Things to do in San Francisco, CA

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San Francisco is a city of color. The streets are lined with buildings and houses painted all sorts of pigments; pastel pinks, yellows, blues, greens. It isn’t tacky, it’s enchanting. There are flowers growing on every other building, purples and hot pinks scaling the pastel walls. The people here aren’t one color either (a symptom of small cities like Springfield) they are black, caramel, ivory, tan, all sorts. There is a grey fog that engulfs the coast often, but when it floats away it reveals a red bridge, lush trees and aqua waters.

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We spent the majority of our time in the Mission District, known for its Latino roots. We ate delicious Mexican and Cuban food; meandered through unique shops that hosted things like organic foods, vintage jewelry, small batch chocolate, flower bouquets, botany books, dried butterflies, odds and ends; and soaked in the energy of so many people in one place.

Shops we visited:

Paxton Gate


Landmarks we walked:

Pier 39

Golden Gate Bridge

Lombard Street

Sutro Baths

Treasure Island

China Beach

We did typical tourist things as well: drove down Lombard Street and walked Pier 39. These things we did because it seemed a requirement of visiting the city for the first time, but really, I’d rather wander and explore the places the locals inhabit.

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We explored the sandy parts of San Francisco as well: China Beach and the Sutro Baths. We climbed on cliffs and massive rocks that sat on the edge of the waves, begging to be perched upon. We watched pups play in the cold, salty ocean; digging holes and catching tennis balls.

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The energy of the city was tangible, and the way the ocean mingled with the greasiness of the city was addicting. I had never been in a massive city that hosted hilly roads and such an earthy environment alongside the bustle of millions of people. San Francisco is unlike any other city I have been. I left hoping that we would someday be back, and hopefully for longer.

Things to do in Yosemite National Park


We entered Yosemite National Park from the east entrance. Little did we know that the entrance had been closed only a week before we arrived due to snow. We had no idea how huge the park was and how varied the landscapes were from one side of the park to the other. Tioga Pass was high in altitude and cool in temperature, around 60 degrees with snow piles on the side of the road. Huge cliff faces surrounded us as we drove into the park, and snowmelt waterfalls welcomed our entrance.


The first thing we did when we arrived was stop at a ranger station to look into campsites for the night. Out of the thirteen campgrounds in the park, all of them were completely filled. We were left with two options: leave the park and try to find a campground that wasn’t filled in the surrounding area or go backcountry camping, which is camping off a trail in the wilderness, with no designated campsite and with no access to your car, so you carry everything you need on your back.

We opted for backcountry camping, something we had never done before. The park ranger gave us a wilderness pass and told us about the one mile trail we would hike to Inspiration Point to camp for the night. He asked if we had a bear canister.

“No,” we said. “But we have bear spray.”

The ranger shook his head. “You’re not allowed to have bear spray in the park,” he said. “It’s considered a weapon.”

My mind began to race, how were we supposed to defend ourselves if a bear attacked? The ranger explained that the only bears in the park were black and brown bears, which aren’t aggressive by nature. He said that if a bear is trying to get into our canister at night (which should have all our food and toiletries in it and be placed 15 steps from our tent) that we should get out of our tent and make a lot of noise. He said the bear would be scared off.   

I had my doubts, but we took the canister and headed through the park anyways.

After we figured out our camping plans for the night, we decided to take our time driving through the park, making our way down to Yosemite Valley, which is where we would hike to our camp spot that night. We stopped by a lake to make lunch, hiked the 3.2 mile roundtrip Tuolumne Grove trail (where we saw and walked through Sequoia trees) and searched for bears in the meadows we drove past.


It took us about an hour and a half of driving time to get to the valley and at about seven in the evening we arrived at the trailhead where we would begin our trek to Inspiration Point. We loaded everything we’d need for the night into our backpacks: a tent, two sleeping bags, food, 3.5 liters of water and some spare clothes.

At the very beginning of the trail we unknowingly took a wrong turn. We began climbing a mountain and the “trail” was merely marked by stones stacked on top of each other every 20 feet or so. We thought it was just an obscure trail that only experienced hikers took. But the stacked stones kept getting further and further apart and we were left wandering along the side of a cliff face as the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. Even if we wanted to just stop and camp for the night, we couldn’t. The mountain we were climbing was too steep to even pitch a tent.

