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Monday, January 29, 2018

Our Top 12 Must-See National Parks

We have planned for years to see as many national parks as we could once we retired.  The we not only includes Soko, but also my sister (with me in the picture above) and her husband John (Mini).  We have been to three and they turned out to be our most loved vacations.  Some of the most beautiful sites we have ever seen have been in these parks.  We enjoy everything about spending the day out in nature from the hiking to stopping to appreciate a gorgeous wildflower.  But there are 59 national parks.  (Number 59 - Pinnacles National Park is not on some older lists.)  That means we have 56 parks left to visit.  Although we really would like to get to all the remaining parks, we know that might be impossible, so we had to get get this number down to something more doable.   After hours of researching, we have come up with this list of  our 12 must-see national parks.

We came up with our top 12 by finding lists of best national parks around the web and by talking to friends and family.  I went to National Geographic and Fodor's Travel Guide and found their top 10 lists.  I was sure those sites would have the very best of the parks on their lists.  Travel + Leisure's website featured an article about a couple who saw all 59 parks in 52 weeks.  That couple came up with a list of parks they felt "every traveler should be sure to see."  I used their list.  I went to a website called Ranker that polled travelers, hikers, campers and sightseers to create a most beautiful park list.  It made sense to check out their list.  After looking at all these lists and more and "interviewing" family and friends, I thought we would have a list of 10 must-see national parks but couldn't get it to less than 12. 

The Top 10 parks, according to most of the websites, are listed below in order of popularity.   We have been to three of them.  This left us with the first seven entries on our must-see list.  After talking to family and friends we had four more to add to the list.  And finally, we added the one park I  always dreamed of seeing and that is how we got our Top 12 Must-See National Parks!  

1.  Yosemite National Park - California - (1)  The majority of the sites I looked at had Yosemite at the top of their lists of best parks.  Tunnel View is the "not to be missed" sight to see here.  Once we get near this vista, we simply park our car and walk over.  From here we can see Bridalveil Fall and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.  

2.  Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - This is one of the three parks we have been to.  It didn't surprise me to see the Grand Canyon on most of the lists and close to the top of those lists.  The pictures I had seen of this park didn't come close to the awesomeness of seeing the Grand Canyon in person.  It was truly breathtaking!  

3.  Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming - (2) is another very popular park.  My (very soon to be) daughter-in-law, Chrissy (right) and her friend, Sarah decided to take a Midwest trip "to do some hiking, see beautiful views, try new things and meet new people."  With this in mind, they landed up visiting two of America's best national parks.  The first was Grand Teton.  One highlight of Grand Teton for them was Inspiration Point in the picture below.  The elevation here is 7,200 feet Chrissy told me.  We will pose for a picture, when we get to this Point, to send to Chrissy, but I'm sure we will be right side up!  

4.  Acadia National Park - Maine - This is the second of the three national parks we have been to.  Every summer, for many years, we took the kids camping along with 5-7 other families.  We still talk about how our Maine trip was one of the best.  We spent almost the entire vacation hiking in Acadia.  The kids loved it.  I think my favorite day of this trip was when we bought some steamed lobsters and had a picnic in the park.  This park is gorgeous and the views are spectacular.  I was not surprised to see Acadia on so many lists.

5.  Glacier National Park - Montana - (3)  When I was compiling this list, I asked for suggestions from our friends, Penny and Bill.  They have been to more parks than anyone else we know, a total of 44 so far.   One of the big reasons they go to the parks is to get a glimpse of the wildlife.  Glacier National Park is the perfect park to go for that reason as they have a diverse collection of animals ranging from mountain goats to grizzly bears.  Penny and Bill told us that they visited the park in the fall when the wildlife is most active.   They saw not only the mountain goats and grizzly bears, but also moose, wolf and elk.  I hope we are that lucky when we visit although I may just be as happy not to bump into a grizzly!   

6.  Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado - (4)  I have wanted to visit this park ever since I first heard the song Rocky Mountain High by John Denver.  (Yes, I am that old!)  He made it sound heavenly!  My daughter, Lisa, has been there and she tells me the thing I have to do there is to take a ride on the 48 mile Trail Ridge Road.   The highest elevation on this road is over 12,000 feet!  On the way up there, we can enjoy thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions.

