Hiking into the Grand Canyon on Bright Angel Trail

With a day and half at the Grand Canyon we decided we had enough time to hike part of the way down into the canyon. We decided to take the most heavily traveled trail, the Bright Angel Trail. The entire trail descends 4,500 ft in 7.8 miles and leads hikers to the Colorado river. It is not advised to attempt to reach the river and hike back on the same day, so we walked for a few hours (2.5 miles) then turned around.

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View of Bright Angel Trail from above

Optimistically we began our descent. The trail zig zags down with beautiful views of the vast canyon the entire way. After a mile and a half, you’ll run into the first of four stops along the trail with restrooms (and water in the summer months). The bathrooms were nicer than I expected. While it was essentially a hole in the ground covered by a toilet, I didn’t need to fervently hold my breathe because of the smell. One downside is there wasn’t anywhere to wash hands in the winter so you might want to bring some hand sanitizer.

 

We decided to walk another 30 minutes before turning back, wanting to get back before dark. Unlike most hikes, the second half was the hard part. As inexperienced hikers, traveling back up the canyon was definitely difficult for us but there was never a steep climb and the trail is well maintained. Surprisingly the ascent looked completely different than the way down. Though our legs were angry and our breath was short we had no regrets in the 2.5 miles we trekked down.

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If you are planning to hike down into the Grand Canyon here are some things to note: Bring lots of water and salty foods. We thought we had plenty of water but found ourselves rationing it on the way back up. Also take plenty of breaks, something we probably should have done more of. The elevation at the Grand Canyon is 7,000 ft above sea level so it was very easy to be short of breath. Lastly, DO NOT attempt to hike to the river and back in one day. There are many warning signs posted but park officials have to assist over 600 hikers a year plus an additional 150 helicopter rescues.

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Hiking into the Grand Canyon was definitely a highlight of our visit. We hope to come back someday to do the entire trail and camp at the bottom!

An Evening in San Gimignano, Italy

After spending the afternoon in Siena, we made our way to San Gimignano for the evening. San Gimingnano was founded in ancient times, legend leads us to believe as early as 63 B.C.  Like Siena, San Gimignano is a walled city with paid parking lots just outside the city. There are signs for the four parking lots labeled P1 through P4, here is a guide to the prices and number of spaces in each lot. While the lots were fairly easy to find they were pretty full that evening so some searching was required to find a spot.

After parking we followed a path into the city until we came upon Chiesa Sant’Agostino, or the Church of Saint Augustine. This church houses the oldest fresco painting in San Gimignano. It was painted by the Italian painter Lippo Memmi before 1317 depicting the Virgin and the Child between archangel Michael and Kohn the Baptist.

From there we headed towards the Palazzo Communale, the mediecal municipal palace, right next to the Collegiate Church of San Gimingnano. If we had come earlier in the day we could have climbed the Belltower of San Gimingnano for views of the city but it was closing as we arrived. Our tired legs from climbing towers all over Italy, including two towers earlier that day in Siena were not extremely disappointed.  Instead we wandered into the courtyard of the Plazzo Communale, finding a picturesque well surrounded by paintings on the walls of the coats of arms of families who held public office.

From the courtyard we followed signs for a panoramic view leading us down some side streets and through a fairly creepy dark tunnel. At the end of the tunnel we came out onto a walkway with gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. We stayed a while snapping some photos and absorbing all we could of the views.

After enjoying the view we headed towards the Piazza della Cisterna, a plaza with a large wishing well in the center. That evening it was filled with people enjoying the beautiful weather. We stopped in the famous Gelateria Dondeli for our daily gelato fix. The creator, Sergio Dondeli, is a former gelato world champion (yes, apparently those competitions do exist), here they had a variety of more unusual flavors such as ricotta and blueberries, spicy cream and my new favorite blackberry-lavender. Although the flavors seemed strange, they were definitely delicious!