We wandered for about an hour, trying to find the trail we walked off of. With bears, mountain lions and sunset on our minds, we decided we would just pitch our tent on the flattest spot we could find. As we were about to unload our packs, Parker decided to walk a couple hundred feet more.

Within a minute I heard the sweetest words of the trip,“I found the trail!” Parker yelled.

I ran to catch up with him; the trail was so distinct we didn’t know how we missed it in the first place. With only about 40 minutes of light left we hiked the rest of the very obvious trail to the end. We arrived at Inspiration Point. We were both stunned. Our campsite overlooked the entirety of Yosemite Valley; a waterfall could be seen in the distance. No one else was in sight. Our little adventure was well worth the trouble.


The next morning we got up at sunrise. I painted the valley as the sun shone golden and we ate a breakfast of clif bars. We hiked back down the mountain (without getting lost) and drove to a first come, first serve campground called Camp 4 to claim a spot for the next night.


During the rest of our time in Yosemite we hiked Vernal Falls Footbridge trail, Taft Point trail and Cook’s Meadow trail. I highly recommend hiking to Taft Point, it is one the highest and most stunning views in the park.


Things to do in Great Basin National Park

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When I added Great Basin National Park to our list of places to stop it was only because we needed a place to sleep between Canyonlands and Yosemite. I Googled “National Parks in Nevada” and it happened to be a halfway point, as well as the only national park in Nevada. I put it on our list knowing nothing about it, having never heard of it and having not seen a single photo of it.

The drive there was filled with highways stretching miles and miles into the distance, disappearing over the horizon; desert mountains surrounding us in every direction, not a sign of human life for hundreds of miles; and heat that kept our thermometer between 90 and 100 degrees. I was nervous about our campsite that night, would we roast alive in Great Basin?

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But the terrain changed suddenly. We were about 10 miles from the park entrance, still debating whether or not to just stay at a cheap motel for the night, when we gradually began to climb in elevation. We arrived at the visitor center which was at the base of a mountain, one that we hadn’t even caught a glimpse of until we were right on it. We talked to a park ranger about the campsites available in the park and a hike we could do before sunset.

We followed the road up the mountain and the temperature began to drop. 80 degrees. 70 degrees. 65 degrees. We were giddy at the drastic change in terrain and temperature. We drove our car up the mountain until we hit the top at 10,000 feet. Instead of a desert, we were surrounded by alpines, bubbling creeks, wildflowers and leftover snow piles. We looked up through the pines and an exposed mountain - Wheeler Peak - loomed above us.

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There, we parked our car and hiked Alpine Lakes Trail. It is a 4.7 mile round trip trail that took us up 964 feet through cool meadows and forests and to two alpine lakes. We sat at the edge of Stella Lake and ate snacks, staring in amazement at the pristine lake and mountain that sat mighty before us. We had no idea this place was here and didn’t know what to expect from Great Basin, making it all the more sweet. We agreed that it was one of our favorite hikes of the trip so far.

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After we finished our snack we stripped off our hiking boots and sweaty socks and waded into the bitterly cold water. We let the crystal clear water get up to our knees and as our toes began to numb we dunked our dirty heads in the water. With a case of the goose bumps, we ran out of the water and dried off in the sun before putting our socks and boots back on.  

That evening we drove a little ways back down the mountain to camp at a first come, first serve campground called Lower Lehman Creek Campground for $12. Our campsite hosted a mama deer that wandered around our tent, nibbling at the plants. We could hear Lehman Creek bubbling a couple hundred feet away. The mountains surrounded us. We built a fire as the sun set, then fell asleep under the light of the moon.

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Things to do in Canyonlands National Park


We fell asleep before sunset. We left the rainfly off of our tent so that we could see the wide open sky and the sun as it shined golden through the clouds. We had just filled our bellies with plates piled with cooked rice, beans, bell peppers and onions. We were exhausted from a full day of driving and hiking through Arches National Park. The next morning we would get up around sunrise to explore Canyonlands National Park.

