Beginner’s guide to Yellowstone National Park

I can’t overstate just how enormous Yellowstone National Park is, which can make planning a trip a little intimidating. Things are so spread out that the park itself has full-service gas stations and grocery stores. There’s just SO much to see at this national icon. So how did we pick?

I read American Wolf a few months before our trip (which by the way if you haven’t read, do so immediately) and have always been a huge wildlife nerd, so visiting the Lamar Valley was high on my list. Iconic geothermal features, like Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful, were our other must-do, along with seeing the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We optimized our four-day road trip (followed by three days at Grand Teton) to hit what we considered the most iconic areas of Yellowstone.

The best time to visit

Early September is a fantastic time to go. We arrived September 8th, and sure, things were less green than in the summer, but there’s less rainfall than June and the leaves are starting to change colors! Most importantly, the crowds have gone down. It was still busy, but definitely more manageable than peak season. And, we had wonderfully mild fall weather during the day without it being too cold to camp (although this was admittedly a little bit of a gamble and it could’ve been much colder).

Where to stay: Camping versus park lodging

Yellowstone lodging is EXPENSIVE. We were willing to pony up, though, if it was going to be too cold to camp (for us, that’s below freezing at night). Fortunately the weather held out and the hotels all have generous cancellation policies (free cancellation up to 7 days in advance). We made reservations at a lodge and a campground for the first part of the trip, and then cancelled our lodge stays once we could see the 10-day forecast. This is a HUGE savings since rooms can run upwards of $200 per night, but does require a bit of a gamble on potentially changing weather forecasts.

The $30 per night camping rate was much easier to swallow. Plus, the Canyon Campground had so many amenities we weren’t giving up that much convenience.

We camped the first two nights at Canyon and had access to showers, laundry, flushing toilets, bathrooms with electricity, and an indoor wash station for dishes. We were a three-minute drive from a fully stocked grocery store. Keep in mind the first-come, first-serve campgrounds sprinkled throughout the park have significantly fewer amenities (which is why we were glad to be staying at Canyon).

yellowstone river grand canyon of the yellowstone national park itinerary guide beginners
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (It’s called the Yellowstone because the name is referring to the Yellowstone River that runs through the canyon)

Canyon Campground specifically is an excellent jumping off point for lots of hiking around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and for a day trip to the Lamar Valley. The campground isn’t very private, but we quickly learned that none of the park campgrounds were. Read my full guide here for what it’s like to camp at Canyon.

Nearly every area of the park has a lodge, but since they’re so expensive it can be helpful to pick one to prioritize if you don’t want to camp the whole time. We chose the Old Faithful Inn because it’s a really cool historical landmark, plus we really wanted to visit the area and there were no camping options available there. We did manage to save a little bit of money on our stay at the historic inn with these tips and tricks.

interior of the old faithful inn at yellowstone national park log cabin
The interior of the historic Old Faithful Inn

The Old Faithful area is a great stepping off point for geysers and hot springs (aka geothermal features). It also has plenty of hiking options for more traditionally mountain-ey trails (including waterfalls). We ended our trip on the southern end of the park (where Old Faithful is) since that was where we planned to exit the park to head to Grand Teton.

All your reservations (for camping and lodges) have to be made well in advance, even for the less-busy fall season. We booked all of our camping and lodging in January right when everything opened up for the calendar year, but if you don’t get on it immediately, cancellations are relatively common so you might get lucky if you check back frequently.

Our four-day itinerary

Day 1: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

We arrived at the southern entrance to Yellowstone in the late morning after driving in from Riverton, Wyoming (about three hours away). We stayed in Riverton the night before so we could split the 10-hour drive from Denver into more manageable pieces. Lander is another option to do this – there’s very little difference in distance between the two towns (although Lander is prettier), we just needed a Holiday Inn so we could book with hotel points and the one in Riverton had availability.

Our final destination was our campsite in Canyon Village, but we explored the southeast corner of the park on our way there to get a glimpse of Yellowstone Lake and the Hayden Valley (you drive right by/through both of them on the way to Canyon). We set up camp and then hit the trails!

If you only have time (or desire) for one hike, I would recommend the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone over the South Rim. Both are just a few minutes drive from the campground.

The South Rim is much busier thanks to Artist’s Point (more on that in a moment), but the views from the North Rim were even more stunning and really blew Artist’s Point out of the water. Hiking farther down the North Rim Trail would also give you the same canyon panoramas that our hike to Sublime Point did. However, Artist’s Point is completely paved and therefore easier to access.

grand canyon of the yellowstone lower falls north rim
The view from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

South Rim – Artist’s Point (no hiking involved): Artist’s Point is one of the more famous overlooks. It’s right next to a parking lot so getting there doesn’t require any hiking. Even in the less-busy September season, we were packed in like sardines with tour buses of people. And, once we saw the view from other overlooks, we realized it wasn’t really worth fighting the crowds for a view from Artist’s Point.

South Rim – Hikes from Artist’s Point (3+ miles round trip): Our first choice was the Uncle Tom Trail, but it was closed for construction in September 2018. Instead, we hiked to Point Sublime (approximately three miles round trip) which had beautiful views of the entire canyon. Ironically, the point you end up at isn’t the most stunning view, but the views along the way are tremendous and it was a great way to stretch our legs and get our first taste of Yellowstone!

I appreciated that all the trail options were fairly flat. The Sublime Point Trail also had just enough people on it to help me feel more at ease since I was really scared about running into bears.

North Rim – Brink of the Upper and Lower Falls (approximately one mile total): In the early evening, we went back out to hike these two trails that, as the names imply, are at the brink of two huge waterfalls. The Lower Falls are the bigger of the two, and are the ones you would’ve seen from Artist’s Point.

The hike to the lower falls overlook (it’s literally a deck right on the brink of the waterfall) is short (half a mile total) but steep. Don’t let this stop you, though! There are plenty of places to sit and take a break and this was absolutely worth the hike back uphill. The vantage point is unmatched. I get a little bit of vertigo around steep drop-offs, but wasn’t bothered by this overlook and am SO glad I went a little out of my comfort zone to do this.

view from brink of the lower falls yellowstone itinerary national park guide for beginners
Jaw-dropping, maybe a little hair-raising, and absolutely worth the steep hike!

We got back in the car and continued driving down North Rim Drive to the Lookout Point overlook to get a view back at the Lower Falls; this was the perfect way to cap off the evening and get the best view yet of the falls (also why you could skip Artist’s Point if you wanted to). If it’s daytime, you can also wander down the North Rim Trail as much (or as little) as you want!

All of these hiking options are no more than 10 minutes from the Canyon Campground entrance, one of the reasons I loved staying there.

Day 2: Lamar Valley

Lamar Valley wolf watching (1 hour from Canyon Campground): We woke up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Lamar Valley by sunrise. This is the best place and time to spot some wolves, which was one of my biggest priorities when planning our trip. Driving through the dark before the sun comes up is legitimately pitch black with no lights, so drive slowly and carefully!

We drove into the valley (outside of the Tower area of the park) until we saw a crowd of wildlife watchers, then pulled over and parked (in designated parking areas/shoulders, please do the same). We had regular binoculars, which ended up not doing much, so fortunately all the pros were more than happy to share their big fancy scopes, and their knowledge.

wildlife watching lamar valley yellowstone wolves beginner'sg uide
This is what you can see with the naked eye. Those brown dots are all buffalo, and the wolves were mixed in but not visible to the naked eye.

We saw an entire pack of wolves mingling with a herd of buffalo, so my day was made and the 5 a.m. wake-up call was 100% worth it! With the help of the more high-powered scopes people shared, we could see the wolves clearly enough to see the radio collars on their neck. I was so incredibly grateful for the generosity of others and really enjoyed having this quiet, shared experience with a small crowd of people, all committed enough to be there right before sunrise.

Breakfast on the road: After we got our fill of wolf watching, we drove a few more minutes north to a pull-out at Soda Butte Creek for a roadside breakfast. This camp stove was super easy to travel with and made it quick to whip up some oatmeal for a more filling breakfast before hiking.

soda butte creek sunrise yellowstone national park lamar valley itinerary guide road trip
Not a bad view for breakfast!

Trout Lake Hike (1.2 miles round trip): We made an entire morning of it in the Lamar Valley area by hiking to and around Trout Lake. My complete guide to this beginner-friendly hike is here. I highly recommend it for the stunning mountain lake views!

We got lucky with an especially still morning for our hike, which resulted in this epic reflection in Trout Lake.

Slough Creek Trail (pick your distance): On the way back from Trout Lake, we made a side trip to Slough Creek (30-minute drive total from Trout Lake) to do a bit more hiking and check out the campground. This is a first-come, first-serve campground that’s a bit more isolated, and we ended up being glad we had booked the more centrally-located Canyon campsite.

The trail that leaves from the campground is 14 miles total round trip, so we just enjoyed as many miles as we felt like doing before turning around. This trail was very pretty but much less heavily trafficked, which ended up making me too nervous to go more than a few miles. We didn’t see any wildlife except for some birds, though, so I’m sure I was overreacting.