After our gelato we walked back to the car outside the city, taking in the sunset views as we went. We headed back for our last night in Montecatini and prepped for or trip to Cinque Terre!

A Day Trip to Cinque Terre, Italy by Car

For our last full day in Italy we needed to get from Montecatini to Milan to be ready to fly out the next morning. Adding a slight detour, we decided to stop in Cinque Terre along the way!

Cinque Terre in Italian translates to “Five Lands”, aptly named because it is comprised of five coastal villages. Driving ourselves posed a bit of a challenge since cars are not allowed in most areas of the villages but luckily we found free parking outside of Cinque Terre in the town of Groppo (white parking spaces are free, blue are paid and yellow are for residents only) a short hike from the village of Manarola. After a 20 minute hike we made it to Manarola, the second village from the south. Just inside the village, we stumbled upon San Lorenzo Church and a clock tower with views of the ocean.

After a little exploring we decided to take the trail towards Corniglia, the next village over, to get some views of Manarola from above. We didn’t have time to hike go all the way to Corniglia but we got some great views of the city and beautiful ocean views. We stopped next to a vineyard for a break and a snack.

After making our way back down the path, we window shopped in Manarola making our way to the waters edge. We had wanted to take the ferry between the villages but the waters were too rough that day so the boats were only running between the first and the last cities. Defeated we headed to the train station and ended up buying a Cinque Terre Card. This card allowed us to ride the train and the local buses all day. At 16 euros it would be paid for with how often we rode the train plus it gave us free access to the bathrooms and wifi at the train stations!

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Boarding the train we headed two villages over to Vernazza. Walking down the street we saw a rocky tunnel off to the side (surrounded by safety warnings) with people on the other side. Naturally our curiosity got the better of us and we went through the rock tunnel to find a “secret beach” on the other side. There were many people swimming in the water and basking in the sun!

After some window shopping we headed further down the street to the waters edge. After a few photos and taking in the gorgeous scenery we decided to splurge and have a seafood lunch with a view!

Our next stop was one city over in Monterosso, the northern most village in Cinque Terre. Monterosso is most known for its beaches and the free beaches by the train station were flooded with people. We walked along the shore until we came across the statue of the Giant. The Giant was built in 1910 and now is missing both his arms and a leg as a result of artillery fire in World War II. Turning back the other direction we walked along the shore until we passed through a tunnel to find a gelateria (and other shops) waiting for us on the other side. We settled in with a view of the sea while we enjoyed our final gelato of the trip.

After gelato we hopped back on the train back to Vernazza. We wanted to hike the trail between Vernazza and Monterosso for a view of Vernazza from above but didn’t do it earlier in the day as the sun was high in the sky. After about 10 minutes of walking we reached the postcard view of the city!

After our hike we decided to head back to Manarola for a quick dinner before leaving for the long drive to Milan. Before dinner I took a quick trip to the waterfront to for some last minute pictures. I found a path up the hill and decided to follow it. It led me to my favorite view on Manarola.

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For our last meal in Italy knew we had to have pizza, we ordered a few different kinds and shared them family style! After dinner we found a bus to take us back to our car in Groppo (included in our day train pass!). That saved us from a 30 minute hike up hill to our car before the long drive back to Milan for the night. While we only had time to visit three of the five villages on our day trip to Cinque Terre, we are so glad we went out of our way to get a glimpse of these gorgeous villages!

A Day Tour Around the Tuscan Countryside

Instead of trying to drive around the Tuscan countryside on our own, we opted to join an all day tour through Discover Tuscany. The tour picked us up in Montecatini, where we were staying, and we joined up with other picked up in Florence and Siena before making our way to our first stop the vineyard Abbadia Ardenga just outside Montalcino. While there we toured their storerooms and learned about the wine making process before having a tasting of four different categories of wine. We learned so much there that it deserved its own post!

