Browsed by
Author: Heather

Death Valley in Summer – crazy or awesome? Stay tuned!

Death Valley in Summer – crazy or awesome? Stay tuned!

At 8pm as I type this, the temperature at Furnace Creek in Death Valley is 100F with 5% humidity. The overnight low is 80, and the high tomorrow is 113. So why then, would we want to visit mid-August?

1. Timing – off season there are less crowds. cheaper rooms, and more vast desert to yourself. The night is also warm for exploring – just be aware of wildlife you may encounter!
2. High elevations – won’t be as hot, so you can explore there during the day!
3. The hottest place in the US. Who wouldn’t want to experience it, for a minute or two?

Check back next week as we review our whirlwind weekend trip from Vegas to Los Angeles, visiting 4 NPS sites along the way!

Review: Cabrillo National Monument’s Above the fireworks

Review: Cabrillo National Monument’s Above the fireworks

On July 4th, I attended Cabrillo National Monument’s “above the fireworks” event.  It was a rare chance to be in the park after dark, and tickets are limited due to parking capacity! We had an amazing time and I was able to get some great photos of the fireworks over San Diego. There are 4 simultaneous displays going off at once to music broadcast over the radio. We didn’t bring one, but our neighbors were kind enough to turn their volume up.

San Diego bay fireworks
July 4th fireworks over downtown San Diego
Lighthouse at Cabrillo NM at night
Cabrillo Lighthouse after dark
Sunset from Cabrillo NM, home of the rare Torrey Pine
Sunset from Cabrillo NM, home of the rare Torrey Pine

I would definitely recommend attending next year- here are a few tips:

  • Arrive early if you are determined to sit in a specific spot.  The area near the visitor’s center and Cabrillo statue fills up quickly.  The traffic getting in is the worst when it first opens.  We arrived about an hour after opening and traffic was easy getting in.  We found a great spot up near the lighthouse, along the path through the bushes.  You could also claim a spot against the fence just in front of the lighthouse if you don’t mind standing for 20 minutes (place your chairs back against the lighthouse until the show starts).  You won’t have anyone in front of you.  This would be a great spot for photographers, and likely where I will be the next time I attend.
  • Pack blankets and jackets.  It is windy at Cabrillo so it gets pretty chilly after dark, and you are mostly sitting around waiting for the show.
  • Pack a radio.  They sync the fireworks with a local radio station.
  • When the show is over, wait until they close the park to leave.  The folks at Cabrillo do a wonderful job of getting all the cars out of the park efficiently.  The problem lies in Point Loma – you will hit Shelter Island/Harbor Island traffic leaving, no matter what route you go.  There are also detours in place, so we couldn’t get on the 8 where I wanted and that cost us about 40 minutes of traffic.  It took about 3x as long to get home as it should have.  We thought we could beat the rush, but we were in the thick of it.  So bring a flashlight, and enjoy the night view after everyone leaves.

In the end, it is at least 4 hours total for about 20 minutes of fireworks.  But you can occupy the rest of the time enjoying something rare – the park after dark!

Flashback to 2008 – San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Flashback to 2008 – San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Flashback to 2008 – a trip to Houston to visit a friend turns into a 2 day whirlwind tour of San Antonio and Austin. First stop – the San Antonio Missions! There are FOUR Missions in San Antonio and it is absolutely possible to visit them all in a single day!

It was my first EVER trip to Texas, and I remember thinking how flat everything was compared to the east coast. Now living on the west coast, I think the east coast is flat too!  San Antonio is about 3+ hours from Houston and 4+ hours from Dallas.

The bells at Mission Espada

Even in November, the weather was hot – a very welcome change from New England.  We arrived from the south and made our way towards the center of the city.

Our first stop was Mission (San Francisco de la) Espada, the southernmost mission. Founded in 1690, it was the first mission in Texas.  It relocated to its present location in 1731.  I remember wandering among the foundations and random doorways standing by themselves, and an aqueduct behind this façade.  The doors are all very short, btw.

Next up was Mission San Juan (Capistrano), founded in 1716 and moved to its present location in 1731.  The façade has been restored to a whitewashed stone since my visit.  The was a lot of open space at this mission, and little shade – a good tip for a hot summer day!

