Beginner’s Trail Guide: Grewingk Glacier Lake in ​Kachemak Bay State Park

At just over six miles round-trip, our trek around Kachemak Bay State Park was our most ambitious hike of the trip. However, thanks to it being almost completely flat except for the last mile, it wasn’t nearly as strenuous as I thought it would be. You can also do a slightly shorter hike by only hiking to Grewingk Glacier Lake and then coming back to where you started. We decided to continue on the Saddle Trail after Glacier Lake to a different endpoint. If you’re up for it, I do recommend that route because it’s beautiful and the Saddle Trail is entirely different than the first part of the hike.

The whole 6.1-mile hike, plus an extended lunch break, took Billy and me three and a half hours. The most intimidating part of the hike was its location, not the trail itself, since like I said it’s surprisingly flat. The nerve-wracking part is getting dropped off on a beach by a water taxi and then just saying “see you later at a different spot!” while you hike through a park with no civilization. That was the biggest leap out of my comfort zone, but I’m so glad I did it because the hike was a trip highlight!

kachemak bay state park homer alaska beginner friendly hiking
The scenery is okay, I guess. This is your final overlook at Halibut Cove when you are almost done on the Saddle Trail.

How do I get there?

Via water taxi from the Homer Spit. This is the expensive part of the hike. Round trip, we paid about $70 for both of us to get picked up and dropped off. That also includes the state park fee for both of us. So while technically it’s not that expensive if you consider everything that’s included, I initially had sticker shock.

Taking a water taxi also seemed logistically intimidating, but it actually turned out to be really easy. The night before our hike, we drove over to Mako’s Water Taxi to book our tickets. The staff was super helpful and friendly.

You can kind of pick your pick-up and drop-off times, but they’re trying to make their trips across the bay as efficient as possible, so they may not be perfectly aligned to your schedule. We had to wait about 30 minutes at the end of our hike before we got picked up, but we just relaxed on the beach, watched sea otters play, and snacked. It was actually quite delightful.

The water taxi dropped us off at the beach for the Glacier Lake trailhead and picked us up at the Saddle Trail trailhead in Halibut Cove. This is a pretty common route, and recommended because it’s steep getting up/down from the Saddle Trail trailhead and most people (including me) would rather walk down it than slog up it.

Looking very excited to be getting dropped off on a remote beach. This is the trailhead for the Glacier Lake trail.

Where do I go?

Once you get dropped off on the beach, you just walk until you see the bright orange triangles denoting the beginning of the trail. This was the first time I got a little anxious about there not being a highly-structured way of doing things. I kept thinking, “But what if we miss the sign? Why don’t they just drop you off right at the sign? How do I know if it’s the right sign?!” etc etc. Right around the time I was worried we had gone too far and missed it, we saw the (very obvious) sign to start the trail.

The entire trail was very straight-forward and surprisingly well marked considering how remote it is. There’s one option from the beach, and every junction had a sign telling you which way to go.

Everyone’s attitude about the outdoors in Alaska is fairly informal. The hike is “about” this many miles, just look for the orange triangle, you get picked up and dropped off on a random beach, don’t worry! This initially made me really nervous because I like to have ALL THE EXACT INFORMATION when I’m doing something out of my comfort zone. But it really did all work out easily and my anxiety was (shocker!) unfounded.

What is the trail like?

The first part of the Glacier Lake Trail starts in the forest on nice, wide dirt trails. Then it turns to a pebble/rocky trail and opens up for most of your walk to the lake. Had it been sunny, this would’ve been very hot. Mostly, it just got a little monotonous until we got to Grewingk Glacier(which was well worth it).

Something about walking on these pebbles made it feel like it was taking forever!

The glacier lake is super cool, with a bunch of little icebergs and obviously the glacier to ogle at over lunch. The glacier is at the opposite end of the lake from you, so you’re not super close, but it’s still very beautiful. The beach itself is rocky, so be careful if it starts raining because it will get slippery.