7.  Olympic National Park - Washington - (5)  The attractiveness of this park is it's diversity.  In it's million acres, you can find glacier-capped mountains, rain forests and over 70 miles of coastline.  I would love to spend the day here strolling the shores of Lake Crescent and walking along Rialto Beach watching the waves crashing onto offshore islands and, if we are lucky, spotting an eagle flying overhead. 

8.  Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana, Idaho - (6)  This was the second park Chrissy and Sarah visited on their Midwest adventure.  Chrissy, shared her pictures of one of the best known parks in America with the best known geyser anywhere, Old Faithful.   They found another geyser on one of their hikes through Yellowstone, picture 2.  Chrissy attached a warning here:  "Caution: Do not touch - extremely hot.  Do not breathe in - extremely smelly."  To get to the beautiful waterfall behind Chrissy, in her third picture, they hiked Uncle Tom's Trail which she told me included 300 stairs down to the falls.  "But also meant 300 stairs back up!"

9.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee, North Carolina - We first visited this park as part of a family road trip that brought us from our home in New York, through Pennysylvania and West Virginia, to Indiana to have lunch before we made our way to Dayton, Ohio for a bowling tournament that me and daughter, Lisa were competing in.  From there we were meeting our friends in South Carolina for our annual camping trip.  So we drove from Ohio to Kentucky and into Tennessee then through the Great Smoky Mountains to North Carolina and into South Carolina.  This road trip currently holds the record as being our longest.  Our second visit to this picturesque park was with my sister Sandie and her husband, Mini.  We spent a long weekend hiking a couple of the many trails throughout the park.  You can read more about the fun we had on that trip here.

10.  Zion National Park - Utah - (7)  The pictures I have seen of Zion National Park and especially the ones of the Emerald Pools makes me so excited about planning a visit here.  There are lots of hiking trails at the Emerald Pools, ranging from easy to strenuous, to choose from and they all lead to beautiful waterfalls.  Also, the massive sandstone cliffs reaching up to sky will definitely be an amazing sight to see I'm sure.

The next four parks were highly recommended by family and friends which is the reason why they made our list.  I did see them listed on the lists of some of the websites but not as often as the ten above.   

Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah - (8) - My son, Joe and daughter-in-law Nicole recommended we visit their favorite national park of the ten they have been to.  They visited the park in early March so couldn't hike the snow covered trails but enjoyed how the snow added to gorgeousness of the views.  There were many scenic outlooks for them to pull into as they drove around the park.   We will make sure to be on the lookout for Thor's Hammer (picture 1) and will also make sure we drive to the south end of the road to Rainbow Point as the view there was amazing according to Joe and Nicole.  I will definitely be looking for Natural Bridge, picture 3.  Now that's something you don't see everyday!

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks - California - (9) - are jointly listed by the National Park Service because they actually are connected and made our list because it is the favorite of our friends, Penny and Bill.  If Sequoia & Kings Canyon are their favorite of the 44 parks they have visited then we can't miss this one.  Bill loved how the giant sequoias made Penny look like "she was about the size of a mosquito" next to them.  Another highlight in these parks for them were the waterfalls.  We were told we can't miss Roaring River Falls, Mist Falls and Grizzly Falls in Kings Canyon.  Another plus that put these parks on the top of their list was that there are about 1/10th the amount of sightseers here than what some of the other parks have.  

Arches National Park - Utah - (10) and Canyonlands are also favorites of Penny and Bill and made our list once they told us the two parks are only 26 miles apart.  Arches is appropriately named as there are 2,000 natural sandstone arches throughout the park.  One we will be on the lookout for is the world famous (at least that's what I read but I have never heard of it) Delicate Arch.  Also, there is a rock formation named Balanced Rock which is a massive rock resting on a narrow pillar.  It looks amazing in the picture I saw.  I am really looking forward to seeing it one day.

Canyonlands National Park - Utah - (11) is a park in the heart of southeast Utah's high desert.  Here we will enjoy views of colorful canyons from the many overlooks we can stop at as we tour the park in our car on a paved road.  We also have our choice of hiking trails of varying length to choose from to explore more of the park.

And, last but not least...  

