Superior Hiking Trail: Hike to Leveaux Mountain

After decades of visiting and hiking in the North Shore, it is hard to believe that I had never done the classic 3.2 mile roundtrip hike to the top of Leveaux Mountain. Located adjacent to the more popular trail up Oberg Mountain in Tofte, Minnesota, the Leveaux hike affords a more challenging jaunt up one of Minnesota’s sawtooth mountains, a small range of low mountains that extend 30 miles from Carlton Peak in Tofte, Minnesota, just short of the Canadian border, to Grand Marais.

The Sawtooth Mountains rise gradually from Lake Superior and have a steep, sharp drop-off on the north face giving their profile the look of a saw hence their name. They are part of the Superior National Forest and Superior Hiking Trail and are home to many gorgeous hikes with incredible views of Lake Superior and the surrounding boreal forest of spruce, birth and fir. For those unfamiliar with Minnesota, the Superior Hiking Trail has been rated among one of the best long distance hiking trails in the country by Outside Magazine. Thankfully there are plenty of day hikes and spur hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail affording a multitude of options for day hikers and those with young kids.

The Leveaux trailhead starts at the end of the parking lot about 2 miles off of Highway 61 (mile marker 87.4) on Onion River Road near Tofte, Minnesota. The parking lot is used for both the Oberg and Leveaux Mountain trails. I had been to this parking lot many times as the Oberg Mountain hike is one of our all time family favorites but surprisingly had never bothered to check out the Leveaux trail. Shorter than the hike up Leveaux at roughly 2.6 miles, the Oberg trail is an awesome hike for all ages and abilities. In less than an hour roundtrip, you can get up on top of Oberg and see a technicolor of fall colors if you time it right. I have probably done the Oberg hike at least a half a dozen times. This time my dad and I wanted something different so we chose the less popular Leveaux.

As we set off through the thick forest, we did not see a soul and had the entire hike to ourselves except for one lonely hiker. It was a far cry from the crowds of hikers we saw just the day before at the Temperance River Park and judging by the parking lot at the trailhead, over 90% of the hikers in the other cars were doing the Oberg trail. The first mile of the trail is through thick boreal forest of spruce, pine and fir trees and then you start the climb up to the first and second scenic loops into the maple trees. The first loop is a little longer and then you reach the shorter second loop, where you are rewarded with stunning views of Lake Superior as well as the forest below.

Adventure Travel Minnesota North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States
Temperance River State Park

Superior Hiking Trail: Temperance River to Carlton Peak

Growing up in Minnesota is a treasure. With over 10,000 lakes, numerous state parks and hundreds of miles of hiking trails, there are plenty of places to refuel, find beauty and get outdoors. One of my favorite places to get outside in Minnesota is the North Shore of Lake Superior.  Home to the 310 mile long Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and one of the launching off points for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the North Shore is blessed with hundreds of miles of hiking trails cutting through pristine boreal forests, untouched lakes, rugged shoreline and places so remote you won’t see a soul. I have been fortunate to have visited the North Shore ever since I was a small child and it is among these very trails that I fell in love with hiking and being outdoors.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the North Shore with my two kids and parents who were visiting from Arizona. Going “up north” as we Minnesotans love to call it, is a rite of passage for my family and the tradition began as soon as I could walk. My dad used to carry me on his back along the many hiking trails up north and one of our all time favorites for years has been the seven mile hike to Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point. We actually did that last summer for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary and brought along three generations of hikers – my dad, me and the grandchildren. It was wonderful!

This time I desperately wanted to find something new to do and after an unsuccessful stop at the Ranger Station in Tofte, I realized that I knew more than the young ranger did about the hiking in this part of the state. I had done them all many times. It wasn’t until I purchased a local hiking guide called Hiking the North Shore: 50 fabulous day hikes in Minnesota’s spectacular Lake Superior region by Andrew Slade, that I discovered a few new ones I didn’t know about before. With only two full days, we had to pick and choose which hikes to do, and the first day we decided to revisit the Temperance River State Park and hike 6 miles roundtrip from the Temperance River gorge trail to the top of Carlton Peak. I was elated to have a new hike to do.