Buzzed on wine, we made out way to the city of Montalcino. Montalcino is the highest city in Tuscany, with the Fortress of Montalcino being the highest point in the city. We walked through the cobblestone streets towards the fortress for a quick look around then spent the rest of our time enjoying the fantastic views!

Our next stop was the small town of Pienza. Known as the “ideal city of the Renaissance”, Pienza was the birthplace of Pope Prius II. The Pope had the money and influence to transform his hometown to exemplify the principles and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. Today, Pienza is known for its production of pecorino, a tasty cheese made from sheep’s milk. We wandered through the shops trying cheeses and buying sandwiches, visiting the Cathedral and taking in more gorgeous views of Tuscany.

The last city we stopped in was Montepulciano to visit Citta Sotteranea or the Underground City. The Underground City is a series of underground cellars and storerooms dating back to the 14th and 15th century. Their temperature naturally ranges from 13-16 degrees Celsius, or 55-60 degrees Fahranheit, year round making it the perfect place to age wine. Currently the cellars are used to age Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano, a locally produced wine, and various cheese products. In the taller chambers they made taller oak barrels to age the wines in each able to hold 4,000 liters of wine! After the tour we had a free tasting of so many local wines and foods that I couldn’t keep them all straight!

After the tour of Citta Sotterranea, we didn’t have time to climb to the top of the city to see the Duomo and other historic sites. Instead we explored the shops nearby and got our daily gelato before getting back on the bus to head home to Montecatini.

Overall the tour was a great way to explore Tuscany so none of us had to drive. After a rough start in our ride being 30 minutes late to pick us up, everything else on the tour went smoothly and our tour guide, Liza, was wonderful. Doing this all day tour allowed us to see parts of Tuscany that we may not have gotten the chance to, plus drink some delicious wine along the way!

Iceland Outside the Guidebooks

On our journey around Iceland’s Ring Road we had many destinations we wanted to stop at along our route. What we didn’t realize was that there would be so many more beautiful sites along our journey around Ring Road. Below are just a few of the hundreds of beautiful photos we have from Iceland that were not on our planned itinerary!

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Lava Fields near Reykjavik
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Between Reykjavik and Vik
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Between Reykjavik and Vik

 

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Seen driving from Vik to Hofn
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View of Vatnajokull
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Between Vik and Hofn
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Between Hofn and Egilsstadir
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Fossardulur: Between Hofn and Egilsstadir
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Between Egilsstadir and Dettifoss waterfall
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Between Egilsstadir and Dettifoss
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Near Akureyri

Iceland is a beautiful country with so much to see! The guidebooks are full of incredible places to visit, but don’t miss out on the sights between the destinations!

11 Tips for Driving Iceland’s Ring Road

Traveling around Iceland is easy by car due to Route 1, otherwise known as the Ring Road. Route 1 circles the entire country (minus the Snaefellsnes Pennisula) and allows visitors to easily see many of the different landscapes and tourist attractions Iceland has to offer. Check out our Top 10 Things to See & Do Around Iceland’s Ring Road for just a glimpse of what this road trip has to offer. To make your road trip a little easier, here are some tips we learned from our trip:

#1 Stop at all the Scenic Viewpoint signs along the Ring Road – Some of the stops were
weren’t super exciting but others had hidden waterfalls, glacier views, craters to climb or beautiful lava fields

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One of the many surprising “scenic viewpoints” along Route 1

#2 NOT ALL OF IT IS PAVED! – This was the most surprising things for us. There is not much warning before the road changes from paved to gravel so keep an eye out especially if you have a 2 wheel drive carimg_7926

#3 Be careful of one lane bridges – Most of the bridges along the Ring Road are only wide enough for one car to cross at a time. Slow down and check the other side before crossing.

#4 Watch out for sheep on the road – Sheep in Iceland are free to roam the mountain sides to graze. There’s fencing set up to try to keep them off the roads but fairly often (mainly on the northern side of the country) the sheep were walking and crossing the roads as we were driving by.dsc_0437

#5 To get gas you need a credit/debit card with a pin – In order to pay at the pump along the Ring Road be sure to bring a credit or debit card with a 4 digit pin number to go with it! There aren’t a lot of gas stations along the route, especially in the north, so fill up whenever you have the chance.