Once you get on the Saddle Trail, the scenery changes pretty quickly back into the enchanted forest-type experience you had at the beginning. The trail gets a little more narrow and there are more roots sticking up, so just make sure to pay attention.

Your final turn-off before you start going down.

The descent down to the beach on the Saddle Trail is steep, and I was really glad to have hiking poles for this section. It wasn’t rocky or otherwise technical, but the poles helped me feel like I could control my momentum a little better. There is a short flight of stairs at the end of the descent, which are very steep and made me a little vertigo-ey for a second, but again, the poles helped here. Plus, it was only a few dozen stairs. The picture in the water taxi office made it look WAY worse.

Totally doable!

What should I wear and bring?

We had a cloudy start that turned into a beautiful, clear day with temperatures in the lower 50s in late May. I run cold, so I wore a long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, and windbreaker with long pants.

I ended up getting VERY hot on the Saddle Trail, since the sun came out and we did have to walk uphill for a little while. But if I had dressed any lighter, I would have been freezing sitting at the glacier lake for lunch. As with every hike in Alaska, dress in layers! And as usual, I wore hiking boots and was glad to have them; Billy wore trail runners and was happy in those. It’s personal preference since it wasn’t very wet.

Bring a meal with you to eat at the glacier and plenty of water to keep you hydrated throughout the day. My go-to combination is a PB+J, apple, and beef jerky. Also, don’t forget your bear spray. Our AirBnb host had some we could borrow – that’s the most convenient option if available since you likely won’t use it and you can’t bring it back on the plane. You’re kind of on your own out there (see the next section) so make sure to bring a first aid kit, too.

Binoculars came in super handy for our entire trip to Alaska, and I was really glad to have them with us again on this trail. We saw a bear (more on that later) and were able to enjoy the sea otters in Halibut Cove thanks to our binos – without them, we wouldn’t have seen any otters and the bear would’ve just been a black blob.

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

Is it crowded?

In May, it was laughably uncrowded. This was the other beginner-scary part of the hike. There’s a trail log at the trailhead that you fill out in case of emergency, so you know exactly how many people are out there with you.

The day we got dropped off, there was me, Billy, and another guy hiking around. That was it. It was at first kind of unsettling that there was legitimately NO ONE else out there, not even a park ranger. But I knew we had all the supplies we needed and that the water taxi company obviously wouldn’t be in business if they regularly left people stranded at the state park, so I eventually started to enjoy it and not feel so nervous.

Hanging out on the beach, just the two of us, waiting for the water taxi.

We were totally alone until we saw one other group of people once we got on the Saddle Trail who must have started on that side of the park. Then were by ourselves again until the water taxi picked us up. I was pleasantly surprised that I really got into the solitude and enjoyed it. The entire day was definitely out of my comfort zone, but felt like a great step forward for calming my nerves and feeling more comfortable in the outdoors. (Going to Yellowstone first and working through a lot of bear anxiety then may have helped me feel better on this trip)

Anything else I should know?

I know I buried the lede on this one, but we also saw a bear. When you arrive at the lake, there is a fairly long beach you can walk down and find a spot for lunch. Once we were done exploring and turned around, we saw a rather large blob that was (naturally) blocking the trail back.

After observing from a distance for a while (thank you binoculars!) we realized we didn’t want to get stuck on the beach or have the bear come toward us since there wasn’t a way for us to get out of the bear’s way in that scenario.

I had already been singing and shouting and making a ton of noise on the first part of our hike to help ease my anxiety about running into a bear. Billy and I reached an absurd new volume at this point, screeching at the top of our lungs as we walked back up the beach.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep an eye on the bear the entire time because of the curve of the beach. By the time we reached the spot we knew the bear had been, it was gone. I didn’t *want* to see the bear up close, but I would have liked to know just where it went.

We continued scream-singing and made our way back to the main trail, where we quieted down and didn’t see or hear the bear (or any other wildlife) again.