Redwood National Park - California - (12) - I can't believe that this park wasn't on any list I found.  It made our list because every June, for 16 years, I sang the song, This Land Is Your Land along with other teachers and about 60 four and five year olds on graduation day.  As I clapped and sang "from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters" along with the group I would get a beautiful vision of gorgeous, giant trees and imagined that I would see them one day.   Hopefully that one day will be here very soon!

That's our National Park bucket list.  Which one will end up being our favorite?  We would love to hear about yours!

Note:  Before you visit the national parks on your list, go here to get an annual pass.   If you are a senior, 62 and over, you can buy a lifetime pass for $80.00 like we did.  And if you are military, or their dependents, you can go here to find out how to get into the parks for free.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Being Prepared For An Emergency During A Road Trip

This is a sponsored post.  All opinions are my own.

We have dreamed for years about road tripping around this great country of ours once we retired.  We finally did retire two years ago and are living our dream.  We have been on a number of road trips but haven't gotten a chance to venture too far from our home in North Carolina and snowbird home in Florida.  This year will be a very busy year for us as our first grandchild is due in April and our youngest is getting married in September.   These glorious events will keep us close to home but we are looking forward to road trips we will be taking next year.

We always prepare our car before we hit the road and you can read about how we do that in our recent post.  But a story we heard a couple of months ago about an elderly couple getting stranded in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument when their rental stalled made us think beyond just getting our car ready.

Most of our road trips will revolve around seeing as many National Parks as possible.  We have been to a few and have enjoyed each of them and look forward to enjoying a few more.  The story of this Houston couple made us think about the possibility of getting stranded in one of these parks.  We know that help is not a cell phone call away in places where there is no cell tower around for miles.  We would have only ourselves to help us out of an emergency situation.  We will have more success helping ourselves if we are prepared.

We decided that we need to arm ourselves with an emergency kit to keep in the car before we hit the road.  The couple that I mentioned above were rescued 6 days after they became stranded but were severely dehydrated.  We were thinking of what we would need to survive for a couple of days.  We have come up with this list.

Essentials- Store these items in a backpack and leave in car.
Water.  Gallons, bottles or small boxes.
Non-perishable food items.  Also, granola bars and power bars.
Blankets and ponchos

Extra Necessities - Store these items in a bin and leave in car.
First Aid kit - containing different kinds of bandages, sterile wipes, scissors, tweezers, gauze and instant cold pack.
Road flares.
Jumper cables.
Flat tire kit - including temporary tire sealant.

I think that once we secure these supplies we will be ready for any emergency on the road.  I will look on the My Patriot Supply website for everything I need.  They not only have survival supplies you would need to have on the road but My Patriot Supply has supplies for many other emergency situations.

Also, a good idea is to leave your, detailed as possible, itinerary with a loved one.  Check in on this person with a quick text from time to time when you have reception.  They will be the ones who will alert authorities if they have not heard from you after a period of time.

We were very fortunate that when we got a flat tire in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of winter, that it happened in front of the only house for miles around.  A very nice gentleman, still dressed in his postal uniform, came out of his house with a flashlight and helped Soko put on the spare.  So we know firsthand that things can happen and we need to be prepared when they do.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Must See In Rome, Italy - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

Visiting Rome, Italy has the number one spot on our bucket list and it's the reason why we started to think about going on this Mediterranean cruise.  I still can't believe that we have our reservations made and we will be seeing this amazing city in a few short months.  It is truly a dream come true.  Trying to see Rome in the small amount of time we will have there is going to be challenging though.   Our cruise ship is arriving in Civitavecchia, Italy at 7:00 am and leaving at 7:00 pm.  The port is miles from Rome so the first thing we had to figure out was how to get to Rome the quickest and easiest way possible.   We decided to book a Train Transfer By Roma Express that we found on the list of excursions offered by Royal Caribbean.  A shuttle bus will take us from our cruise ship to the train station where we will board a vintage train to Rome.  There will be an escort on the train who will provide us with a map of Rome and who will answer any questions we might have.  The train ride will take 50 minutes and will bring us to San Pietro Station which is a 10-15 walk from the Vatican.  We will then have 6 hours to explore on our own before taking the train back to the port.