Throughout our drive, we saw TONS of buffalo, most of which were just hanging out on the side of the road. Drive slowly and let the person in the passenger seat take photos so you don’t get into an accident.

bison graze on the side of the northeast entrance road at yellowstone national park
Yellowstone traffic jam

Tower Falls Overlook (100 yards): At the Tower Junction on your way back, there’s a restaurant and waterfall overlook. We weren’t ready to eat yet, but made one last stop to see the waterfall, which was an easy 100-yard hike out to the overlook. It was crowded, but I thought worth the stop and a nice way to split up the trip back to the Canyon area. Don’t be expecting the powerful falls of the Grand Canyon, though, especially in September. This lives up to it’s tower name – tall and skinny!

There are a ton of other quick overlooks to stop at between Tower and Canyon, which makes the drive back overall much more enjoyable than the trip out you made in the dark. Stop at whatever sounds interesting!

After napping off your morning at the campground, you could easily fit in more activities if you wanted to. We decided to hit the showers, at which point I unfortunately was fully hit with the altitude sickness I’d been struggling with all day and almost fainted. So the rest of our day was napping and spending time around the campfire, which was still very pleasant! 🙂

Day 3: Old Faithful

I was still feeling pretty crappy by morning, which only illustrates how important it is to stay hydrated and not underestimate the altitude of the park. I’m from Denver, after all, and still got altitude sickness! I chalked this up to spending the week prior at sea level, getting on a plane, then driving straight to Yellowstone, all while not drinking enough water. Stay hydrated and rest as much as you need so that you don’t suffer a similar fate.

Fortunately, Old Faithful is at lower elevation than the Grand Canyon area. We packed up camp and headed to the southwest corner of the park to check into the Old Faithful Inn (and visit urgent care). Don’t forget my tips for making your stay at the inn more affordable >>

Watch Old Faithful erupt: Fortified with some anti-nausea medicine from urgent care (there is practically a small city surrounding Old Faithful), we got ice cream at the inn and staked out a spot on the deck to watch Old Faithful erupt. The deck was way better than walking up to the actual geyser (we did both just to make sure) since you don’t have to fight the crowds as much. You can also hike up to an overlook above the geyser, which was recommended to us by friends, but unfortunately wasn’t going to work for me that day.

old faithful geyser erupts at yellowstone national park
Old Faithful erupting, as viewed from the deck at the Old Faithful Inn. A much better view than fighting the crowd you can see at the bottom of the photo!

Explore Upper Geyser Basin (3 – 4.5 miles round trip): The other geothermal features surrounding Old Faithful were honestly more interesting than Old Faithful. Even though the other geysers were less predictable, we still saw multiple eruptions. You can get really close to Castle Geyser, which turned out to be our favorite, but we also got really lucky with the timing of the eruptions. That can be hit or miss if you’re only there for a day or two.

The entire walk is pretty level and part of a boardwalk, making it very beginner-friendly. Even with altitude sickness, I was able to do the entire 3.5-mile loop. You can add on the Old Faithful Overlook to make it 4.5 miles or make it shorter by turning around whenever you want instead of doing the entire loop.

castle geyser erupts as a man observes from the adjacent walking trail
Castle Geyser erupting. You can see the boardwalk on the left side of the photo that lets you get even closer! It’s like a really smelly steam facial.

Wildlife watching and cocktail hour: We had a bunch of time to kill before our late-night dinner reservation, and this was a great way to do it. We took a short walk down to Castle Geyser around sunset and saw an entire family of elk! I was surprised by how many times I could walk around the boardwalk and not get tired of it.

Afterward, head up to the second floor of the lodge and jot down any wildlife you spotted on the whiteboard (and enjoy seeing what others have noted)! If you’re in the mood, grab a cocktail from the bar while you’re up there (we loved the Huckleberry Mule) and settle into a cozy leather chair and listen to the incredible live music. We were treated to piano the first night and a cellist the second. It was heavenly!

Dinner at the Old Faithful Inn: You have to make advance reservations to eat in the historic dining room. We did this pretty late in the game (a few weeks prior) so we had to eat dinner at like 9 p.m. The food was expensive and not bad, but I would keep your expectations tempered. We really enjoyed the experience of the historic dining room, but weren’t wow-ed by the food. It was better than the cafeteria options at the other surrounding lodges, though.

Day 4: Old Faithful’s Surrounding Areas

Breakfast at the Old Faithful Basin Store (aka Hamilton’s Store): Next door to the lodge is a more affordable and faster breakfast option than the buffet at the inn. Since we already got our historic dining experience in the night before, we opted to get breakfast here. It was still expensive, but the food was significantly better than the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. Definitely stop in for breakfast or lunch!

Hike to Mystic Falls (2.5 mile round trip hike after 8-minute drive from Old Faithful): This beginner-friendly waterfall hike leaves from the Biscuit Basin area, just down the road from Old Faithful. Make sure to take a lap around all of the geothermal features before or after your hike to Mystic Falls. At this point, my bear anxiety was finally easing up so I was comfortable with the fact that we only saw a few people along the hike. The bottom of the waterfall is a great place for a picnic lunch, too! Read my full trail guide here >>

The view of Mystic Falls close to the end of the trail

We originally wanted to do a longer hike to Fairy Falls (5-6+ miles), which I would still recommend if you have the appetite for something that long and aren’t recovering from altitude sickness. It looked beautiful in the guide book and was highly recommended by multiple friends!

Sunset at Grand Prismatic (approximately 2 mile round trip hike after a 15-minute drive from Old Faithful): This was another can’t-miss Yellowstone icon that was even more stunning at dusk! We hiked to the overlook and did the boardwalk that goes right up to Grand Prismatic, and I would recommend both. The overlook is uphill on the way out, but short and beginner-friendly (less than two miles total round trip). Adding on the board walk should put you at right about two miles total for hiking around.

couple stands at the grand prismatic hot spring overlook in yellowstone national park at sunset
The view from the Grand Prismatic Overlook (you can see people on the boardwalk next to it, we did both)

Dinner at the Bear Pit Lounge: A smaller dinner menu, but easier option than the dining room back at the Old Faithful Inn. Make sure to get a huckleberry-themed cocktail (or lemonade or dessert) to cap off your trip – huckleberry everything is a Yellowstone hallmark!

What I would do differently

Not get altitude sickness! Or at least done a better job of avoiding it by hydrating better.

I also would’ve worked on my bear anxiety much earlier on. We were on plenty of hikes that were screaming “bear country” (we were out in early morning, by ourselves/on less populated trails that were lined with berry bushes) but we still never saw a bear on a hike.

The only time we even saw a bear was on the side of the road headed to Grand Teton! My anxiety about bears interfered with our first few days of hiking, and I wish I could’ve been a bit more relaxed about things. Bring bear spray and be prepared, but try to leave your anxiety at home.

There are endless hiking options to choose from, and I thought we did a good job of picking the ones that helped us see what we came for. If you want to do more research on your own, this guidebook was really helpful in evaluating all of our options.

If you want to spend more time on the water, you could adjust your stay to include the Yellowstone Lake area. There is another really incredible historic lodge there – we took a quick peek on our way to Canyon but didn’t stay long. Had it been later in the day, getting a cocktail to enjoy in the huge sitting room overlooking the lake could’ve been fun. It also struck me as a romantic place to spend an anniversary. You would need either more time than just four days or you’d have to cut out Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon – neither of those were an option for us.

Overall, keep in mind that in four days you have to pick and choose where you want to go – you can’t see all of Yellowstone without more time. But our four-day trip focusing on the Canyon, Lamar Valley, and Old Faithful areas of the park was everything we were looking for. Bookend your trip with an additional three days in Grand Teton National Park. Here’s our itinerary >>

Other information

How to keep your car organized on a week-long road trip

What to pack for a road trip

Surviving Winter: Gear Up For Cold Weather Running

I got the urge to start running in mid-October, which was a pretty poor choice on my part. Within weeks of starting Project Become A Runner, winter arrived in Colorado. More recently, I decided to run my first half marathon in April…and start training around Thanksgiving.

Needless to say, I’ve been over (and under) dressing for winter running for several years now. It takes some trial and error, some sweaty days and some numb fingers, so let this beginner-friendly guide help you get a jump start on not freezing your booty off as winter runner!

Under Armour ColdGear compression layer and Big Logo Storm hoodie. Hat from my first race, the Ugly Sweater Run. Run the race and get one too!
Under Armour Cold Gear base layer (here) and Big Logo Storm hoodie (similar here). Hat from my first race, the Ugly Sweater Run.

A good rule of thumb is dress like it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is.

If you’re dressed right, you should be uncomfortably cold for just the first few minutes of your run before warming up and feeling good. If you’re wet with sweat, you’re overdressed.

There’s going to be some trial and error in the beginning (or, if you’re like me, at the beginning of every single winter). Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of things eventually.

Layers are your best friend.

Start with a long-sleeved base layer. This is the piece of clothing closest to your skin. You’ll be fine in cotton if you’re just starting out and aren’t outside for very long (ie you’re just trying to run a few blocks without barfing like I was when I started out). You might be a little uncomfortable, but you’re not going to have some catastrophic consequence (this is why I hate the saying “cotton kills” that I see on websites all the time).

On top of your base layer, add a hoodie, a fleece jacket, puffy vest, pretty much whatever you’re comfortable in or already have. If it’s windy, make sure your outermost layer is something like a raincoat or other waterproof/windproof material.