All of this is to say is that if you’re on a trail in Alaska and there’s not many people around, you might see a bear. But it’s going to be okay. They don’t really want to hang out with humans, and if you make a lot of noise, they’ll know you’re coming and won’t be surprised (which is where things typically go awry). Don’t let it stop you from getting out there!

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park

The three-mile round trip hike to Exit Glacier was the most beginner-friendly trek I did during our road trip to Alaska. And don’t worry, beginner-friendly doesn’t mean you lose out on panoramic mountain views and an up-close look at a big ol’ glacier.

The entire hike took me just over an hour, with plenty of photo op stops and breaks to take a breather. Most of the trail is flat (the first half is paved) and there’s really only one steep-ish hill. I hiked it three months preggo and it was definitely the most manageable (pregnancy hack: just use hiking poles all the time) of the hikes we did in Alaska.

How do I get there?

Exit Glacier is conveniently located just outside of the town of Seward. It’s inside Kenai Fjords National Park, so you will have to pay a fee to access it (or be prepared to show your national parks pass!).

The drive there is completely flat and all on paved roads (with stunning views, may I add). I recommend stopping for breakfast crepes at Le Barn Appetit. We were in town early in the tourist season (mid-May), and Le Barn Appetit started out being our last ditch attempt at finding a breakfast place that was open (and, I still wanted breakfast at 11 am). It turned out to be a super cute and delicious stop pre-hiking. Word of warning: the crepes are no lie a foot long, so Billy and I split one and were both full at the end of breakfast.

Go for the massive, delicious strawberry rhubarb crepe. Stay for the eccentric owner’s stories about how much he hates Belgium.

After Le Barn Appetit continue on Exit Glacier Road until it dead ends at the national park. It’s pretty much impossible to take a wrong turn; there are a few campgrounds and overlooks along the way, but just stay on the main road and it will dump you right into the main parking lot.

Where do I go?

There’s only one option from the parking lot, so that makes it easy! The Lower Trail leaves from the nature center (which in Mid-may was unfortunately closed) and continues to the base of the glacier (or, at least, where the base of the glacier used to be). Don’t worry, the bathroom at the trailhead is open year-round!

The Harding Ice Field Trail is a more advanced trek that in May was still mostly snowed in. You can always hike up part of it if you’re there later in the summer; it’s supposed to be beautiful!

The Lower Trail turns into gravel after starting out for the first 3/4-mile or so on a wide, paved path. The map at the trailhead makes it look like the glacier overlook is super far away, but it’s about 1.5-miles of mostly flat trail to the overlook. We stayed on the main trail and didn’t take any turns, following the sign for Exit Glacier Overlook.

On the way back, we took an extra little loop by following signs that said they took you to the parking lot. Admittedly, the trail loop names were a little bit confusing and not consistently marked like they are on the map. Besides the Harding Icefield Trail, everything is a loop that will eventually get you back to the parking lot, so you can’t get too lost.

The other half of the loop we ended up taking went down ti the riverbank, which provides another really beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and forest. Plus, the river water is a super weird, milky color that was cool to see up close!

milky grey water forms the river flowing out of exit glacier in kenai fjords national park beginner-friendly hike
I didn’t get the chance to ask the park ranger on duty why the water looks like this, but I assume it has something to do with all the minerals draining out from the glacier as it melts.

What should I wear and bring?

Most of the hike isn’t in the shade, and we happened to have a beautiful, clear day with temperatures in the lower 50s in late May. I run cold, so I wore a long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, and windbreaker with long pants. You won’t work up too much of a sweat on the trail, since like I’ve said, it’s pretty flat. But the wind seems to always be blowing, so I was very glad I was dressed as warmly as I was. I recommend a windbreaker layer on top of whatever you wear.

I wore trail running shoes, and there’s not really any reason you need hiking boots or any waterproof footwear. The one water crossing has a a nice, wide board for you to walk over and half of the hike you’re on the paved path. I even saw one woman doing it in Uggs!