Port 4 - Civitavecchia (Rome) Italy

The main reason for us wanting to go to Rome so badly is to visit Vatican City to see the greatest, most important Catholic Church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica with Michelangelo's Pieta and for a chance to see Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  If we think we have enough time for anything else, we would like to see the Colosseum, just the outside.   I am pretty sure we won't have time to venture inside.  We would also like to see Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon but we would not be disappointed if we didn't make it to these sites.  It would give us an excuse to come back!

Our plan at the moment is to buy tickets in advance to get into the Vatican museums.  If we can get them for 12:30 pm it will give us 3 hours to explore the museums and 3 hours to get to the other sites.
This is what our schedule might look like:
10:00 - Get to San Pietro Station.  Look for Bus 64 here to take us to Piazza Venezia stop.   30 minute bus ride and 12 minute walk.  
10:45 - Arrive at Colosseum - This 2000 year old building is one of those sites you dream about seeing in your lifetime.  It was a venue that saw many gladiator contests among other things.  Only 1/3 of the building remains having been destroyed by earthquakes and builders taking stones from here to build other buildings.  The exterior of the Colosseum is not impressive or beautiful as it was built by engineers and not artists.   If you go inside and look down into the arena, you will see the underground passages where prisoners and animals were held.  There are private tours you can book to avoid lines here but I couldn't find any information about getting online tickets in advance from the Colosseum itself.
11:15 - Walk 20 minutes to Trevi Fountain.  
11:35 - Arrive at Trevi Fountain - I will be looking for Neptune in his shell-shaped chariot and Triton blowing his conch shell.  I won't forget to bring a coin to throw over my shoulder to ensure that I get back to Rome one day.
Now it's time to decide if we have any time to do the 8 minute walk to get to the...
Spanish Steps - Many people have spent time hanging out on these steps, which are over 300 year old steps, including British poet John Keats.  I will be looking for the Sinking Boat Fountain at the bottom of these steps.  Then if we somehow have saved time somewhere we will walk 14 minutes to the...
Pantheon - This Roman temple was dedicated to all gods and is what the word pantheon means.  It is now a Christian church.  It was originally built in 27 B.C. but because of a few fires had to be rebuilt  around A.D. 120.  It is a great example of architecture of the Roman Empire.

I would like to have at least 1 hour to get to Vatican City from this area.  The trip back should take 30 - 45 minutes by Bus 64.

Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica - is free to enter but costs 5 euro if you want to climb the stairs or 7 euro if you take the elevator up to the top of the dome.  We are not packing shorts and making sure all my tops cover my shoulders because of the dress code of this and most of the other churches we want to get in to explore.  We will follow Rick Steve's walking tour here.
Holy Door - is one of five doors that lead into the church.  The Holy Door is the one on the far right.  This door is only opened during Holy Years and special Jubilee years and on Christmas Eve every 25 years.   The pope will knock three times on the door with a silver hammer to open it.
Charlemagne's Coronation Site - On the floor in front of the central doorway is a round maroon colored stone.  This is the spot where Charlemagne was crowned Emperor.
St Andrew Statue and View of Dome - Near the altar, on the left hand side, is the statue of St. Andrew holding an X-shaped cross.  If you stand in front of it and look up you will find the dome 448 feet above you.  I will be looking above the windows to find Jesus, Mary, saints and angels and further up God.  He is so far up that he will look like a blur of blue and red.
St. Peter Statue - To the right of St. Andrew we will find St. Peter.  There will be a line of people waiting to kiss the big right toe of this statue as a sign of respect.  I will take the suggestion of Rick Steves and kiss my fingers, then touch the toe!
Pope John XXIII - is laid out to rest in a lighted glass tomb in the Basilica.  Some say that it is a sign of a miracle that his body was completely intact after being buried for 38 years.   Because of the amazing condition of the body, the authorities decided to put it in the church for all to enjoy.  Pope John XXIII himself performed a miracle when he cured an Italian nun who had a stomach tumor.
Main Altar - Look for the 7 story bronze canopy and you will find the main altar.  Only the pope can say Mass here, when he is in town.
BERNINI - Dove Window and Throne of St. Peter - In back of the main altar is a smaller front alter that is used for everyday services.  Here we will be looking for Bernini's dove window.  The six foot dove is used as the symbol for the Holy Spirit.  Underneath the dove is the Throne of St. Peter.  It is an oak chair that was built in medieval times for a king.  Bernini encased it in bronze and it is now a symbol of papal authority.
St. Peter's Crucifixion Site - To the left of the main altar we will look for the exact spot (according to tradition) of St. Peter's crucifixion.  When he was told he was going to be crucified like his Lord was he asked to be hung upside down because he was not worthy to be treated the same as Jesus.
RAPHAEL - Mosaic Copy of The Transfiguration is something I will be looking for near St. Andrew's statue.  The actual painting is in the Vatican museum.  Every painting in the Basilica are mosaic copies because the smoke and humidity would damage real paintings.
MICHELANGELO - Pieta is the reason why we will be in this Basilica.  To be this close to the actual pieta after knowing about it all our lives and seeing pictures of it will be more than amazing.  Seeing a mom holding her lifeless son in her arms is just too sad but it is one of the most famous works of art in the world and we can't wait to see it.  I think seeing this piece will be very emotional.
Tomb of St. Pope John Paul II is located under a painting of St. Sebastian, his favorite saint.  This Polish pope was the first non-Italian pope in four centuries. 
The Treasury Museum - is located near the altar and contains the tomb of Sixtus IV along with church ornaments, statues and various objects which are mostly gifts from kings and princes.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel - is located on the right-hand side of the church and is a peaceful place to meditate and pray. 
After you have looked around the church you can go down to the crypt where the tombs of popes and memorial chapels are.  You can also go up to the dome (there is a charge for this) to see the one of the best views in Rome.  Both areas are claustrophobic so Soko can go himself if he wants.