The Temperance River State Park is one of many state parks along the North Shore of Minnesota and is located near Tofte off of Highway 61 (near mile market 80.3). The park encompasses over 5,000 acres of rugged beauty with 6 miles of hiking trails as well as a spur trail to the Superior Hiking Trail. The park is most renown for its namesake, the mighty Temperance River which is the longest river on the North Shore stretching over 38 miles to its terminus in Lake Superior. What makes this park and hiking there so magical is its winding systems of dramatic gorges, waterfalls and potholes, all carved out over millions of years ago by the incredible force of the water. If you hike downstream, you can see where the Temperance River dumps into the mouth of Lake Superior and if you head upstream, you will be spellbound by its incredible gorges, some dropping hundreds of feet below.

Map of Superior Hiking Trail. Photo credit: Superior Hiking Trail.org

The most common hike in the park is the 2.6 mile loop that curves around both sides of the river and takes between 1-2 hours. It is relatively easy however be mindful if you are bringing young children as there are no fences near the steep edges along the gorge. While the view is very impressive, it is a long dangerous way down! There are a few fascinating placards along the way telling visitors about the history of how the gorges were created over 12,000 years ago at the end of the Great Ice Age. You can also view the remains of an ancient lava flow and where a roaring waterfall used to exist.

Adventure Travel Minnesota North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking
Stockton Island , The Apostle Islands

A Weekend Sailing in the Apostle Islands

I have always dreamed of exploring the Apostle Islands. Located off the shore of the Bayfield Peninsula in Northern Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands are an archipelago of 22 islands each unique and varied formed by ice, wind and waves over millions of years in the heart of Lake Superior. Known for their wild beauty, historic lighthouses, diverse wildlife, boreal forests, wind-blown beaches and stunning sea caves, the Apostle Islands offer endless choices for exploration either by boat, ferry, kayak and once ashore, on foot.

My first visit to the Apostle Islands was 2 years ago with my husband on a weekend trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin. During our visit, we only caught a tiny glimpse of the mysterious Apostle Islands while we took the ferry to Madeline Island, the largest and only inhabited island of the group and not an official part of the 69,372 acre Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It was that visit that sparked my fascination with the Apostle Islands and my longing to see them by sailboat.

Last year, our neighbors bought a 42-foot sailboat that they keep in Bayfield and they make the trip to the Apostle Islands every weekend in the summer and early fall. We had been invited a few times before but the timing never seemed to work out for us until last weekend. On a whim, my daughter Sophia and I accepted their generous invitation to spend the weekend sailing with them and their two children. I was overjoyed.

Apostle Islands WI

The shore of Madeline Island. Photo taken during August 2016 trip.

Arrival at the Port Superior Marina

We left on Friday afternoon and arrived at the Port Superior Marina just before the sun began to set. Since it was too late to set sail, we spent the first night at the marina and set off for our first island early the next morning. For all my years growing up in Minnesota and near water, I had never slept on a sailboat before nor truly sailed. Ironically, I even spent two summers working at a yacht club on a large Minnesota lake yet never learned to sail. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect and whether my fast-paced type A personality would be able to handle slowing down and just being still. Would I get restless being on a boat? Would I enjoy it? Would I get motion sickness?  These were the questions that circled my head as we loaded our duffel bags and groceries into the sailboat cabin.  Surprisingly, I was in for an entirely new experience which wound up being much different from what I had imagined and I absolutely loved my time at sail.

North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION United States Wisconsin
Street Art Minneapolis

My Epic Guide to Exploring Street Art in South Minneapolis

Despite living in Minneapolis for decades, I’m embarrassed to admit that I know little about my own city outside of my home and life in Southwest Minneapolis. Blame it on years of raising a family or perhaps just my own tendency to stay where things are familiar and comfortable. But I found it ironic that as a world traveler and explorer at heart, I know little the dynamic culture and art in my very own backyard. Just last November, I spent three full days in Valparaiso, Chile exploring its vibrant street art scene. So why not do the same justice in my own home town?

Minneapolis is a huge, diverse city with many different neighborhoods and cultures. Although highly Scandinavian in heritage (there are too many “sons’ to name – Anderson, Johnson, Olson, etc), today Minnesota can boast being home to over 400,000 immigrants from around the world. In fact, per the City of Minneapolis’ most recent census the ten largest groups of foreign-born residents in Minnesota are (in descending order): Mexico, India, Laos, Somalia, Vietnam, China, Thailand (including Hmong), Ethiopia, Korea, and Canada. Believe it or not, Minneapolis has the largest Somali population outside of Somalia.