Mission San Juan, 2008. It has since been restored to a whitewashed stone façade.
Mission San Juan, 2008. It has since been restored to a whitewashed stone façade.

Next up was my favorite mission, Mission San José (y San Miguel de Aguayo), the home of the Rose Window.   Founded in 1720 and completed in 1782, it was the largest mission in the San Antonio area.  It has beautiful gardens and an active church.

Mission San Jose, my personal favorite, due to the exceptional gardens
Mission San Jose, my personal favorite, due to the exceptional gardens
The Rose Window
The Rose Window









Last but not least was Mission Concepción (Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña), founded in 1716, and moved to the current location in 1731.  The church was dedicated in 1755 after 15 years of construction, and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America.  There are beautiful frescos on the inside of the church.

Mission Concepción

Since my visit, the city of San Antonio has completed the Mission Riverwalk Hike & Bike trail – over 8 miles of protected trail along the river that runs from the Alamo to Mission Espada.  There are water fountains along the route and signs indicating where to exit for each Mission.  Check it out!

The Alamo, the most well know San Antonio Mission, is not park of the National Historic Park. It is, however, part of the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This is a great trip for fall, winter or spring, when the weather is not unbearable.  Have a great trip!

Remember, the not part of the National Historic Park, but is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Remember, the Alamo….is not part of the National Historic Park, but is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
National Mall and Memorial Parks – so many stamps!

National Mall and Memorial Parks – so many stamps!

Last week I had the chance to visit DC, 11 years after I first lived in the area, and 9 after I left. It was the week leading up to Memorial Day, so the city was bustling with school field trips, tourists, and of course, workers in suits. The stage was set for the annual PBS Memorial Day concert on the Capitol Lawn (filmed Sunday evening, dress rehearsal Saturday). The summer heat suddenly appeared after weeks of cold rain, with daytime temperatures in the mid 80’s, but thankfully – no humidity. Summer gets pretty muggy, which is why the spring and fall seasons are so popular. Winter can be beautiful, especially the peace and calm right after a snow storm, but it’s really only accessible if you are staying downtown. Roads and the metro are a nightmare for a while after snow.

Korean War Memorial
The Korean War Memorial
Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Wall
Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Wall







Walking along the National Mall was one of my favorite activities on a day off.  It is such a peaceful green space in the midst of a busy city, with so many monuments to visit. Back in 2005/2006, the Washington Monument was closed for renovations. It reopened in 2007 just before I moved away. It’s a wonderful, extremely popular, view of the National Mall and monuments. Timed entry tickets are FREE the day of so get to the visitor center by 8:30am daily to try to get one, or you can pay a fee to reserve online in advance (limited supply here).

Washington Monument western view
The view from the west windows of the Washington Monument

Many of the National Mall and Memorial Parks passport stamps can be found at the Washington Monument bookstore, which is not attached to the actual monument but on the east side. Other bigger memorials (Jefferson, Lincoln) that have gift shops will also have a passport cancellation on site. For me, I was thankful for the trove of stamps at the Washington Monument bookstore. I had visited all of these sites in DC well before I bought my first passport book, and due to my limited time this visit, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to each monument for the stamps.

Getting to the National Mall is easy by metro, if you are willing to walk a little bit. Take the red line to Farragut North or Metro Center and walk in from the White House, take the Orange/Silver/Blue Line to Smithsonian, Federal Triangle or even Foggy Bottom, or the Green/Yellow line to L’Enfant Plaza.

Summer events at Cabrillo National Monument!

Summer events at Cabrillo National Monument!

In celebration of the NPS centennial, Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego is hosting special events all summer, in partnership with the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation (CNMF) and Cabrillo National Monument Conservancy (CNMC).  Many of these events are after-hours and extremely special, since the park normally closes at 5pm.  Visitors have a chance to experience sunset from the park, one of the best vantage points of San Diego (in my opinion).