I brought water and food even though the hike was “only” an hour because I was pregnant and eating every four seconds. You’re probably fine not bringing a backpack or much besides your car keys and phone (and a camera and binoculars). But I’m not an expert, so bring what makes you feel comfortable. Here’s a great list that I’ve put together >>

Is it crowded?

A cruise ship bus dropped off about 50 people right as we were on our way out, and it definitely felt crowded with all of them on the trail at once. I imagine it’s much worst in the main tourist season when there are multiple cruise ships in town at once. That’s why we decided to go in May!

Even early in the season, this was one of the more well-traveled hikes that we did, but I never felt annoyed or crowded until we ran into the cruise ship group. I try to remember that everyone’s just experiencing the outdoors in the way that works for them, and we’re all lucky to get to see this crazy cool place in real life!

Anything else I should know?

Exit Glacier is a prime example of why you shouldn’t procrastinate going to Alaska any more than you have to. The park’s interpretative signage does a remarkable job at highlighting how the glacier has changed, and how those changes have accelerated as our climate changes.

For example, I was wondering why they built this fancy seating area with such a crappy view. Then I read the signs nearby that explained that the benches had a perfect view of the glacier when it was built. It’s receded since then, and the forest grew up in its absence. There are also signs throughout the park that mark where the glacier used to be in previous years – the one from 2010 really threw me for a loop.

exit glacier interpretative sign marks where the glacier was in 2010, about a half-mile from where the glacier starts today

Plus, the Exit Glacier Overlook only keeps getting further away every year. The park used to “chase” the glacier by extending the trail as needed, but at this point they’ve decided to stop. The view is still incredible, but changing all the time! If nothing else, make global warming the reason you prioritize going to Alaska for your next big trip.

Beginner’s guide to Kenai Fjords National Park kayaking trips

You don’t get many opportunities in life to kayak to a glacier, and it’s hard to know if those Insta-worthy photos you see are something that’s actually doable for beginners. Don’t worry – as long as you can follow basic directions and enjoy being on the water, you can do a kayaking day trip in Alaska.

But what if I have the arm strength of a toddler? Won’t I be freezing cold and wet? Is it really even that cool or just Instagram just make it look that way?

You can still do it. Neoprene is a magical material. And yes, 100% yes, it is really that cool.

(Although, disclaimer, my pictures from the kayak don’t look that cool because it was raining and we only had our phones taking photos through a plastic sleeve to keep them dry).

Which trip did you go on?

We booked a trip in late May with Liquid Adventures, which is based out of Seward. Our trip was the Private Boat Ailiak/Northwestern Kayaking trip. I know you’re wondering, so let me just tell you now: Aialik is pronounced ay-EYE-lick.

“Private Boat” doesn’t mean we had the boat to ourselves. It just means that there is a privately contracted boat (Captain Jess RULES) that takes you out to the area where you actually go kayaking. I mean, we basically had the boat to ourselves because we went early season and there were only two other people booked on our trip (normally they have as many as fourteen).

What does a “day trip” involve?

As the name implies, you will be out for the day. If you’re not going kayaking immediately in Resurrection Bay (or whatever body of water is closest to you), you have to get to your kayaking spot first. Our trip involved a few hours boat trip out to Aialik Bay, kayaking around the bay and up to a glacier (the specific one varies based on weather, we ended up getting dropped off in Holgate Arm and seeing Holgate Glacier), eating lunch at the glacier, and then kayaking back.

Our guides at Liquid Adventures were absolutely fantastic. Erin and Josh were super safety-conscious, very knowledgeable about Seward/glaciers/kayaking in general, and a lot of fun to hang out with for the day.

At first, I thought the two-hour boat ride out to Aialik sounded super boring, but assumed it would be worth it for the kayaking part. Thanks to Josh, Erin, and Captain Jess, we had a great time (plus it was fun getting to know the other two people also on the trip). The not-so-fun part was the stormy seas we had, and I started getting pretty nauseous. Erin gave me some tips that made me feel much better, and Jess kindly gave me a break by pulling behind some barrier islands at one point.

What should I wear?