Given such a cultural melting pot, it is no wonder that Minneapolis has some of the richest street art and murals in the upper Midwest. During a recent self-made tour of South and Southwest Minneapolis, I discovered hundreds of colorful, impressive street art painted across the walls, buildings and garages of the city. I was so incredibly inspired and awe-struck by the incredible art I saw that a newfound love and devotion to my city began.

I have ignored you for too long, Minneapolis. It is now time that I start to share with the world your beauty, richness and culture. Better yet, I too will learn along the way.

The idea for this series on street art began when I decided to look out the car window and notice what I saw. I began to see that there was street art in many unexpected places and there was a lot of it. I did some research on the internet and found that there are not many up to date posts or articles about Minneapolis’ vibrant street art scene. I jotted down a few addresses that I found from the City of Minneapolis’ interactive street art guide (The Public “ Art Map”) but found that a lot of the art had changed.

So I decided to make my own street art guide, neighborhood by neighborhood, starting with what I know best: South and Southwest Minneapolis. Over time, I hope to hit North, Northeast and other parts of the city to complete the guide and even go across the river to neighboring St. Paul to see what kind of street art is over there. In this one sweep, I found over 80 murals so I had to cut it down to my personal favorites. Please feel free to add any locations of your favorites in the comments. I also had a hard time tracking down the artists of each work. Perhaps that will be a project for the next post.

Without further ado, here is my Epic Guide to exploring street art in South Minneapolis. Enjoy

Street Art Guide Part 1

Starting point:  Lyndale and 38th Street

Mode of transportation: Drive, bike or walk. The complete route covers over 4 miles on mostly urban streets so driving is easiest. However if you do chose to bike (Minneapolis is a very bike-friendly city) be aware that these are very busy streets without dedicated bike lanes. If you want to bike along biker-friendly streets running parallel check out this site for a safer, more pleasant route. If you drive, street parking is very easy and I simply pulled over at each work of art. Finally, Minneapolis is a great walking city and I always love to explore a place on foot. Just don’t do it in the dead of winter! You’ll be very cold!

To complete this portion below, the total distance is: Around 2.5 miles

Time to drive: approximately 10 minutes without stops.

Time to bike: approximately 12 minutes without stops.

Time to walk: approximately 45 minutes depending on speed.

Starting at Lyndale Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare that cuts through the city, head north towards uptown.

CULTURE Minnesota United States

The Five Best Family Hikes Along Minnesota’s North Shore

Less than four hours away from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, lay hundreds of opportunities to explore pure and relatively untouched nature. Extending for 150 miles along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior from Duluth to Canada, the North Shore is a place of unspoiled beauty and pristine nature. Home to a multitude of scenic waterfalls, rivers, state parks and the 310-mile long Superior Hiking Trail, it is a hikers paradise and offers a treasure trove of opportunities to explore wild, relatively untouched nature.

The North Shore has been a special place all my life. Every fall since I was a baby, my parents would pack up our old station wagon and do the drive north to spend a weekend enjoying the splendid fall colors and hiking the wonderful trails. This tradition started before I could walk and ended when I left for college at the age of 18. Fast forward several years, the North Shore has once again become a place I visit often with my own family and our family hikes have continued.

For the past four years, we have been visiting with my children and have discovered the very best hikes that the entire family will enjoy.   This list of my top five favorites is a great start to creating family memories of your own. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.

 

Map of North Shore

Photo credit: NorthShoreVisitor.com.  

 

1. Gooseberry Falls

Description: Gooseberry Falls is a beautiful hike along the Gooseberry River which affords stunning views of waterfalls and lovely forest. There is a nice easy hike along the falls for all abilities and more moderate hiking if you prefer to go further. It can be slippery when wet.

Location: 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors along highway 61

Length of Hike: About five miles roundtrip (however entire park has around 18 miles of trails if you want to go further).

Highlights: The best part of this hike is exploring the cascading waterfalls and stopping to enjoy the fascinating roots of the tree trunks and forest flowers along the trail. It is a nice place to also bring along a picnic.

Tip: The trail alongside Gooseberry Falls is relatively easy and somewhat kid-friendly given the steps (but remember no guard rails or safety fences!). If you want to really explore this fabulous park, there are footpaths for miles on end on the other side following the river upstream.