*However* if you are wearing something waterproof, you’re going to be MUCH hotter, so back off on the layers underneath. Windproof/rainproof materials just trap all of your heat – like a wrestler running in a trash bag trying to make weight.

A very windy day that I was grateful to be wearing a raincoat on. But I definitely regretted the multiple thick layers underneath – it was a cold and cloudy day, but my raincoat trapped so much heat I was DYING. And yes, I run with trekking poles, don’t @ me (do the kids still say that?).

Based on the ten degrees rule, you may be surprised by how few layers you need. Even as a slower runner (11-minute mile pace), I found myself getting totally drenched with sweat and overdoing it almost every run.

You probably won’t ever need a full winter coat to run in – but if you’ve driven somewhere else for your run, it can be nice to keep that in the car to warm up when you get back!

Torn between wearing shorts and long sleeves or pants and short sleeves? Try pants first.

Some people can run in shorts no matter the temperature, but my joints get very upset if exposed below 45 degrees. I also get really hot and sweaty on my upper half, so having more layers up top has been a one-way ticket to being both hot and freezing at the same time.

Switching to pants and short sleeves when it’s in the 40s has been a game-changer. If you’re wondering what took me so long, it was my preference for how shorts and long sleeves looked together. #fashion

Use what you have.

Are cotton leggings not meant for sporty activities ideal for running? No. Did I wear the ~fashion~ leggings I already had from LOFT for most of my first runs? Absolutely.

I am in no way insisting that you have to go buy ALL THE THINGS. Technical fabrics are pricey, and I know everyone can’t just go buy a whole new wardrobe of things to sweat in.

REI Venturi fleece jacket (two years old, they've changed the design a bit), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band.
REI Venturi fleece jacket (similar here), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band (similar here).

But if you buy one thing, buy good base layers. 

Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, technical fabric base layers are the best investment I’ve made. They make winter running so much more pleasant – getting (and staying) too wet and sweaty is SO much more miserable then just being too cold from under dressing.

If you can spring for it, merino wool is the cream of the crop – it stays warm no matter how wet it gets (especially helpful when you are still figuring out how many layers work best for you).

REI’s base layers are a less expensive option suitable for most weather. Under Armour ColdGear is great for when it’s REALLY cold (below freezing). SmartWool is my favorite merino wool brand (30% off as of August 2020!), but REI also carries a less expensive merino wool option (Thunder Blue color of the long-sleeve is on sale as of August 2020!).

Springing for leggings is the next best investment. I rocked those LOFT leggings for a long time because I maxed out at half a mile and wasn’t actually outdoors for very long. Once I got too cold and didn’t want my favorite leggings to get gross, I gutted up and spent $50 on insulated running tights. This seemed like a lot of money to buy something to sweat in, but they’ve lasted for years of near-daily use (I don’t run that often, I just wear leggings as pants a lot).

Leggings are harder to fit then shirts, so the best brand to get is the brand that fits you the best. I have two rules of thumb: Go for a name brand and get a pair specifically for cold weather. Normally, I love Target for cheap active wear. But in my experience, cheap leggings don’t stay up and I’m constantly pulling them up while I run (the exception: this pair on Amazon, but they aren’t for winter).

Insulated/cold weather leggings will also make a big difference in staying warm, too. This doesn’t have to mean bulky – UnderArmour makes the warmest tights I own but are still thin (and a lot of the models have pockets!!). Here’s their current selection. I also love UnderArmour’s leggings because they’re nice and long – I’m 5’7″ and their leggings cover my ankles!

Don’t forget your head and hands.

Gloves are important, even if they’re just the $2 bargain gloves from Target. Your hands will be numb and you will probably be hating life pretty soon if you go out with your hands uncovered. I wear gloves if it’s under 40 degrees. You don’t need anything super thick – I love these thin, but wind-resistant, ones.

For my head, I prefer an ear warmer since 99% of women’s hats don’t have a hole or similar place for your ponytail, and I’m not a low pony type of gal. This Outdoor Research ear warmer is awesome, but it’s so good at blocking out the cold and wind that it also blocks out a fair amount of background noise – don’t be surprised if you startle anyone when you think you’re talking to them in a normal voice volume. You aren’t. You’re yelling. And it’s awkward. Worth it for warm ears, though!

All the layers on a sub-zero morning. I was so thankful for the windproof ear band, and used the Buff (linked below) as a neck warmer. Going up this giant hill obviously made me really hot, but going down it I would get really cold again, which made it tricky to dress for.

As I started running a little longer (four or more miles) at a slightly faster pace (10-minute per mile pace), I realized my head was getting way too hot every time I ran. I had received a free Buff from work, and started using that as a headband. It’s much thinner than an ear warmer, but still moisture-wicking, making it another great option to keep your ears/head toasty!

The bottom line.

Dress like it’s warmer than it is. The 10-degree rule is a great starting point to figure out what works best for you.

Wear plenty of layers and don’t be afraid to experiment. There will be trial and error. If possible, invest in a moisture-wicking base layer shirt that isn’t cotton. Upgrade to non-cotton leggings next.

Don’t forget your extremities. Gloves, ear warmers, and Buffs are your friend!

One last thing: Safety.

It’s important to wear something reflective besides your shoes. Cold weather means shorter days, which means cars have a harder time seeing you. Consider a reflective vest like this one.

Consider a headlamp. If you live in a well-lit neighborhood, disregard this message, but the combination of questionable lighting and extremely questionable sidewalk quality in my neighborhood has made me a devotee of running with a headlamp. I run with a Black Diamond headlamp.

Best of luck with your trial and error! I mostly learned how to dress for running in the winter by wearing way too many clothes and getting too sweaty. That might happen you, too, but don’t worry – you’ll get to the happy medium eventually! Have fun out there.

Beginner’s Leaf Peeping Guide in Golden Gate Canyon

As an East Coast native, I wasn’t sure leaf peeping in Colorado could live up to the hype – after all, instead of an explosion of a billion different colors, you have “just” one color. Gold.

But there’s something about the contrast of the golden aspens against the evergreens that is just stunning. And there’s nothing like standing in a grove of dozens of bright gold aspen trees. But I probably don’t need to tell you that, because everyone and their mother goes leaf peeping every fall in Colorado!

Because I don’t love crowds, leaf peeping is a once-every-few-years outing for me. You need to bring your patience, set your alarm clock early (or really bring your patience), and embrace the fact that this will not be the time for solitude in nature. There will be Instagram influencers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park is the perfect beginner-friendly option for some leaf-peeping close to Denver. Keep reading for all of my tips for this trail of less than three miles!

How do I get there?

If you already have a state parks pass, you can go straight to the trail head via Coal Creek Canyon and Highway 72. If you don’t have an annual pass, you have to buy a day pass at the main entrance on Crawford Gulch Road outside of Golden. You can also buy a day pass (with cash or check) at the northeastern entrance to the park on Gap Road (the fastest way from Arvada or Boulder area).

The drive to the park itself is easy, but does feel like it takes a long time since the highway from Golden is curvy and slow going. Once you’re in the park, if you have cash, you can just pull over at the small kiosk immediately to your right after entering the park.

If you need to pay with a credit card, skip that line and make your next right to park at the visitors center (where I’m sure there’s another line, just one that will get you what you actually need).

Where do I go?

If you’re comfortable on very steep, curvy (but still paved) roads, I recommend taking the scenic route on Mountain Gap Road, just past the fishing pond area of the park. Be very careful and drive slow since the park will be very crowded with other leaf peepers and there will be people walking along the road.

Your other option is to continue on the park entrance road until it comes to a T at Highway 119. Turn right on 119, then turn right again after a few miles onto Gap Road. This is the same road you end up on after taking the Mountain Gap Road (similar names, which I know is confusing). This is also where the road turns to dirt and gravel, but nothing you’ll need four-wheel drive for. This way is a little longer, but is less curvy and steep.

It’s going to be a little bit of a sh*tshow with how crowded it is, so just emotionally prepare for that if you know it’s going to be annoying to you. You can try to avoid the crowds by getting there early, but there isn’t anyone to take your money until 9 am, so make sure to stop on your way out if you get there before then.

I was (very) pregnant at the time of this hike, so getting up early was not on the table. We arrived around 2 pm along with the rest of the metro area, so parking was already snaking up the rest of Gap Road. It had only gotten worse by the time we were done, so an evening hike may not help you much with crowds. Rangers are on hand to help you find where to park – don’t be a jerk to them if they tell you to go elsewhere, they’re just doing their job!

To start the hike, I recommend going counterclockwise on the Raccoon Trail loop so you end with the best views. It’s not immediately obvious where to go from the signs, so make your way over to the Panorama Point overlook (it’s a large gazebo-like structure) and pick up the trail heading to the left of that. Stay on the Raccoon Trail – if you end up about to cross the road, you’ve gotten onto the Mule Deer Trail and are headed the wrong way!

What is the trail like?

No matter which way you go, you’ll go downhill first before coming back uphill. Traveling counter-clockwise, you go gently downhill or are on a flat trail for the first half. There are two big hills after that, but they are short so don’t get intimidated. Lots of people take breaks, and each hill doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of going up to get to the top.