It rained the entire time during our trip, so I had bundled up in all of my warmest layers with waterproof outer layers. If you don’t have waterproof layers with you, you can borrow some from Liquid – the other two on our trip did that and were very happy with how dry they stayed! Josh and Erin gave us kayak “skirts” to keep the water out of the boats and outfitted us with neoprene mitts to put our hands in while we paddled.

Kayaking FASHION. The things around our waist are the skirts – they attach to the boat to form a seal that keeps all the water out when it’s raining (it rained a lot this day).

I was skeptical as to how much the mitts would make a difference, but they were a game-changer. They kept me nice and warm (and relatively dry) for the several hours we were out kayaking. Since you’re exerting a fair amount of energy while you’re paddling, you stay nice and toasty the whole time.

Do I need to know how to kayak?

I’d been kayaking twice before this, and honestly there’s just not that much to it. Although it’s not rocket science, Erin and Josh gave us a really helpful tutorial before we got started, taught us about the boats, and obviously were there along the way if we needed any help.

They also got everything on and off the boat (this looked like a real pain in the ass so I’m glad they did it). Erin and Josh made sure all of our gear and life jackets were on correctly and overall were super professional. They weren’t going to let anything bad happen to us or do anything that was outside of our capabilities (or lack thereof).

The water is really calm where you’re actually kayaking, so it’s not like you’re contending with waves or even much of a current. The wind will make certain directions a little bit more difficult, but that doesn’t have anything to do with your own skills.

If you’re concerned about getting crushed by a giant piece of ice falling off the glacier, that also isn’t an issue. Big waves and small kayaks don’t mix, so the guides don’t take you any closer than 3/4 of a mile or so from the glacier.

And, worst case scenario, you have a life jacket on! But Josh has been guiding paddle trips for years and said he had never had a client flip a kayak. It would honestly be really hard unless you’re REALLY horsing around.

But about my lack of upper body strength…

I said I was going to workout more and get stronger arms before we went to Alaska, but let’s be real, that didn’t happen. So I was nervous. About five paddles in, my arms were on fire and I was like, “Oh god, what have I done?!” Fortunately, I was in a double kayak with Billy (highly recommend having a stronger person in the rear of your kayak) so he could pick up my slack.

At first, we were trailing the others and I was starting to worry about holding everyone up. Then I took a look around and remembered we were all here to experience the stunning scenery. Plus, the other group did get tired eventually and we all evened out pace-wise.

Once you get into looking at wildlife, watching waterfalls pour down the insanely steep cliffs surrounding you, and oh yeah…paddling around freaking GLACIERS, no one is really all that worried about how fast you’re going.

My arms actually started feeling better the longer we were out (once they had warmed up/gotten used to what we were doing) and I ended up being totally fine. I wasn’t even sore the next day!

So what do you do in the kayak?

We saw bald eagles, mountain goats, sea stars, harbor seals, lots of birds, and also learned a ton about the stunning surrounding scenery in addition to just taking it all in. I have never seen anything like Alaska, and it was amazing to experience in real life (even in the pouring 40-degree rain, so that tells you something!). Besides the main show of the glaciers, you’re surrounded by super steep mountains that have waterfalls pouring down them. It’s pretty magical.

Seeing glaciers in real life and learning about the changes Alaska has seen does bring global warming and climate change to life, for better or for worse. But I didn’t feel super depressed/sad about the world. I just felt like I knew a lot more and would continue doing my best to be a good steward of the planet. And, selfishly, I felt incredibly lucky to witness it before things change even more.

Not a bad lunch view.

On days that it’s not pouring rain, you have a boat picnic and eat lunch out on the water (Liquid feeds you and their brownies are AMAZING). Since it was pouring, Jess picked us up a little early and we enjoyed the glacier views from the warm and dry interior of her boat. This was when I really realized that I had actually gotten pretty wet and was the first time I actually felt cold.

That two hour boat trip back sounds like it might suck though…

Things only got better on the way back because the focus is wildlife watching on the water. We saw sea lions, porpoises, and most importantly….orcas. I’m *obsessed* with orcas so this was honestly the highlight for me.