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#6 Know the tourist attraction symbol – When you see a road sign with this squiggly symbol that means that it is directing you to a tourist attraction. Even if you don’t recognize the name, if the symbol leads you nearby it is probably worth the detour!

#7 Stock up on snacks and drinks when you are in a larger city, there aren’t many places to stop – We stopped at the grocery store and got sandwich supplies to eat for lunches along the road and it was a good thing we did. It allowed us to eat on the go wherever we wanted but there was never many other options along the road

#8 Use the bathroom every chance you get – similar to the limited food options along the road there aren’t very many places to take bathroom breaks. Thankfully many of the tourist attractions have some form of bathroom

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#9 Addresses for destinations are usually just town names – We had a bit of a scare at the beginning of our trip when we realized we were given what seemed to be town names for our Airbnbs. Turns out we had nothing to worry about since the “towns” were basically just house names

#10 If you aren’t driving in winter you can get by with a 2 wheel drive (2WD) car – we rented our 2WD car in mid-Sept and didn’t have any major problems along the way. Note, as said before, some of the roads are not paved so a 2WD car will slow you down a bit for some stretches

#11 Download a music playlist or audiobook for the drives as there will be long periods of time spent between destinations. While Iceland’s landscape is beautiful to watch along the way, a little extra entertainment can’t hurt.dsc_0716

Now that you’ve read your tips, you’re ready to get started planning your own road trip around Ring Road! Check out our top things to see on the Ring Road to help plan your itinerary!

Visiting St. Louis: The St. Louis Arch and Courthouse

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For our weekend in St. Louis, Missouri we knew we absolutely had to visit the St. Louis Arch! Along with the Arch, there’s the historic courthouse directly in front of it that you can see in the same trip. You can purchase tickets to visit the arch online or at the courthouse but even if you buy your tickets online like we did, the courthouse is definitely worth a visit!

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We started at the courthouse itself which has plenty to explore and discover. This historic courthouse is where the slave Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1857. Ten years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom since he was not a citizen of the United States, essentially ruling that African Americans were not and could not become citizens of the United States. Thankfully, in 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment overturned this ruling granting citizenship to all people born in the United States regardless of their skin color. While exploring the floors of the courthouse you’ll see a brief history of the Dred Scott case, courtroom setups and a clear 3D printed model of the courthouse!

Going out the back of the courthouse you get a beautiful view of the St. Louis Arch with only a park between it and you. The Arch can be seen many places throughout the city even through the buildings so many places provided great photo ops! Going into the Arch was a bit of a struggle. With all of the construction going on there was only one entrance to the Arch with a single file line going through security. This caused quite a delay that they must not have fully anticipated – our ticket time was for 1:10 but we didn’t actually make it to the top until around 2:45!

Before heading up, our tour guide fill us in on some fun facts about the Arch. It is 630 feet (192 meters) tall and also 630 feet wide. She also warned us that its possible to feel like you are swaying when you are at the top – that’s because the Arch is designed to sway up to 18 inches, this feature would enable the arch to withstand even an earthquake. A 50 mile per hour wind only would make the arch sway 1.5 inches! Next we filed in front of eight 4 ft tall doors to wait for the tram. The “tram” is actually 8 tiny pods that can seat 5 people each. Leg space is limited on the approximately 4 minute journey to the top!

The view from the top was spectacular!  There are 16 little windows (much smaller than I expected!) on each side of the Arch. Even through the small windows, on a clear day you can see up to 30 miles in either direction! Space up there is slightly crowded but the views made it all worth it!

Although not everything turned out as planned with the delays due to constuction, I couldn’t imagine taking a trip to St. Louis without going up into the Arch. The views from the top were magnificent and its an experience completely unique to this city!