  • Extended hours on Memorial Day, Monday May 30th.  12pm-8pm.  Check out the Open Bunker Day and a special Ranger guided sunset walk!
  • Sunset Yoga in the Park, sponsored by the Cabrillo National Monument Conservancy. Join Cabrillo’s resident yoga instructor for an all-levels sunset yoga classes overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
    • When:  Saturday June 18th and August 20th, from 6pm-8pm.
    • Please bring: Mat, Towel, Water, & Ticket for Entry.
    • Cost: $30. A portion of event proceeds will be donated back to the park to further expand programs that foster unique visitor connections with the natural environment.
  • Celebrate the 4th of July at Above the Fireworks at Cabrillo National Monument 2016.
    • Cost is $50 per vehicle (with up to 10 occupants).  Tickets are limited so get yours today!
    • What to bring:  Low-profile chairs, Flashlights, Sweatshirt or Blanket
    • Check-in 6pm – 8pm, no late check-ins will be admitted
    • Tickets are non-refundable
    • Picnics are encouraged, but alcohol is not allowed. Cabrillo National Monument policy is a smoke-free and trash-free park (whatever you pack in, you pack out) and no dogs are allowed.
Fireworks over the San Diego bay from Point Loma
This is during the winter boat parade, but the view will be similar with two more areas of fireworks.
  • Full Moon walks, available free to members and guests of Cabrillo National Monument Foundation (June 20) and Cabrillo National Monument Conservancy (August 18, September 16, November 14).  There are perks to joining the organizations – first and foremost, helping support San Diego’s only National Park!

    Taken in January 2012, this rare view of the moon rising over downtown is visible from Cabrillo National Monument during special events.
    Taken in January 2012 from Point Loma, this rare view of the moon rising over downtown is visible from Cabrillo National Monument during special events.
  • Fee free days – August 25-28, in celebration of NPS 100th birthday!
  • August 25th is also Lighthouse open tower day – the 2nd of the 3 days per year where guests can explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse all the way to the top!

    View inside the Old Point Loma lighthouse tower at sunset
    The tower is only completely open 3 days per year

Hope to see you at an event!


Share the Experience Photo Contest!

Share the Experience Photo Contest!

Attention all outdoor enthusiasts! The Official Recreational Federal Lands Photo Contest – Share the Experience – is now open! They are seeking photos from amateur photographers that highlight the best of America’s federal lands, national parks and historical sites. The winner will grace the America the Beautiful Federal Recreation Pass in 2017.

Here is a basic rundown of the details.

  • There are six categories for photo entries: Adventure & Outdoor Recreation; Historical & Cultural; Scenic, Seasons & Landscapes; Every Kid In A Park; Wildlife; Night Skies.
  • The photos must be taken on the lands or within the facilities of these participating agencies: National Park Service; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  • Photographs must be taken between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2016 and contest entries are accepted from April 28, 2016 to December 31, 2016.
  • Eligible to legal residents of the 50 United States and DC, who are at least 13 years of age or older as of April 28, 2016.  Amateur Photographers (less than 20% of your total income is from photography)only. Photographs must be taken by you and you must have the rights to the photo.
  • Prizes include more than $30,000 in cash and other great prizes sponsored by ACTIVE Network, Celestron and Historic Hotels of America. Winners will be announced Spring 2017.

For more information, or to enter, visit the Share the Experience website here.

Haleakala National Park for Photographers

Haleakala National Park for Photographers

So you are planning a trip to Maui and you want to capture some great photos of the stars and sunrise on Haleakala. What should you bring?

-A camera capable of taking long exposures. Any DSLR, GoPro, point and shoot with a manual mode, and even an iPhone (with the right app) will suffice. This trip I used an Olympus Tough TG-4 and a GoPro.  Photo above taken with the Olympus Tough TG-4, Live Capture mode. Exposure was only about 8-10 minutes since the sky was becoming lighter close to sunrise.  Arrive 2-4 hours before scheduled sunrise for dark skies and light trail photos.

-A tripod & camera mount. There are tons of options out there, from tiny Gorillapods to traditional Manfrotto tripods. Just be sure you have the mount you need for the camera.

-A cable/remote release. You don’t want to ruin your stable photo on the tripod by stopping the photo with an unsteady hand. Newer point and shoot cameras (including the TG-4 Tough) can be controlled with your smartphone. DSLRs typically have associated cable releases that cost $15.

-A headlamp, preferably with a red light option, to preserve your night vision and everyone else around you!