Overall, the trail is well-maintained and easy to follow, but it does get rocky in places so watch your step!

golden gate canyon beginner hiking leaf peeping raccoon trail

The first part of the trail is in pretty dense evergreens, which I loved. It smells like Christmas and the pine needles on the ground make the trail really soft.

Evergreens are beautiful, but that’s not what you’re here for, is it?

But then you open up into the aspen meadows and things start getting really scenic. Once you’ve climbed higher, you start getting glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the groves of gold aspen trees. There are two rocky outcroppings toward the end of the hike that make for excellent photo ops – and once you’ve gotten to the second one, you’re only minutes away from the parking lot!

golden gate canyon beginner friendly hiking leaf peeping close to denver

The trail map and various places online said this hike was more than three miles long, but it’s actually almost a mile shorter than that. My watch missed the first section (see screenshot below) but only measured our hike at 2.3 miles, so I can’t imagine it’s more than 2.5 miles round trip. It took us about an hour and a half, including several breaks, photo ops, and my mad dash into the woods to find a spot to pee (thanks third trimester).

You can see my emergency pit stop route on the right side of the loop 🙂

What should I wear and bring?

Always wear plenty of layers in the fall. It gets hot in the sun and going uphill, but any time you’re in the shade it was still quite cool. Golden Gate Canyon is also at significantly higher elevation than Denver, so make sure to check the weather at the park before you go. It’s typically 15 degrees cooler at Panorama Point than in Denver.

The day we hiked, it was unseasonably warm. I wore a t-shirt and fleece with leggings and a baseball hat. I got hot a few times, but for the most part kept my fleece on. You could wear grippy sneakers or hiking boots, it’s up to you. I opted for trail runners and was totally fine.

I also brought hiking poles which was a huge help for the rocky spots and those two big hills!

Speaking of those hills, make sure to bring some water and snacks. There isn’t anything immediately available at the trailhead, and you’re going to at least get thirsty. There is a convenience store along Highway 119 and snacks at the visitors center if you run out or need more.

What to wear hiking >>

What to bring hiking >>

Is it crowded?

Anywhere with aspens will be crowded in late September. But yes. It’s crowded. Parking is rough, there was a line to get into the park, and we hit a lot of traffic on the drive in too. If you want to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I’d recommend arriving shortly after sunrise or try a weekday.

The trail is also likely going to be very crowded when you first start out. Like to the point that you’ll wonder why you decided to do this and if you should just call it and go home. But be patient! After about 15 minutes, we had spread out enough that we weren’t still on top of everyone and their dog.

But that’s leaf peeping! Start early and bring your patience. It’s worth it!

Anything else I need to know?

The ideal time to leaf peep each year depends on the weather. We hiked this trail the first weekend of October which was just a little past prime (at least in 2019). A snowstorm was coming, so it was definitely our last chance, but there were some empty trees already.

Typically, the last two weeks of September are ideal. But this year (2020), it’s about to snow on Labor Day Weekend, so who knows! Not many trees have started turning, so maybe the early snow won’t affect things. (Wishful thinking?)

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines is a must-do if you’re visiting San Diego. It has stunning cliff views and plenty of beginner-friendly hiking options. Plus, if you’re a nature nerd like me, the Torrey pine trees are a completely unique species and there was a lot of cool wildlife and other plants throughout our hike.

My husband and I visited in mid-September (because we are perpetually making our travel plans around when we can avoid crowds). We weren’t able to do the classic beach walk because of the timing of high tide, and also because I was six months pregnant and didn’t want to wake up early enough to beat high tide or walk that far. I did really want some cool views, I just really did not want to hike up the cliffs to see them.

We originally aimed for three short trails – North Fork to see the Broken Hill Overlook, the Red Butte loop, and Guy Fleming. We didn’t make it to Red Butte because I was running out of gas and didn’t want to miss the crazy cool views of Guy Fleming. All in all, we hiked just over 2.5 miles on some beautiful (and flat) trails!

How do I get there?

Drive north from San Diego. Make sure you type Torrey Pines State Reserve into Google Maps so you don’t accidentally navigate to the golf course. That will get you almost there, but obviously not quite to where you’re looking to go!

Taking the 5 is faster, but driving through La Jolla is way prettier. Plus you can stop at Bird Rock Coffee, which ended up being one of our favorite finds during our trip. If you’ve never been to La Jolla, add a stop at La Jolla Cove to see the sea lions and take the scenic route back to stop at Mt. Soledad.

Ok back to Torrey Pines. Once you get there, there’s free parking at the beach and a paid parking lot for the reserve. Don’t be fooled, this is not the only parking lot and you don’t have to walk up the giant hill along the road. Pay to enter the reserve (they take credit cards as of Fall 2019), drive up to the visitors center, and park there. This takes you to the top of the cliffs and gives you easy access to a bunch of different trails.

The drive is easy. The road is paved the entire way, but does get a little steep and curvy – just drive slowly and keep an eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.

Where do I go?

There is only one road, so it’s pretty much impossible to get lost!

If you want to do multiple trails, park at the Visitors Center (and take a quick peek inside if you feel like it or want a free map). There’s a parking lot directly at the visitors center and one across the road – the one across the road is a few steps closer to the trails and bathrooms.

We hiked multiple trails – Broken Hill Overlook via North Fork Trail (~1.5 miles round trip), poking around very briefly at Red Butte (~10 minutes of waddling), and Guy Fleming trail – and walked a combined 2.63 miles on all three trails. If you’re interested in more, add on on the entire Red Butte overlook after North Fork. The trail starts at the parking lot across from the visitors center.

If you only want to do one trail, do Guy Fleming. It’s got insane beach views from the top of the cliffs, cool wildlife, interesting plants, and of course, the iconic Torrey pine trees. Instead of going to the visitors center, park at the Guy Fleming trailhead (2/3 mile total). The parking area will be before you get to the visitors center on your right. There’s a dirt shoulder off the main road where you can find parking.

guy fleming trail torrey pines hiking guide beginner friendly trails san diego la jolla
This is why the Guy Fleming Trail is a can’t miss! Guy Fleming is the white guy who was a big preservation advocate for Torrey Pines, but he seemed not awful based on the information plaques along the trail.

If you’re doing multiple trails, start with North Fork. A significant part of the trail is walking along a paved path/tiny road that gets hot very quickly. We started at 10 am in September and were very glad to be done (aka very very sweaty) by the time we were hiking back.

The North Fork trail is an “out and back,” meaning you hike out to the overlook and then hike back on the same trail. There are a few trail junctions, so make sure to follow the signs for North Fork so you don’t end up hiking all the way down to the beach, or missing the overlook by hitting South Fork. The trail was easily marked, so you will be fine!

After getting your Broken Hill photo op, hike back to the car and decide whether to add on Red Butte or go straight to Guy Fleming. It’ll likely be getting hot at this point, and Guy Fleming is also mostly in the sun (basically the entire park is mostly in the sun), so keep that in mind. This is also your chance for a pit stop at the port-o-potties (as of Fall 2019 the bathrooms were under construction). Make sure you bring hand sanitizer!

guy fleming trailhead torrey pines state reserve san diego la jolla hiking beginners guide
The Guy Fleming trailhead – you can see this sign from the road just beyond the parking area.

Whether you poke around Red Butte or not, drive over to the Guy Fleming trailhead to wrap up your day. It’s on your way out and there’s only one road, so it’s not hard to find! Guy Fleming is a “lollipop” trail, meaning you walk a short ways to a loop (so the trail looks like a lollipop on map). Because it’s a loop, it doesn’t matter which way you go. We went counter-clockwise to end up in the shade on the end of our hike.

What is the trail like?

The North Fork trail is mostly flat with scrubby brush until you get to the overlook. You can see the famous Torrey Pines golf course, but other than that the hike out isn’t particularly notable. The combination of desert plants and ocean is interesting, but the real reward is the view at the Broken Hill Overlook, which my photo honestly doesn’t do justice to.

broken hill overlook torrey pines state reserve san diego la jolla california hiking beginner friendly
Broken Hill Overlook

The Guy Fleming trail is slightly hillier, but more scenic for the entire time with two crazy cool overlooks. You also get to actually see the Torrey Pine trees on the north half of the loop, which can only be found in the park and on a few coastal islands. Plus, more pine trees means more shade!

guy fleming trail torrey pines cliff views la jolla san diego hiking for beginners
The beginning of the Guy Fleming loop if you go counter-clockwise (so the south end). It gets a little hillier than this between the two overlooks, but there are benches to take breaks on.

Keep a close eye out for the little lizards that live in the park! We saw them on both trails. Walking along the cliff overlook on Guy Fleming was also a great opportunity to watch the peregrine falcons swooping around. The trail also had a bunch of different cacti, including really huge prickly pear.

guy fleming trail torrey pines cliff views la jolla san diego hiking for beginners
These views were not bad. Looking north from the overlook on Guy Fleming – you can see the beach area where you came in to the park.

All of the trails were well-marked and easy to follow. I still recommend bringing a map just in case! The map makes everything look really far apart, but once you’re up at the top of the road, it’s actually all very close together.

What should I wear and bring?

