for photos or lunch. It has been a favorite hike of my family’s for years and I have done it at least a dozen times. When we go, we prefer to leave shortly after ten o’clock so we can arrive at the falls in time for a lovely picnic lunch and also avoid the massive crowds which can become overwhelming during spring break and on weekends.

Bear Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

After leaving the Visitor Center, you can follow the trail to Bear Canyon through the desert. There are lots of birds and all kinds of cacti. If you go in the spring, the cactus are in full bloom which is an additional treat.

There are two ways to get to the Seven Falls Trailhead. You can either take a short tram ride to Bear Canyon or walk the two miles on foot. We always choose to walk but it adds about 35-45 minutes on to the hike. I personally enjoy the extra time, especially when we walk through the desert trail and avoid the paved road.

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Torrey Pines Reserve California

A Return to Torrey Pines

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow them”. – Louisa May Alcott

Sometimes you find places in the world that are truly special. That is how I feel about Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. During a visit last April, I immediately fell in love with its dramatic windswept ocean views from the jagged cliffs covered in its namesake, Torrey Pines. I swore if I lived in San Diego that I’d be a frequent visitor to this magical place. Little did I know I’d be back visiting San Diego so soon.

Over the Christmas holiday in Arizona, we decided to do another road trip to San Diego from my parents home in Tucson. My husband, a devoted college football fan bought us tickets to the Holiday Bowl where we would see our alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Badgers, defeat California’s beloved USC 23 to 21 in an exciting, action-packed game. Besides the game, we would have a little time to revisit some of our favorite places in San Diego.

After a six-hour car ride, we didn’t have much time to spare for our visit to Torrey Pines. We only had about an hour and a half until sunset. Yet, it was so stunningly beautiful that we had to do a short hike down from the top of coastal bluffs to the beach. The lighting wasn’t the best for taking photos but of course I couldn’t resist. I was amazed by how different the rocks looked at this time of day and how much the color changed with the setting of the sun.

Torrey Pines Reserve California

A father and son shot before we head out on our hike.

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Badlands National Park South Dakota

The Badlands at dusk

“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous”. – Aristotle

There are few things in life as spectacular as a sunset. Sunset tends to be my favorite time of day, as the light casts shadows and rays of brilliant, ever-changing colors across the horizon. It is hard to decide whether I prefer watching the sunset over water or land. Each has it own set of attributes and wonder.

The last day of our summer vacation to South Dakota was rewarded with a magical sunset over the Badlands. The utter, surreal beauty of this vast land of jagged buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires seemed to come to life as the sun set. Although it only lasted a short while, it was by far the highlight of our week-long trip.

Badlands National Park South Dakota

We left our hotel shortly after dinner and drove into the deserted Badlands National Park. Most of the day tourists had come and gone and we had the entire place to ourselves. It had cooled down to a delightful temperature, much more conducive to hiking than during the hot, shadeless afternoon scorch of July heat. Our only obstacle was time. We only would have an hour to hike until it was completely dark.

The views were astounding and the rock formations became even more colorful as the sun dipped further below the horizon. The deep maroon-hued rings of sediment became even more dramatic with sunset. During the daytime, you can hardly see them but at night the rocks looked like candy cane stripes.

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Top Five Things to Do in San Diego with Kids

This year for our kid’s spring break, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of spending our entire vacation in Tucson with my parents, we split our vacation in half and spent four days in San Diego and the remainder of the week in Tucson. We had never been to San Diego before and had heard it was a great place to visit with kids. We booked our ticket to fly from Minneapolis to San Diego and return from Tucson, Arizona. Given the high price of airline tickets, it really wasn’t that much different and would save us driving time.

I had high expectations for San Diego and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. It is a fabulous city with tons to do, beautiful weather, excellent outdoor dining and enough sunshine and ocean air to make anyone smile, even a grumpy kid. What I loved so much about San Diego is its ease for pleasing everyone and its endless amount of things to do outside. By carefully planning a trip that involved a little bit for everyone, we all had a fabulous, memorable time.

When traveling with kids, it is easy to fall into the trap of doing everything that is kid-focussed and kid-friendly. But after you read this post, you will see that you can easily find enough fun for all ages making San Diego the perfect place for a family vacation.

Here is my top five list of what to do in San Diego with Kids:

An evening in La Jolla

La Jolla is magical, simply serene in its beauty and tranquility. And, what can be better than seeing all the mama and baby seals in the wild? The kids loved this place as did I. We meandered along the boardwalk taking in the gorgeous views, watched the seals and their pups and then finished with a spectacular Italian meal on an outside patio near the beach. In my book, it was the perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon.

A day exploring the San Diego Zoo

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