-Any time lapse tools. GoPro Hero 3 and newer have a Time Lapse Photo mode, which takes sequential timed photos, which you can import in the GoPro software to make a time lapse video. The newer GoPro Hero 4 models also have a nice Time Lapse Video feature, which will stitch all your photos together in camera and make an MP4 file in GoPro Studio. If you want all of the individual photos and a higher res video, you should use Time Lapse Photo mode.

-A snack and water. There are no restaurants in the park, so you must pack food in and out. You can grab pre-packaged food at local grocery stores the day before your trip, or stop at the 24-hr Zippy’s in Kahului before you head up the mountain. Also, at 10,000 ft elevation, you will become dehydrated much faster so be sure you have plenty of water, especially if you are sticking around a while.

-Something soft to sit on. The lava rocks are pretty sharp and if you get tired of standing you will be grateful for something to sit/lay on.

-A hat, gloves, jacket, long pants, closed toe shoes and hand warmers. It is very cold at 10,000 ft every night.  Even colder if it’s windy.  You likely won’t want to leave your camera, so you will be glad you have something to help keep you warm.

-Patience, an extra camera and something to keep you occupied!  Time lapse shots take a long time for nice star trails – 30 minutes minimum.  You will want a second camera for taking other shorter shots as the light improves.

Flashback to my first national park visit – Shenandoah National Park

Flashback to my first national park visit – Shenandoah National Park

Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside and at the shore, but always close to my home in South Jersey. So it wasn’t until college that I began to travel and visit national parks, starting with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

I remember the drive from Williamsburg, VA to the southern Rockfish Gap entrance to the park, because it was one of my first drives in the Appalachian mountains. The flat terrain and straight roads you could see for miles ahead gave way to foothills and winding roads, the Appalachian
mountains visible in the distance. Surrounded by the lush, green forests of towering chestnut and red oak trees, we entered the park and weaved our way north on Skyline Drive.

SIgn for Loft Mountain Campground
Loft Mountain campground

We got a campsite at Loft Mountain campground, the largest in the park, towards the southern end of the park.  It has an amphitheater with beautiful eastern and western views of the mountains.  This was my first camping experience, and there was a rumbling of bear sightings near the campground the night before, so needless to say every rustle of a leaf or branch was amplified in my mind as I tried to sleep that first night.  Alas, I slept and did not have a bear encounter.

Sunrise from Shenandoah National Park from Loft Mountain
Sunrise to the east from Loft Mountain

The following day we drove north to our destination for the day – mile marker 45.6 to hike the very strenuous 8.2-mile Whiteoak Canyon-Cedar Creek circuit, past numerous waterfalls and cascades.  It was summer so the trees were lush and offered ample shade as we descended from the road. The cascading waterfalls serenaded hikers beside the trail, and the smells of the creek lingered in the cool air. At one point, a brown bear was spotted drinking at the creek far below.

A cascading waterfall along the Whiteoak Canyon Cedar Creek circuit in Shenandoah National Park
One of the many cascades along the Whiteoak Canyon-Cedar Creek circut

The water in the pools was cold, even in the summer, but refreshing for a quick dip after a long descent. Occasionally, we passed other hikers on the trail, especially around the crystalline pools, but most of the time we descended to the sounds of nature and the rhythm of our own footsteps.

A hiking trail in the forest at Shenandoah National Park
Hiking through the lush forests to the sounds of nature and our own footsteps

The hike took 6 hours, even though we descended the steep side and ascended the “easier side,” which was recommended in an old hiking book.  This is the opposite of what is recommended on the NPS site, possibly because you hit the waterfalls early and there is not as much to see on the difficult ascent.  Sore and exhausted, but feeling accomplished, sleep came shortly after and the thought of bears in the campground didn’t phase me this time. The beauty of the hike stayed with me and I visited Shenandoah National Park many times after.

Shenandoah National Park Quick Facts

Year established: December 26, 1935 (Authorized May 22, 1926)
Size: 197,438.76 acres (79,579 acres of wilderness)
Annual visitors: 1,321,873 in 2015 (Peak 2,411,500 in 1970)
Hours: 24 hours
Best activities: Hiking, camping, fall foliage, spring wildflowers
Where to find the passport cancellation stamp: Two visitor centers – Dickey Ridge (North) and Harry F. Byrd Sr. (South)