We hiked Torrey Pines in September, on a sunny day with highs in the 80s. It got hot quickly, so dress for warm weather, bring lots of water, and slather on that sunscreen! I also recommend a hat or sunglasses or both – see my entire list of what to wear hiking here.

north fork trail broken hill overlook beginner hiking guide torrey pines
Denser vegetation on the North Fork trail, but still baking in that sun! I was glad to have a bottle of water with me while hiking.

I wore regular sneakers, not even grippy trail runners, and was totally fine. Parts of the trail are a little sandy, but overall there is nothing that you would need all-terrain shoes for.

You’re never too far from the car, so you don’t need to bring a backpack for the trails in this post. I was six months pregnant and eating every five seconds, so I packed plenty of snacks but just left them in the car. We had lunch back in Pacific Beach (where we were staying), but you could also pack a lunch to enjoy on the beach when you’re done hiking!

Is it crowded?

On the weekends, yes. In the summer, even more so. We went in September on a weekday and it was still very busy. This is not the place to go for solitude, but it is totally worth all the company for the views!

Do you have other Torrey Pines tips? Add them below in the comments!

What’s it like to pace or crew the Leadville 100 Ultramarathon?

Ultramarathon and beginner are two things that you may not think go together. While beginner runners certainly can’t stick with someone for 50 miles (the maximum length you can be a pacer runner at Leadville), there is absolutely a place for us at one of the most iconic trail races in the world.

Even if you aren’t a beginner runner, there can be a steep learning curve if it’s your first time in Leadville or if you haven’t been part of an ultramarathon before. This guide will cover just about everything you need to know, focusing on crewing since it’s the most beginner-friendly option.

What does it mean to crew?

First, let’s all get on the same page. Running an ultramarathon is a really difficult thing to take on, so most races recommend you have a crew to support you along the way. The person or people who make up the crew meet their runner at some or all of the aid stations along the way.

Your runner wants to spend as little time at the aid station as possible so they can get back on the course and finish the dang thing. The crew arrives at each aid station well ahead of their runner with a bin of supplies you’ve organized with them ahead of time and/or the drop bag they packed for that aid station. The aid stations at Outward Bound, Twin Lakes, and Winfield let the crew pick up a runner’s drop bag, which is a handy time-saver.

Once you get to the aid station, you set up shop and wait for your runner to arrive. Once they get in, you leap into action like a NASCAR pit crew and get them in and out as efficiently as possible.

Of course the ONE photo I took all day was of all the dudes helping our male runner. Ladies were represented too, I promise!

You make sure their pack is full of all the food and water they need, that they have appropriate clothing for the next leg (in Leadville, runners have a river crossing, 15,000+ feet of elevation change, and very chilly nights, so this is a must!).

The crew is critical because you need at least one person who is reasonably well-rested, not worried about running, and whose sole focus is “do we have everything we need?” This only gets more important as the race goes on and the runner’s cognitive abilities and general executive decision making get more and more compromised. You’re their back-up brain! Plus it’s a big morale boost for runners to see friends and loved ones throughout the race .

What does it mean to be a pacer?

For the last 50 miles of Leadville, runners are allowed to have one person run with them. This is a pacer. You’re there to keep them moving at a steady pace (whether they have a time goal or simply need to finish within the time cut-off) and serve as a kind of on-the-go crew, particularly once nighttime arrives and fatigue sets in!

For Leadville, you’re also allowed to carry the runner’s pack for them. But mainly, you’re there make sure they’re eating, drinking, moving, and at least somewhat happy (as happy as you can be trudging through 100 miles). If you have cell service, you can also communicate to the crew what your runner might want at the next aid station.

Pacing is a delicate balance of knowing when to encourage someone, when to give them some tough love, and when to go easy on them. It can be difficult to pace someone you don’t know or if you aren’t familiar with long-distance running yourself, but trust your instincts and discuss what kind of feedback motivates your runner ahead of time.

Trying to stay warm before my leg of pacing! Behind me is the spread for three runners – it’s more organized than it looks!

Most sections of the race are at least ten miles, but it’s possible to be a beginner runner and help pace. There’s a four-mile section that is actually incredibly helpful for a runner to have company for because it’s in the middle of the night through a very boring cow field.

If you have a training goal of running a longer leg, get after it! Just remember that this is not at all about you. You run when your runner wants to run, you run at their pace, you walk when they need to walk – your runner comes first. You’re there to support them, not to worry about your own distance or time goals.

What do I need to know to crew?

Honestly, it’s not rocket science. You have to be organized and able to follow your runner’s directions. You also need to be flexible, be able to think on your feet, and have a good sense of humor.

You need to take care of yourself (more on that later) but also keep in mind that you’re doing this in service of someone else’s goal, not for yourself. It’s not the end of the world if things go wrong, and it’s not helpful to get mad at your runner or fellow crew members. You just need to problem solve!

Plans change, things go off the rails, runners forget to tell you things, but at the end of the day it’s a wonderful privilege to be worried about the logistics of an ultramarathon. If that’s the worst thing happening in your life, you’re doing pretty well.

What should I do before the race?

Familiarize yourself with the aid stations. The race is one long out and back, so the runners go through every aid station twice. As of 2019, crew and pacers can access the May Queen, Outward Bound, Treeline (unofficial crew access between Outward Bound and Halfpipe, a lot of people just call it Halfpipe or the field at Halfpipe), Twin Lakes, and Winfield.

Remember how I said you need to be organized and have a sense of humor? I forked up the directions to the Treeline (unofficial) aid station on our way back from Twin Lakes, and my friend and I ended up driving to Mount Elbert by accident.

Fortunately, we had over an hour of cushion, so we still arrived to the actual aid station with plenty of time and didn’t miss our runner. And the drive was really beautiful, to be honest.

But also to be honest, I had a brief panic attack when I realized my mistake. My friend just thought it was a funny and interesting side adventure. Fill your crew (and your life) with people like that!

Crews, pacers, runners, and the beautiful views at Twin Lakes.

Make a plan. It’s important to sit down with your runner ahead of the race (even if it’s just the night before) and familiarize yourself with what they’re packing in their drop bags or what they would like you to bring to every aid station. That way you’ve discussed everything when they are alert and well-rested (the opposite of what they will be in the middle of the night).

For example, my runner really wanted hot soup at a particular point so I was waiting for her at that aid station with a thermos in hand. And, because I forgot to ask where they were ahead of time, I was scrambling to find her caffeine pills when she specifically asked for them later on.

Know when they’re arriving (approximately). You also need to estimate when they’ll be arriving at each aid station so you can plan accordingly. You should be ready to see your runner at least 30 minutes before you think they’ll arrive, which means you are physically at the aid station with all of their stuff ready to grab and go.

Buffer time is most important for getting to Winfield and Twin Lakes since both of those are kind of a sh*t show to get to. Getting to Winfield in 2019 involved taking a shuttle that took several hours and we had to park almost a mile away from the aid station at Twin Lakes.

I love a good spreadsheet, so I put all of this information in a Google sheet, downloaded the app, and kept it handy throughout the weekend (make sure you make the sheet available offline). You can see it here.

Cell service will be spotty. Download the race guide, maps, and directions to all of the aid stations ahead of time. You also won’t be able to communicate with your runner or track exactly where they are, however you can sign up for text alerts for when they go through each aid station. This helps you guess more accurately when they will show up.

In the second half of the race, if they have a pacer and you have the pacer’s phone number, you may be able to call or text them to get an update on roughly how far out they are. But keep in mind that the pacer may not be able to regularly check their phone because they’re keeping the runner going!

What should I bring to every aid station?

Pack light and bring a few things for yourself. This might be difficult if your runner is channeling any anxiety into packing ALL THE THINGS, but try to pare down as much as you can.

Bring only the essentials for yourself: a camping chair, water, snacks, an extra layer, sunscreen, your wallet, and your phone. Always make sure to bring a camping chair (the Helinox Chair One has come in SO clutch here because it’s so lightweight, but it is expensive).

I keep more of my stuff in the car and repack what I need to bring in my backpack for each aid station. This includes hand sanitizer, bug spray, plenty of snacks, and extra sunscreen along with all of my layers for the weekend.

You’ll likely also have a bin or some other container of your runner’s stuff to carry.

The bin! And everything that went in it, plus some back up supplies that I brought in my backpack.

Every aid station has port-o-potties that the crew can access, but you can’t access the water or other snacks at the aid station. Those are for pacers and runners only, so make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day (10,000 feet of elevation is no joke).

What should I wear?

The temperatures (and weather in general) can vary wildly. You’ll need plenty of warm layers for overnight, but in the daytime, it’s quite hot in the sun (and cold in the shade). I bring a small duffel bag of a bunch of different layers, including:

  • Winter-weight leggings
  • Beanie
  • Gloves
  • Winter coat (doubles as a rain jacket)
  • Fleece jacket or pullover
  • Shorts
  • T-shirt
  • Light-weight long sleeve shirt
  • Baseball hat and sunglasses

My winter coat unzips into two layers, which helps me save space. I kept the outer shell with me all day as a windbreaker or raincoat, and swapped out other layers in my backpack as needed. Just make sure you have something warm and a raincoat!

I wear running shoes all day. It can be nice to change socks halfway through the day as a little pick-me-up, so I usually bring a few pairs. You’ll need warm clothes for the start and for once it gets dark. Make sure to bring your own headlamp and, if you have them, lanterns for your car for crewing in the dark. This lantern from Black Diamond is my favorite.