It was still pouring and cold out, plus windy being out on the ocean, and I was out there grinning like a fool watching the orca longer than anyone else. I was *that* person still out there after everyone else was like, “Okay we’ve seen the whale we get it let’s go.” Fortunately our boat captain was also a big wildlife nerd 😉

So incredible!!

Despite (or maybe because of?) our long orca detour, the ride back seemed to fly by. We were pretty exhausted afterward, and getting a “Bucket of Butt” at Thorn’s Showcase Lounge was the perfect low-key dinner before passing out early.

Thorn’s is a glorious dive bar that was recommended to us by our guides. They’re known for really good white Russians (Billy can confirm) and their “bucket of butt” which is fried chunks of halibut. After pairing that with cheesy tots, I was ready for bed immediately after we finished. Billy drove us back to our room at Alaska Paddle Inn and we were down for the evening (by 8 p.m.).

All in all, the kayaking trip was really spectacular and definitely something uniquely Alaska that is still beginner-friendly. I highly recommend it, and if you’re in Seward, go with Liquid Adventures!

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Tonsina Trail in Seward, Alaska

Seward was one of our favorite towns during our Alaska road trip, and I could’ve stayed a week there for the hiking alone. There were a ton of great options, and the Tonsina Trail in Caines Head Recreation Area was a fantastic way to kick off the trip. While steep in places, this 4.5-mile round trip is worth the heavy breathing to reach the beach at Tonsina Point. You’re rewarded with panoramic views of Resurrection Bay and the surrounding mountains.

If you don’t want to go that far, normally I would say just go as far as you want and turnaround…but there aren’t really any cool views along the way. Just being in the northernmost rainforest in the world is pretty cool, but a word of warning that there aren’t any breaks in the trees for pretty scenery until you get to the beach.

The less cool view…is still pretty cool. The featured image at the top of the blog is the beach view.

Hiking the 4.5 miles took me two hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, so make sure to budget your time accordingly and bring plenty to eat and drink. The nice thing about Alaska is all the daylight you have in the spring and summer, so you won’t have to worry about running out of light for hiking!

How do I get there?

Lowell Point State Recreation Site is the easiest way to access Tonsina Point. The upper parking lot is a 10-minute drive from town and parking is $5 per day. I recommend you stay on Lowell Point at the Alaska Paddle Inn, a 10-minute walk from the trailhead.

The drive is straightforward since there’s only one road to Lowell Point, however it’s not paved and is also filled with potholes. You don’t need an SUV or any four-wheel drive capability, you just need to be prepared to go slow! Walking to the trailhead was uphill but nothing crazy; just keep an eye out for car traffic since the road is narrow. If you don’t walk to the trailhead, it’s probably half a mile shorter.

Where do I go?

Once you reach the parking lot, there is one obvious option to take. The trail leaves from the end of the parking lot with the restrooms and informational kiosk. If you do get turned around, you may accidentally find the connector trail to the lower parking lot, which will take you the wrong way. Just make sure you’re headed uphill and not downhill and you’ll be fine!

This is the trailhead you’re looking for! I look shiny and wet because I was already a little damp. It rains a lot in Alaska!

There’s only one point on the trail that it’s a little confusing which way to go, which is in the first mile. You’re hiking along a private driveway at first, and eventually the trail splits from the driveway. Bear right at that fork to continue uphill and follow the signs for the trail. You won’t run into any other trail options while you’re out there, and the trail is very easy to follow through the forest.

What should I wear and bring?

Something waterproof! We ended up hiking almost entirely in the rain, and I was very grateful to have a waterproof jacket. Hiking pants ended up being water-resistant enough that my legs stayed dry, too. I dressed in lots of layers, which is the key to any hiking in the springtime in Alaska.

It was in the mid- to upper-40s during our hike, so I wore a warm long-sleeved base layer, a fleece hoodie, and my winter coat plus a beanie and gloves. On the bottom, I had on long underwear and my hiking pants. I run cold, but I did end up getting quit hot on the hike back since a lot of it is uphill. Make sure to leave a little room in your backpack for peeling off layers.