Adventure Travel Minnesota North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States
Vail Resort

Travel Guide: How to Make the First Family Ski Trip to Colorado a Success

This year we decided to try something new for our family spring break. Instead of flying south to the sun, sand and beach that most Minnesotans crave by this time of year, we opted to head west for our first family ski trip to Colorado.

Growing up in Minnesota, Colorado has always been a popular place for spring break given its proximity, variety of terrain, cheap flight options and the ability to even gut it out and do the drive (you can make it in around 15-16 hours). As an avid skier, I made the drive to Colorado at least a half a dozen times over the years and most recently have enjoyed the short two hour non-stop flights from Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport (MSP) to Denver. The launch of more no-frills airlines into MSP such as Sun Country, Frontier, and no-frills Spirit Airlines have put pressure on hub-based Delta to keep prices down. All that means Colorado is very accessible yet a family ski vacation is not cheap. Adding on car rental, lift tickets, lodging, food, gear (if you have to rent it) and ski lessons (if necessary) can make a family ski trip to Colorado a very expensive one.

I confess to being a bit reluctant about the notion of skiing in April given our notoriously long, cold winter in Minnesota. However spring skiing in Colorado proved to be an extremely fun, memorable family vacation and although we weren’t wearing our swim suits on the beach the weather in Colorado was equally delightful with baby blue skies, bright, warm sun and fresh mountain air kissing our face. In fact, we had so much fun that we agreed to do it all again next year.

So how did we ensure that our first big ski trip to Colorado would be a success? With careful planning, research and a bit of luck.

Here are my top 6 tips on how to have a fabulous, memorable family ski trip without busting the bank. 

All smiles for a family shot at Mid Vail

Adventure Travel Colorado Skiing TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION United States
You can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance

A Weekend Skiing the Arizona Snowbowl

“You can ski in Arizona?” asked a friend confused. “How on earth can you ski in a desert”? Until a few years ago, I would have also been equally in disbelief that it is actually possible to not only ski but ski real mountains in the state of Arizona. Little did I know, the college town of Flagstaff, Arizona, located about two and a half hours north of Phoenix, is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, Arizona’s best skiing.

As an avid skier, I confess to believing that there was no way that the Arizona Snowbowl could possibly compare to the skiing in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana or Utah, all places I’ve skied over the years. Yet after a long weekend skiing the Arizona Snowbowl with my father and two children, I realized that the skiing is actually pretty darn good and worth the trip. If you live in Phoenix and want a taste of the snow and mountains, then even better!

Flagstaff, Arizona

The Arizona Snowbowl is located in Flagstaff, Arizona about 2 1/2 hours north of Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

With an average of over 240 inches of annual snowfall and normally beautiful sunny blue skies, the Arizona Snowbowl has the longest ski season in Arizona as well as the largest beginner terrain in the Southwest. It is a great place to go with kids as there are plenty of nice long cruiser runs, a good ski school and it is very family-friendly. For those who want more challenge, you can take the Agassiz lift up to the top at 11,500 feet and climb up to the Upper Bowl where there are plenty of double black diamonds to take your breathe away. For moderate skiers, there are some nice blues and blacks where you can fly down at breakneck speed and feel the thrill of spring skiing in February. Best of all, are the incredible views on top where you can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance.

Flagstaff, Arizona

View of the sunrise over the mountains from our hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

So why on earth did we travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to ski in Flagstaff, Arizona over President’s Day Weekend? Simple. My parents live in Tucson and Flagstaff offered the perfect meeting place for us to do a three-generational ski weekend. We had tried Utah, New Mexico and Colorado before so we decided why not try something entirely new. Plus it is free to ski for those over 70 so my dad was pleased to ski for free.

Adventure Travel Arizona Family Travel Skiing TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION United States
El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

A Beautiful Morning at El Matador Beach in Malibu

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” – Richard Bach

After spending three glorious days in San Diego, it was time for us to head up the coast and check out LA. I haven’t been to LA in years and thought it would be good place for our children to experience. Unfortunately our timing couldn’t have been worse as it was New Year’s Eve weekend meaning everyone was off enjoying all the sights and beaches. Traffic was horrendous, the crowds at Santa Monica Pier and Beach were insane and even our excursion to the stunning Griffith Observatory ended up being stressful due to the swarming crowds and congestion.