What’s it like to crew for Leadville?

You will walk a lot. Every runner has at least one car following them, meaning there are at least 800+ vehicles attempting to meet a runner throughout the day. As people drop out or get cut off, this obviously goes down. Cars also get more spread out throughout the evening as the runners get more spread out, but for the first half of the race, be ready to park far away (potentially 1-2 miles) from the aid station and walk there.

In 2019, I walked more than seven miles. I didn’t even go to all the aid stations, and I was actually trying to limit my walking for the day! (I was preggo and had symphysis pubis disorder).

You’re going to be very tired. It’s a very long weekend emotionally, so even if you’re not running, you’ll be headed to bed at 7 pm on Sunday. You need to make sure you get some sleep before then though. You can’t support your runner well if you’re also completely frazzled.

Trying to catch some z’s …what a view to sleep through!

You can split the day into two semi-reasonable shifts if you skip a few aid stations. You can either have multiple members of your crew to make sure all the aid stations are covered, or discuss with your runner which ones they would be okay with you skipping (particularly if they’ll have a pacer with them).

Most of all, it’s going to be an experience like nothing else. The trail running community is awesome. There is a sense of camaraderie that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, that maybe can only be forged when you’re running 100 miles through the woods (or helping someone do so). Leadville is a world-famous race, but the competition is far from cut throat and everyone is out there to help each other and have as much fun as they can. You’ll be tired, you’ll be inspired, you might cry at the finish line.

It’s a really cool experience that anyone can be a part of – so don’t hesitate to join in if you get the chance!

What does your typical weekend look like?

The race starts at 4am Saturday, and if all goes well your runner will finish sometime Sunday between midnight and 10am.

This was how I did it in 2019 with my husband and our friend (both pacers, but helped me out as crew when they weren’t running). For reference, this was our third year crewing/pacing and I thought we did the best job logistically this time!

We stayed together all day except when one of them was pacing, so you could cover more aid stations if you split up more then we did. Our runner prioritized nighttime pacing and morale boosts, so as always, talk to your runner about their own preferences.

  • We woke up at 3:30 am to go to the start line with our runner. We went immediately back to the house and went back to sleep afterward, so we were back in bed by 4:30 am or so. We skipped May Queen because the crew can’t do much for you there. This is a point where you could split up if it was really important to your runner to see someone at every aid station.
  • Arrive at Outward Bound to really start the day (8:30 am for my runner). Be prepared to be out until after lunch time.
  • Next you have the option to meet your runner at Treeline (unofficial crew station along the road), or go straight to Twin Lakes. We went straight to Twin Lakes because we were worried about parking being a nightmare (it was). There’s a food truck at Twin Lakes and a general store if you need to buy anything. Both accept credit cards as of 2019!
  • We skipped Winfield because of the shuttle fiasco and because our runner didn’t want a pacer until she came back through Twin Lakes.

~NICE BIG BREAK~

We went home, ate, slept, and got ready for the night shift. This was at approximately 12:30pm for us. We didn’t need to leave for Twin Lakes until 4:30pm.

  • Arrive back at Twin Lakes. We weren’t going home again until 11pm or later, so both pacers brought all of their running stuff with them. Your runner’s needs at every aid station vary, but at this point, your runner will be wet and it’ll be dark or getting dark, so a change of clothes and a fresh headlamp is a must for this aid station.
  • Meet runner and pacer at Treeline for a quick morale boost. This is usually your biggest break because Twin Lakes and Treeline are about 20 minutes apart driving but takes several hours to run. This is a great time to sleep in your car because you just park right next to the road your runner comes down. Our runner got into Treeline at 10pm.
  • Go directly to Outward Bound, switch pacers, and go home to sleep (this was around 11:30pm for us). We left May Queen to the overnight pacer because we wanted to wake back up at 3:30am to see our other friend finish and we knew we wouldn’t be able to do both. But, we kept our phones on loud in case anything went awry.
  • Wake up and meet your runner at the finish line! We did this twice to see both friends. If you only have one runner finishing, you could add on May Queen overnight and not feel TOO horrific if you’ve gotten a nap earlier in the day/evening.

Have other Leadville questions? I’m all ears! Drop them in the comments.

Beginner’s Travel Guide: Three-Day Weekend in Moab, Utah

Moab is a popular destination for Denverites, Coloradans, and plenty of other of my neighbors out west. If you haven’t made a road trip to this desert destination, put it on your list! The only challenge is deciding what sights to see (and resigning yourself to the fact that the town is way less cool than all of the crazy awesome nature surrounding it).

Yes, Moab the town is not my cup of tea. The Main Street is a four-lane highway that isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly. There are long waits to cross the street and lots of traffic noise since there are semis and off-roaders galore driving through. There are huge crowds and a lot of tourist trap restaurants and stores.

But, it’s all worth it for the surroundings. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and other public lands around the city are all stunningly beautiful. There’s enough to make two weekends out of it – here’s how I’ve spent them myself.

Getting There

If you’re driving from Colorado, make sure to take the scenic route down Highway 128. It only adds about 15 minutes to the drive and you follow the Colorado River for the entire second half of the drive. It’s absolutely gorgeous and 100 times more scenic then taking I-70 the entire way. Take 70 home so that you can save the time on the return trip – it can feel like a long drive back otherwise.

Another hot tip for Coloradans: stop for lunch at the Hot Tomato in Fruita (best pizza ever) and then mosey over to Best Slope Coffee for a caffeine roadie and some snacks to tide you over for the rest of the drive. Once you leave Fruita, you’re kind of also leaving civilization until you get to Moab, so make sure to stop in this funky little town (I’m biased, it’s one of my favorites).

Where to Stay

If you can arrive by mid-day Thursday, you can try to score a free BLM campsite along Highway 128. There are a ton of options, but they fill up quick.

Your non-camping, but still affordable, alternative is the Lazy Lizard Hostel. Billy and I have stayed in one of the cabin rooms (pictured above) as well as the dorm-style rooms in the main house. The hostel is certainly not fancy, but it’s basically clean and super cheap.

All of the rooms at the hostel have shared bathrooms, but they’ve all got hot showers and are shockingly hair-free considering how many people go in and out of them. There are also plenty of hotel options, they’re just super expensive so we slum it at Lazy Lizard.

When to Go

Spring and fall are the best times to go to beat the heat and the crowds. It is sweltering in the summer in Moab, plus the parks are even more crowded since everyone is on summer vacation.

I’ve gone twice in late March and had beautiful weather and empty trails both times. I like going in the spring because it’s typically warmer than Denver during the day and gives me a little preview of summer when I’m super tired of chilly weather at home.

Day 1: Friday

After arriving to town, grab a quick dinner at the Food Truck food court that’s right downtown. Parking is…a mess so don’t even attempt to get into the parking lot that backs up to the food truck area. Just find street parking on a nearby street, even if you have to walk a few blocks. Moab is flat, so you’ll be fine!

Catch the sunset at either Canyonlands National Park or Dead Horse Point State Park. Make sure to pack layers (it gets surprisingly windy and cold!) and a headlamp, flashlight, or your phone to make your way back to the car safely.

Both parks are about a 45-minute drive outside of town. Billy and I got to town at 5, grabbed dinner at the food trucks, and then went straight to Dead Horse Point to make the 7:40 sunset. This left us about 30 minutes to walk around before staking out our spot for sunset. Here’s my trail guide >>

Sunset at Canyonlands

If you go to Canyonlands (Island in the Sky is the name of this region of the park), you’ll be almost totally alone, which some people prefer. Drive through Canyonlands until you get to the Grand View trailhead. There isn’t a bad spot, so wander around on the trail until you find a rock to sit on that’s facing west.

If you’re comfortable staying until it’s dark, the stargazing at Canyonlands is unreal. Just make sure you download a stargazing app before you leave town so you know what you’re looking at!

Day 2: Saturday

For First-Timers

If it’s your first time visiting Moab, start at Arches National Park and do the Devils Garden hike (trail guide here).

Double O Arch at the end of Devils Garden Trail.

You’ll want to get an early start to beat the heat and the crowds, and there are no quick options for breakfast in Moab (even the McDonalds is pretty slow). You’ve got access to a kitchen at Lazy Lizard, so pick up a few staples at the grocery store on your way into town. To be honest, I normally just get Pop Tarts to eat on the way to the trail #vacation.

For Trail Runners

Get a run in on beautiful desert single track at the Pipe Dream trail just outside of town. You’ve got rolling hills (okay, there are a few big ones), views of the mountains, panoramas of the town and the desert, and you can choose your own adventure. The trail goes for just over nine miles, so go for as long as you want and turn back for home when you’re ready for lunch.

In heaven on Pipe Dream!

After a shower and a nap, head out to dinner at Arches Thai. This is my favorite dinner spot in Moab – and yes, I know, it seems random for a good Thai place to be in this small little town in the middle of this giant state of white people. But trust me!

For Return Visitors or If You Have 4 Days

If you’ve already been to Moab, or if you have four days, make the drive to the lesser-visited Needles area of Canyonlands National Park. It’s an hour and a half south of Moab and a really unique landscape. The drive is beautiful and easy, and you have your pick of tons of beginner-friendly trails. Here’s my beginner-friendly guide >>

The Needles area of Canyonlands is like a trip to Mars…and I mean that in the coolest way possible.