Vatican Museums - is a four mile complex of museums.  It takes 2 hours for a quick look around or 3 to 4 hours, if you have time, to be able to enjoy the museums more.  It is impossible to take it all in on one visit.  We will arm ourselves with a map of the museums and highlight where the must-sees on this list are.  After researching on the web, looking at travel guides and asking friends who have visited Vatican City and the museums, I have come up with this Top 5 list.
Belvedere Courtyard - is where we will find two statues that are not to be missed.  The Apollo Belvedere is a large white marble sculpture showing Apollo just after he has shot an arrow.  There are different ideas about what he has just shot at.  And Laocoon which is a marble sculpture showing Laocoon and his sons struggling with and getting overpowered by a serpent.  There are a couple of stories about who sent the serpent to kill the three and why.
Spiral Staircase - We can't miss finding this because it will be the first thing we see when we walk into the museum but I want to make sure we take it all in and take lots of pictures as it is the one of the most photographed staircases in the world.  Good to know: I read that we should not go through the doors at the bottom of this staircase as it will lead us out of museum and we will not be able to get back in. 
Raphael Rooms - are four rooms that are famous for their frescoes by Michelangelo and Raphael.  We will be on the lookout for one in particular, School of Athens, which was done by Raphael and his assistants.  This fresco gives us a preview of St. Peter's, which was under construction.  Raphael includes great thinkers, Aristotle and Plato and great painters, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in this remarkable painting.
Sistine Chapel - is the main reason for everyone being in these museums.  I know it is for us anyway.  I will definitely have my map of the ceiling so I can understand what is going on up there.  Basically it is the story of creation with the central panel being the Creation of Adam.  This painting is what I think of when I dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel.  Especially where God's strong hand is reaching out to Adam's limp hand with their fingers almost touching.  After the ceiling, we will look for Michaelangelo's powerful Last Judgment behind the altar, with God separating the good from the evil.  If we are hurrying to get to St. Peter's Basilica  we will take the shortcut exit at the far-right corner of the chapel but if we have time we will go into the...
Pinacoteca Vaticana - where we will find Raphael's last work, Transfiguration.  If we went into St. Peter's first we would have seen the mosaic replica of this stunning painting.  After admiring this painting, we will find the souvenir shop to exit the museum.

Our itinerary looks a bit ambitious for a 6 hour day but we will try our best.  We will get a better idea of timing when we get there.  Only 8 more months until we are boarding the Vision of the Seas in Barcelona!