After the relaxing, serendipitous past few days watching sunsets and playing on the wide open beaches in San Diego, LA felt like a madhouse for the kids. They were both cranky and miserable, seeming to take after their mother in not liking crowds. Everything we did ended up being filled with complaints and irritation but I guess I couldn’t blame my children. As a LA rookie, I had no idea that traffic could be so bad and that the city was so spread out. It took hours to cut across and there was nothing worse than sitting in wall to wall traffic when one of the kids was hungry, grouchy or had to use the bathroom.

It took two days to realize that we would need to come up with a better system for navigating the city and also find a little bit of peace and solitude for me and the kids. That meant finding a beautiful, relatively uncrowded area where we could relax but did not take hours to reach. At first, I thought I was dreaming that we could truly find such a place but after a little research on Google maps, I realized that our hotel in Agoura Hills was not far from several amazing State Parks. In fact, the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach in northern Malibu was only about a twenty-five minute drive away without traffic. We were in luck!

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set off early to explore El Matador Beach, one of three separate but distinct beaches that make up the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. Our drive took us through the winding, lush valley which ended at Pacific Highway 1 along the coast.

We arrived at the small parking lot atop the bluffs of El Matador State Park a little past ten o’clock and gratefully got one of the handful of parking spots in the tiny lot. At first sight, I knew we were in for a very special morning. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm and bright and best of all, the tide was rolling in. Soon it would be low tide and we would get the added bonus of seeing El Matador’s tide pools!

El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

What a place for a picnic!

California Family Travel TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION United States
Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Why I’ll Always Love Torrey Pines

“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go”.-  Alexandra Stoddard

There are some places in the world that seem to cast a spell on you, and always drive you back. For me, one of those places is Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego. Every time we visit San Diego, I feel an incessant pull towards visiting the park on the first night we arrive so I can watch the sunset across the beach. I am never disappointed and I am always mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this magical place.

Located along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar, the 2,000- acre Torrey Pines Reserve affords one of the wildest stretches of land along the Southern California coast. Named after the nation’s rare pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, this beautiful wilderness area offers several hikes affording spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and craggy cliffs leading down to a vast, unspoiled beach. It has been a favorite of mine ever since we first visited San Diego for Spring Break in 2015.

Since I am somewhat of a fanatic about sunset, we always try to plan our visits to Torrey Pines at least two hours before sunset so we can first do a hike in the park and then play on the beach before watching the sunset unfold. There are two places you can park your car depending on how long of a hike you want to take. If you want the shorter option (which is great with kids), you can drive your car all the way up to the top of the bluffs and park near the visitor center. The only downside is that someone has to hike back up to get the car at sunset. If you want a longer hike, you can park your car at the beachside parking lot or even out on the street for free. From the beachfront, you can walk up the long, winding road to the top of the bluffs and then hike down to the beach.

This time we unfortunately arrived a little too late to do the hike and only had time to play on the beach. I forgot that the sun sets very early in the winter and the park closes at sunset (which tends to be a little after 5 pm in December).  However, as soon as I saw the sky my disappointment disappeared. We were in for a special treat. The clouds, the sun and the light beams aligned. We could have had fog or no sunset at all. How lucky we were to have such good luck!

As the kids walked along the beach, playing in the water I snapped away at the changing light. Soon I realized my daughter was the perfect subject to capture the serenity of the place. Where earth meets sky, waves strike land and the smell of salt water satiates your soul.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

I watched my daughter walk along the shore and was engulfed in this moment of time and beauty. At eleven, she is still a girl but it won’t be long until she become a young lady. If only I could bottle up her innocence!

California Family Travel TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION
Sand Beach, NC

The Fight to Save the Wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs of Corolla

“All Good Things are Wild and Free”. – Henry David Thoreau

There are some things in life that are truly miraculous. Before going to the Outer Banks, a 130-mile strip of barrier islands running off the coast of North Carolina, I had no idea that a herd of Wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs called the northernmost part of Currituck Outer Banks their home. The story of how they came to this unique part of the country and their survival for over 500 years is nothing short of a miracle. However, as I would soon learn the future survival of these amazing creatures is in peril.