For Sunset

No matter where you spent the day, if you’re feeling up for another trip out to a park for sunset, go to Arches (yes, even if you’ve already been there). Delicate Arch is a complete zoo at sunset, but the Windows Loop Trail is less crowded and you see multiple different arches that still make good photo ops!

The view from the top of the Window Loop trail in Arches National Park at sunset.

Day 3: Sunday

Before you head home, grab breakfast at Elektra’s. Just be ready to wait! It’s a small little cafe on your way out of town with plenty of yummy options and a fun local feel.

If you’re feeling super ambitious, you can get up at the crack of dawn to do sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. However, I’ve never had it in me to get up that early and also be with hundreds of my best friends.

After breakfast, it’s time to head back to reality (unfortunately). While the tourist trap-ness of the town is less appealing, to me it’s worth dealing with for everything that surrounds it. If you can swing four days, make sure to hit all of the spots I’ve mentioned. If not, just make sure you go back!

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Needles Area of Canyonlands National Park

If you’re making a return to trip to Moab, I highly recommend blocking off a day to go to the Needles Area of Canyonlands National Park.

Needles is a totally different landscape than what you see at Islands in the Sky (the main section of Canyonlands) or at Arches National Park, two of the more popular destinations in the area. Since Needles also is much further from town, it’s way less busy.

Because of the longer drive, the trip is only worth it if you also want to hike for a few hours. I recommend hiking part of the trail to Druid Arch, but there are also options for combining a bunch of overlooks or loops less than a mile.

How do I get there?

Needles is an hour and a half drive south of the town of Moab. There’s one rest stop along the way, but otherwise it’s very remote with almost no services. Unsurprisingly, the scenery is stunning, so make sure to switch drivers on the way home so everyone can get the views.

There’s a general store right at the park boundary, but it was closed the day that we went (a Saturday during spring time). It wasn’t clear when it is actually open, so don’t plan on it!

The drive to all the overlooks is on paved roads, but if you want to hike part of the way to Druid Arch, you do have to drive on an unpaved, narrow, windy road. It’s not super rocky or anything that needs four-wheel drive. If you get carsick easily, you may feel a little nauseous.

Where do I go?

The hike to Druid Arch leaves from the Elephant Hill trailhead. But first, drive to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook (stop at the Wooden Shoe Overlook on the way).

wooden shoe overlook rock formation beginner hiking needles canyonlands
The Wooden Shoe! It’s discrete. But worth the two-second stopover.

The entire hike to Druid Arch is 11 miles round-trip, which I didn’t want to get into, so we just planned to hike the trail until we wanted to turn around. The trail has the “needle” rock formations that the area of the park is named for, plus a lot of other red rock formations that are really beautiful and interesting.

But, if you don’t want to drive on an unpaved road or drive as far as Elephant Hill (it’s three miles on a dirt, windy road so it does take a while) there are shorter options.

You can do the .6-mile loop at the Big Spring Canyon Overlook and/or the Cave Springs loop on your way back out of the park. That loop is also just over half a mile total. The park website says ladders are involved, but we didn’t make it that far down the trail so I’m not sure what that actually entails. You can also stop in at the visitors center to get some ranger recommendations!

If you only go to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook, you won’t be disappointed.

What is the trail like?

Assuming you start the hike to Druid Hill, it’s steep at first before becoming much more rolling. I was having an especially bad day of morning/all-day sickness thanks to being in my first trimester of pregnancy, so I was admittedly on the struggle bus for the first 15-20 minutes of the hike because of how steep it was. I was glad that I brought hiking poles and also glad that the trail evened out shortly after that!

The trail itself is a mix of dirt and slick rock, which is what the red rock is called. It’s not actually slick (assuming it’s not currently raining) but it does make it harder to tell where the trail goes. Since it’s not as obvious, you do have to pay close attention to where you’re going. Be on the lookout for little piles of rocks, called cairns.

druid arch elephant hill beginner trail guide hiking canyonlands needs alrea
Billy (dark blob at the top of the photo between the two shrubs) is ahead of me on the trail. The tiny pile of rocks in the middle of the photo is a cairn marking where to go. So yeah. Not super obvious.

Since we weren’t doing the entire trail, I was worried we wouldn’t get to see any of the good stuff. I was totally wrong. You go through a bunch of different landscapes – starting out, it feels kind of like you’re on Mars. Later on, you walk through some wide-open areas with cacti and views of the “needles” rock formations. There were also some rocky canyons to scramble through (nothing too difficult though, just a fun adventure!).

We turned around just after going through the smaller canyon pictured below. The trail got really difficult to figure out after that point, so it was a great time to turn around! Just get a photo op first.

Almost to the turnaround point. I’m fairly petite and could still reach my arms out a little bit when we walked through. It’s a very short little slot to get through, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting claustrophobic.
druid arch elephant hill hike canyonlands national park beginner guide
We legitimately couldn’t figure out where to go beyond this point, so we just turned around instead. Obviously, there are enough people around that you can ask someone to take your picture (which I like).

What should I wear and bring?

LOTS of water. There’s a place to fill up your reservoir or water bottle at the Visitors Center. Even in the springtime (the best time to go), it’s very easy to get dehydrated.

Most of the trail is in the sun, so make sure to slather yourself in sunblock, wear sunglasses, and throw on a hat.

I also highly recommend layers in the springtime. The days are deceptively chilly, even when they’re sunny! I was in pants and long sleeves the whole time, but was happy to start out with a beanie and light jacket on top of that. For the record, Billy thought this much clothing was totally overkill.

I wore trail running sneakers and was totally fine, but saw a lot of hikers in boots, so it’s up to you! Just wear something supportive and grippy since there are a lot of uneven surfaces. Here’s my complete guide to what to wear hiking >>

Since you can’t depend on that general store being open, make sure to bring plenty of food with you. You’ll have three hours of just driving, plus however long you hike for. I was ready for lunch by the time we got back to the car, so I was very grateful that we overpacked when it came to food (and, let’s be real, everything else). Those PB+J supplies came in extremely handy!

Here’s my list of what to bring on any hike >>

Is it crowded?

Spring is one of the most popular times to go to the Moab area, so you won’t be by yourself, but Needles is certainly less crowded than Arches or the Islands in the Sky part of Canyonlands.

The trail to Druid Arch is one of the more popular options at Needles, so it was a little crowded at the beginning of the hike, but then everyone spread out and we only saw people every 20 minutes or so. For me, this was ideal. I like to see people every once in a while so that I know if I were to break my leg, someone would run across me fairly quickly. Plus, you can always find someone to take your picture!

The trailhead is also the starting point for an off-road route. When we first parked, we saw about 10 Jeeps headed up an adjacent trail which was noisy, but ultimately didn’t affect our hike.

Anything else I should know?

Go in spring or fall if you can. The summer is just insanely hot and not pleasant, plus you run a much higher risk of dehydration (and just having a bad time). We went the last weekend in March and the weather was perfect.

We didn’t see any wildlife, but I was surprised to learn that this part of Utah is still bear country. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see one, but the Canyonlands website has good information about what to do if you do.

Make sure you pull over at Newspaper Rock on your way back to Moab. It’s an amazing place to see carvings of petroglyphs, and it’s right off the road!

Needles is well worth the drive if you have, but if it’s your first time in Moab, save it for when you come back. Start at Islands in the Sky and go to Arches for your first trip, and do Dead Horse Point State Park and Needles for your second time out.

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Sunset Hike at Dead Horse Point State Park

Arches National Park may get all the love for sunsets in Moab, but I’d much rather watch the sun go down over the jaw-dropping canyons of Dead Horse Point State Park.

The cheery name has just about as cheerful of a story behind it, but don’t let that keep you from going! The west side of the Rim Trail has a bunch of gorgeous overlooks or you can watch the sunset from the main overlook at Dead Horse Point. This is the most beginner-friendly option, not because the trail is particularly demanding – it’s just hard to keep track of at times!

How do I get there?

Dead Horse Point is a 40-minute drive outside of Moab, but in the busy spring season (the best time to go, weather-wise) it could take you a bit longer. We arrived in town around 5 p.m., quickly grabbed dinner to go from the food trucks downtown, and headed right back out to Dead Horse to make the 7:40 p.m. sunset.

The drive is easy to do with any car. The entire way is paved, and the only obstacle you may encounter are the free range cattle – just make sure to obey speed limits and be prepared to stop!

If you stay to watch the entire sunset, you will be driving back in the dark and there are absolutely no streetlights. If you’re uncomfortable driving at night, just leave at least 30 minutes before sunset and you’ll be fine. The overlook for the sunset itself is right at the parking lot, so there’s no hiking back in the dark.

Where do I go?

There’s only one road through the park, which makes it pretty difficult to get lost. The road dead ends at the parking lot at the Dead Horse Point overlook, so it’s also difficult to miss that. The West Rim Trail leaves from this parking lot.

The trail is harder to find, however, because it’s not particularly well-marked. The sidewalk to the overlook and the beginning of the trail is kind of hidden behind the bathroom. Follow the sidewalk to the bathroom, keep walking past the bathroom, and on the right you’ll see the overlook as well as the trail that takes you along the western rim of the canyon.