I woke up about an hour after we had fallen asleep, the full moon was shining bright in our tent and lighting up the night. Though we were in the desert, the night was cool enough to use a light blanket. Perfect. I unzipped the tent and left the warmth of our bodies cuddled together to pee in the desert sand. I didn’t even need a flashlight.

At 3 A.M. I woke up again. My eyes opened to a dark sky filled with billions of stars and the Milky Way waterfalling right down the center. The moon had set and left the sky the darkest I had ever seen. I nudged Parker awake, pointed and we both sleepily stared in awe. How grand it was. With stars in our eyes, we drifted back to sleep till sunrise.

Travel Tip: Sleep with the rainfly off of your tent as much as possible. Not only does it create air flow, but it offers the best sky viewings. Watch the sunset as you fall asleep, wake up to the milky way in the middle of the night, watch the sunrise in the morning.

In the morning we packed up our camp and drove about 20 minutes to Canyonlands National Park. The sun was rising as we drove into the park, surrounding the orange rocks with a pink and purple sky. Canyonlands is smaller than Arches, so we were able to do two hikes and drive the entire park in just a few hours.


As its name suggests, the park is a canyon that you drive around and hike the edges of. The first hike we did was to Mesa Arch, an arch that creates a peephole into the canyon (a very large peephole). The trail is only 0.7 miles round trip and is one of the most popular in the park, but the earlier you get there, the less people there are.


The next hike we did was Grand View Point trail . And boy was it grand. This 1.9 mile round trip trail went along the edges of the canyon, making for breathtaking views every step of the way. There are no railings to keep you from getting too close to the edge, so you can go ahead and dangle your feet over the sides of the rocks. This was the first place where I stopped and painted. It seemed perfect, as the morning air was still cool and the colors of the canyons were at their richest.

Travel Tip: Stop and sit. Even if you’re not an artist, there’s so much value in stopping at the end of the trail to take everything in; to set down the camera and simply enjoy the earth beneath you and whatever is in front of you. Sit and stare. Sit and talk. Sit and laugh. Just take it in.

I pulled out my sketchbook and watercolors. I painted what laid in front of me, with no purpose except to create; something I hadn’t been able to do in months. Most days I am painting for other people, but on this trip I was able to paint with abandon, with no care as to how the pieces would turn out. It was a taste of freedom I hadn’t felt in awhile.


After I finished, we headed back to our car, ran into someone from Missouri (he saw Parker’s Kansas City Royals hat), chatted a little, then headed to our next destination: Great Basin National Park. The excitement and inspiration was beginning to bubble up within me. Our first two national parks stirred something in me that I had been aching for.

Things to do in Arches National Park

Arches National Park was the first national park we visited of ten total.  We came from the east, driving through the Rocky Mountains then through red desert sands and then into a canyon of orange rock walls. As we pulled up to the park entrance we watched as kids rode pieces of cardboard down sand slopes toward the street. The park entrance was packed, we came on a Sunday afternoon, one of the busiest times to visit a national park we found out. We waited in a line of no less than 40 cars and purchased an $80 annual national park pass, our ticket into every park we would enter for the remainder of the trip.


We grabbed a park map and a trail map from the visitor center, asked a park ranger about the best trails to hike and were on our way. There’s only one way into the park and it takes you up the side of the canyon and into the park. Once to the top of the canyon, we drove along the two-way road that took us past turnouts and trailheads to view the many arches in the park. Some of them you could see from the road.

There were endless amounts of rock formations shooting up from the ground and creating natural sculptures. Like laying in the grass and seeing pictures in the clouds on a summer day, so was driving through the park. The rocks formed men and hats and horses and any sort of thing you could make up with your imagination. The colors made it even more stunning. Neither Parker or I had spent much time in a desert, and we wondered how the colors could be so rich.


One of the most popular trails in the park is to Delicate Arch (the one featured on the Utah license plate and sign when you enter the state), and that was our first stop. It’s a 3-mile hike roundtrip and moderately strenuous. It left us dripping in sweat, and me with a bright red face. The 100 degree weather didn’t help much, but the lack of humidity was a welcomed blessing from our usual midwestern weather.