We left our rented vacation home in Duck for the short drive north on Highway 12 to the neighboring town of Corolla where we would begin our tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours. After signing in at the friendly front desk we met our guide, Tom Baker, a Virginia Beach native who has lived in the area for decades and goes by the suitable nickname “The Outlaw”. We boarded the open air, custom-designed 13-passenger Hummer H1 and followed Highway 12 to where the pavement ends at North Beach. The remainder of the drive would be on the beach.

I sat upfront next to “The Outlaw”, taking notes and asking him tons of questions about the history of the Corolla Wild Horses. Tom, a man in his sixties by my estimation, had grown up in Virginia Beach and spent his teenage years driving down the vast open, uninhabited stretches of shoreline to go surfing with his friends. He recalled with sadness the immense isolation and remoteness of what was once a landscape filled with sand dunes, trees and thousands of wild horses roaming free. However, over time as more and more people discovered the beauty and miles of endless beaches of the Outer Banks, the surge in commercial and residential development caused the decline of the wild horse population which was once estimated at over 7,000 back in the 1930s.

The most significant change happened in 1985. Before then, the 17-mile stretch of road between Duck and Corolla was unpaved, untouched and infrequently travelled. This allowed the area to be the perfect sanctuary for the wild horses as it was one of the most remote, isolated and undeveloped areas in the country. Once this road was paved everything changed. The area became open to mass development and tourism and the wild horses were in constant danger, being struck and killed by cars and roaming around strip mall parking lots. Something had to be done or else all the wild horses would disappear.

Thankfully, It was decided that the wild horses would be relocated further north where they would be safe. They were rounded up by cowboys and moved to the North Beach area where Highway 12 ends and only a 4 x 4 “road” runs along the beach. With the help of The Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a South to Sea fence and sanctuary were established which includes roughly 7,544 acres of land heading 12 miles north to the Virginia border. The land is unique as it is one-third public and two-thirds private land, meaning the wild horses live alongside people. There is no other place where wild horses live in such close contact with humans but it is better than nothing. Tom said that this has helped the wild horses yet there are still many challenges ahead.

When we finally reached the end of Highway 12 and pulled into the entrance at North Beach, Tom beamed and said “Welcome to the door to my office“. I had never seen a highway on the beach before. It was quite bizarre. The speed limit is 15 mph and it is patrolled by a Sheriff who is ready to ticket any offenders. Tom said that there is one tow truck driver named Larry who has the rights to working the beach. At $200 a pop to tow out all the cars that get stuck in the ruts along the beach, he is apparently always in a good mood. I finally understood why we needed a hummer for the tour. We were going to be doing some serious off-roading and climbing sand dunes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Conservation/Environment Global Issues North Carolina SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION United States
Duck, Outer Banks

What to Do Off-Peak in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks, a 130 mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is perhaps best known for its endless beaches and luxurious vacation homes for rent for those craving a beach vacation in the heat of the summer. However, there are many other amazing things to do in the Outer Banks when you visit off peak and best of all, the hordes of crowds have long gone home.

My husband and I took our two children to the Outer Banks in the middle of October and it was a magical time to visit. First of all, I hate crowds so having stretches of beach all to ourselves was delightful. Second, I am not a person who likes to lay in the sun. If I’m on a beach, I need to be doing something active and it is just too darn hot in the summer to be very active. If we had visited in the high season of summer, we would have had an entirely different experience and perspective of the Outer Banks. October in the Outer Banks was magnificent!

We stayed in the quaint, less developed seaside town of Duck. After much research, we found a wonderful home to rent that was less than a five-minute walk to both the beach for sunrise and the Sound for sunset. Duck is more upscale than the other popular hyper-developed towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills which were developed long before Duck. Those towns felt like row after row of enormous vacation rental beach homes looking out at ugly strip malls and lacking character and charm. The only advantages I saw in staying there is you have close access to the beach and also many of the restaurants in Duck shut down for the season in October. We found ourselves doing at least a thirty minute drive to dinner each night but staying in Duck was worth it given its unique charm and character.

Duck, Outer Banks

Where else would you find an oversized red Adirondack Chair with a beautiful sunset like this all to yourself? Duck, Outer Banks

If you go off-season, here are some of the highlights of wonderful activities you can do.

Family Travel North Carolina TRAVEL TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY United States Weekly Photo Challenges
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

Adventure Travel Family Travel National Parks North Carolina TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION United States