There are these handy signs periodically along the trail!

What is the trail like?

If you’re just sticking to the overlook, the path around the it is completely paved. The West Rim trail is mostly sandy dirt or slick rock. Slick rock isn’t actually slick unless it’s raining; it’s just what people call the red rock you’re walking on top of.

The rim trail itself is very flat, so it’s beginner-friendly from an effort standpoint. But, it requires a lot of work and paying close attention to stay on the trail. In the desert, everything is the same orange color. It’s pretty, but harder to keep track of the trail. It’s not as obvious as hiking in the woods where it’s easy to tell where the brown strip of dirt is taking you.

This is as “hilly” as it gets. But as you can tell, it’s not super easy to see where the trail leads. This was about as obvious as it got.

The aren’t signs pointing you along the trail (except at the overlook points), so you have to look for little piles of rocks called cairns to tell you where to go:

what is a cairn desert beginner friendly moab hiking dead horse point state park
I’m pointing down at a cairn. Beyond it, in the upper right-hand corner, you can see another one (just barely). That’s how you tell where to go on several parts of the trail.

Fortunately, you’re not far from the road or a parking lot at any point, so it’s hard to get *too* lost. If you wander off the trail, you’ll either end up at the edge of the canyon rim or on the road.

We hiked for about 1.5 miles total without getting lost, but for a first-timer, it could be a little intimidating. You can always just stick to the overlook!

What should I wear and bring?

Tons of water! This goes without saying any time you’re in Moab, even if the weather isn’t that hot. There’s a fountain to fill up your water bottle at the visitor’s center (you’ll pass it on the way to the overlook) if you’re running out by the time you get to the park.

The wind in Moab makes it deceptively cold – even when it’s in the upper 50s, I’m pretty bundled up. Once the sun starts going down, it cools off very quickly. I wore winter running tights and a long-sleeved, toasty fleece to hike and added a beanie and my puffy jacket to watch the sunset.

I wore trail running sneakers, which were totally fine for the trail. You’re in the desert, so it’s obviously pretty dry. It’s very fashionable in Moab to wear Chacos or Tevas or some other outdoorsy sandals, but they just aren’t for me. If you like them, get after it!

For more information on what you should bring hiking no matter what trail you’re on, read my previous post here.

Is it crowded?

In the spring, which is my favorite time to go, we shared the sunset with about 20 other people. That may sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to Arches National Park. I still felt like I could enjoy the park’s solitude and natural beauty even though we weren’t totally alone. It definitely felt less touristy and crowded than Arches, and very few people were hiking the rim trail before sunset.

The crowds are comparable to Canyonlands, which is just down the road. We’ve also done sunset there and it’s another great option!

Anything else I should know?

Hiking around the western side of the rim is the more scenic side, but the eastern side (even if you just go to the other side of the parking lot) also has stunning views of the La Sal Mountains.

I didn’t see a single animal the entire time we were in the park, but it’s surrounded by open range, so you’ll likely see some cattle on your drive back to the main highway that takes you back to Moab. In April, it’s too early to see rattlesnakes, but always keep an eye out for where you’re stepping (just in case!) and don’t go digging in any rock piles.

sunset over deadhorse point state park
Sun setting over the canyon, as seen from the main overlook on the West Rim.

Beginner’s guide to hiking on a glacier in Alaska

Glacier-related activities are one of the main reasons to go to Alaska, and the absolute highlight of our trip was actually hiking on one. We signed up for MICA Guides‘ Advanced Trek on Matanuska Glacier north east of Anchorage, and despite the name, the only experience you need is a healthy sense of adventure. Time is running out (thanks global warming) to hike on the glacier, so if you’re thinking about a trip to Alaska, make it happen and go with MICA!

What does hiking on a glacier entail?

Walking around on a glacier does require equipment and expertise, but that’s why you go with a guide! MICA (pronounced Mike-uh) provided ice picks (although if you’re preggo they won’t let you carry one lest you trip and stab yourself), helmets, harnesses, and crampons (giant spikes to put over the bottom of your hiking boots) plus all the climbing equipment (ropes, etc) that was needed.

The hike approaching (and partially on) the glacier.

As you may have guessed, that means there is some climbing involved, but again, your guide is an expert. I’d been rock climbing once and ice climbing once, so I at least had an idea of what to do, but my husband had never done either and was totally fine.

The only climbing we did was up (and then back down) a small wall of ice. Going up wasn’t too difficult – I was pregnant and did it pretty quickly. Billy got to use an ice ax so that certainly makes the ascent easier! I did get really nervous having to descend back down, but Lacey talked me down (literally). Both up and down only takes a few minutes – it actually took way longer for Lacey to set up all the rope to belay us safely (which she’s doing, so there’s no way to fall!).

At no point are you teetering on the edge of some massive crevasse. Our guide Lacey took safety super seriously and always scouted out our route ahead of us before we proceeded as a group.

Basically, you hike out to the glacier, put on your crampons, hike around on the glacier as much or as little as you want, and then turn back for home. The Advanced Trek we did was kind of a build-your-own adventure trip. We were ultimately out for three and a half hours and covered just over five miles, but if you want to do less, that’s absolutely an option. This was my Big Activity for the trip that I was most looking forward to, so I went into it wanting to push myself to experience as much as possible.

My legs were VERY tired afterward, but your guide teaches you everything you need to know to actually do the trek. No experience necessary!

Lacey teaching me how to walk in crampons downhill to maintain traction and control my momentum. She was phenomenal!

Why did you want to go hiking on a glacier?

You experience a totally different side of the glaciers – you’re up close and personal, not far away like you are on a kayaking trip or cruise. Those are still amazing options, but I wanted something uniquely Alaska, and this definitely delivered.

I’m not a huge geology nerd, but I still absolutely loved finding out all the different characteristics and parts of the glacier. We got to see this crazy beautiful lake in the middle of the glacier, big ice walls, rushing melting water that formed little rivers under the ice, and all kinds of unique things. All surrounded by huge, lush mountains. What’s not to love?

Not something you see everyday.

Another good reason to go is that glaciers are melting, so you literally won’t be able to see them in the future. In just another few years, it won’t be safe to hike on Matanuska Glacier.

However, glaciers also naturally change all the time. So the insanely cool lake we saw during our trek? Probably gone in the next few weeks. And plenty of people wander elsewhere and never stumble upon it. Your experience is totally unique to you, and maybe just a few other people who happened to take the exact path you did within a few days of you. Pretty amazing.

What should I wear and bring?

Hiking boots. But MICA can provide those for you if you don’t have them. It’s not comfortable to put crampons over boots that don’t cover your ankle, so this isn’t negotiable.

Definitely make sure to have a windproof layer like a raincoat or winter jacket because it will be rainy or windy or both at some point. The glare off the ice is also pretty intense, so bring a baseball hat and wear sunglasses.

Long pants are also a must, and I wore hiking pants because they were my most comfortable option. Normally, I don’t advocate for buying new stuff unless you absolutely have to. But if you’re splurging on a trip to Alaska, you might as well also get some hiking pants and be super comfortable. Whatever fits you that you like is your best option – I tried on basically every pair in REI and settled on the cheapest one I liked the most, which happened to be their Kornati pants. If you also have the build of a tall 12-year-old boy, these might work for you!

Bring a meal to eat for lunch, plus a few snacks. You’re burning a lot of calories and you will get hungry. Fortunately, if you don’t bring enough, or if a random pregnancy craving for Cheetos strikes, you can get some snacks from the MICA office (actually a yurt). MICA also has a little coffee shop on-site if you need a morning pick-me-up.

Bring plenty of water as well – I brought a liter and drank almost all of it. You can pee on the glacier, but you can’t poop on it, so plan ahead 😉 There’s a bathroom at MICA with running water and a port-o-potty at the trailhead for the glacier.

Lodging and dining recommendations

We stayed at Alpenglow right next door, which is a very cool glamping experience that I highly recommend. We didn’t want to drive all the way back to Anchorage all in one day (we were EXHAUSTED after our trek) and glamping sounded intriguing.

Alpenglow was way cooler than staying at a lodge nearby thanks to beautiful views of the glacier and surrounding valley, complimentary check-in beer, yummy breakfast, and a hot tub! There are also lawn games and a fire pit to just hang out. We (I) was too exhausted to do that, and it was kind of rainy and cold still in May.

An evening beer at Alpenglow, looking out at the Matanuska Glacier.

I was very nervous about being cold overnight because the tents don’t have heat. I don’t know what magical material the bedding is made out of, but we stayed toasty warm even with the weather in the 40s. I slept in a t-shirt and shorts!

Before settling in for the night, satiate your hunger at the Sheep Mountain Lodge. We followed our guide Lacey’s advice and she was spot on – don’t miss the berry crisp! You can pay to shower here if you want to, but we decided to stay grubby and head back to glamping after stuffing ourselves for dinner. The entire Matanuska Valley is stunningly beautiful, so the lodge is worth it for the drive and berry crisp alone.

Everything you could possibly want after a big day of hiking.

Overall, you don’t need any experience for this must-do Alaskan experience. You just need a sense of adventure! If you do one thing while you’re in Alaska, make it a trek on Matanuska (or any) Glacier and go with MICA Guides.

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