The hike to Delicate Arch was completely uphill and went over large rock faces, through rock outcroppings and on the edge of dropoffs. The path was filled with tourists from all over the planet, coming to see something in our very own country that is known throughout the world. This was something we noticed throughout our entire trip; we have access to so much beauty in the United States, yet how many of us actually see it all? People come from all over the world to see these grandeurs, yet we often don’t even venture across our own country to see them.

The arch awaited us at the end of the trail, even larger than I expected and surrounded by hundreds of tourists. There was a line of people waiting just to go underneath the arch and get a picture. I waited in line as Parker watched from a distance, camera in hand. I listened as people in line talked about the arch and how it’d been their dream to see it, how they didn’t think the hike to it would be so much work and how beautiful this vast land was.


On my turn I walked underneath the arch and realized how small I felt beneath the tons of rock that loomed over me. Small in a good way; in a way that I knew there was much for me to learn, discover and see in this world. I also wished that Parker and I had this place all to ourselves, that we could experience it without all the photo-taking and shouting. That was something we learned we could actually do as we got further into our trip.

Travel Tip: Visit at sunrise or sunset. Between 10 A.M. and 5 P.M. are the busiest hours of the day to visit popular sights, hike trails and adventure in the national parks. Ironically, sunrise and sunset are the most beautiful times of the day and the best time to see wildlife, yet not many people get up early enough or stay out late enough to enjoy these times. Avoid the crowds and get up early to see places unobstructed by hundreds of tourists. Then take a nap in the afternoon when everyone else is out for the day. Head out again at around 6 P.M. to see more. 

After finishing our hike to Delicate Arch we hiked to Landscape Arch. This trail was only 1.9 miles and was relatively flat. Instead of the solid rock we walked on to Delicate Arch, this trail was sandier. Delicate Arch is a long and skinny arch, but unlike Delicate you are not allowed to walk near or under it due to its unpredictable eroding. Still amazing, and all the more reason to visit before it is gone altogether.


Before we left the park, we drove to the very end of it, then headed out. Compared to the other national parks we visited (Yosemite or Yellowstone), Arches is relatively small. It takes only about 30 minutes to drive to the end of the park, whereas driving Yosemite could take up to three hours. We ended our day in Arches at about six in the evening and headed to find a camp spot near our next stop: Canyonlands National Park. There is no camping available in Arches or Canyonlands, but the surrounding area of Moab has plenty of campgrounds. We stayed at Horsethief Campground, which was first come, first serve and cost only $12 a night. We ended our evening with a dinner of rice, beans and grilled vegetables made over our gas stove, then fell asleep under a full moon.

Why Travel is Important

There is so much to remember; so much to hold close, treasure and retell. The trip we took filled us to the brim with stories: of deep red desert sands, of bitterly cold glacier lakes, of the darkest night skies drowning in stars, of breezy cities and of many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I think of our future children, how they will ask with curious minds (just as I did when I was young), “Mom, Dad, will you tell me a story?” And how Parker and I will reply with stories of adventure and laughter and love.


In the days following our arrival home from the trip we were frequently asked, “How was it?” For any other trip I’ve taken in my life the answer would be easy. I would know what to say in an instant and could give a synopsis of the trip in five minutes or less. But this was different. At this question we would pause, as a galaxy of stories and memories flooded through us as quickly as water flows down Yosemite Falls. I’d answer with a softened tone and eyes that wander, searching for the right words, but all I could muster was “Amazing.” And that wouldn’t nearly say enough.

So, in an effort to accurately share this month-long trip Parker and I took out west and to write down all the memories while they are still fresh, I will be posting travel journals here on the blog over the next few months. Each journal will be about one specific place from our trip (for example, Grand Teton National Park or San Francisco, CA) and will share our favorite memories from that place, the hikes we went on there, what we ate, where we stayed the night, price breakdowns, etc.


My hope is that these details will inspire you to plan a trip like this (or any trip at all) of your own. I believe that every person needs to experience the beauty and ruggedness that travel, adventure and road trips offer us. These have built my character, strengthened my patience, expanded my worldview and rejuvenated my creativity. I walk away from this trip inspired; excited to get back to my art desk and begin creating with fresh ideas and new perspectives. I know it can do the same for you too.