There are two water crossings, plus you’re walking along a beach that’s pretty wet, so I was very glad to have waterproof hiking boots on. My husband wore trail runners that weren’t waterproof and was just extra careful crossing the water. Definitely wear something with more grip than regular running shoes, as the trail has a lot of rocky and irregular surfaces that are often also wet.

Since you’ll be out there for a few hours, make sure to bring water and snacks. I was about three months pregnant when I did the hike, so was eating and drinking much more than normal. I brought trail mix, beef jerky, and a liter of water.

Later in the season, people watch bears go fishing from this bridge!

I also recommend bringing bear spray, particularly if you are hiking this trail later in the summer once the salmon are “running” (as the locals say) in Tonsina Creek – it’s pretty common to see black bear fishing there, apparently! We didn’t see any, but like hiking anywhere in bear country, pack bear spray just in case and make lots of noise while you hike. My personal favorite way of doing this is remixing popular songs (my husband and I have turned Hey Jude into a rousing bear safety number called Hey Bear).

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

Is it crowded?

We purposefully went to Alaska in late May before the main tourist season kicks in. We saw a few dozen people on the trail, but still had the beach to ourselves. It was a perfect balance of not feeling alone out there but also not feeling like I was jammed on the trail with a hundred of my best friends.

Anything else I should know?

Like I said, the trail is a doozy coming back up. It’s got a few steep hills on your way out but is generally very rolling until you start descending down to the beach. It didn’t feel that steep coming down, but I had to take a few breathers (and an emergency bathroom break) coming back up. Bring hiking poles if you have them, drink lots of water, and take as many breaks as you need.

The only bathroom is at the trailhead, so take advantage of it! Fortunately, since you’re in a rainforest, there is plenty of cover should you need to make an emergency pit stop.

Beginner Race Guide: Desert RATS Trail Half Marathon

So. How’d my first half marathon go?

Let me back up a little bit. The second half of my training had a lot of ups and downs.

Three weeks before the half marathon, I was working toward “peak week” with my highest mileage run and feeling really strong. But then I found out I was pregnant. I’m thrilled and super excited, but was worried about what this meant for all the work I’d put in over the last six months. It was really hard to go from feeling super strong to feeling like I needed to nap 24/7. But fortunately Billy pulled me out of my pity party and convinced me to at least finish my training and see how I felt.

I initially signed up for the Desert RATS Trail Half Marathon because if I was going to do the dang thing, I wanted it to be somewhere pretty and not around a golf course in suburban Denver. Colorado’s western desert was my best bet for dry trails, decent weather, and cool scenery. Gemini Adventures puts on a real good race, so the weekend was a blast.

Registration + Perks

Desert RATS was one of the more affordable half marathons out there, particularly once I took advantage of their Black Friday sale. I signed up early and used the Black Friday code and ultimately paid $52, which isn’t nothing, but I discovered very quickly that’s quite cheap for half marathons.

I’ll be honest, though. If you’re in it for the medal, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s basically just a dog tag. However, the rest of the swag is worth it, particularly because I didn’t really care about the medal. The race shirts were a technical fabric with gender-specific sizing, and I got a free Buff and stickers at packet pick-up. Plus, there’s a free race photographer who takes pretty stunning pictures of you running above the Colorado River.

The snack spread at the aid stations and the start/finish line was SO legit. I never knew that potato chips were the perfect salty snack for running, but I discovered that at Desert RATS. Every aid station had water, electrolytes, Honey Stinger gels, potato chips, cookies, and M&Ms. Even better, there’s a breakfast buffet with a pancake spread at the finish line as well as more salty snacks (who knew that pancakes and cheese puffs went so well together?!)

The Course

The 2018 course got significantly harder as the race went on (I know, so rude, right?).

There were two hills before the 5k/3.1-mile mark, but from there to mile 7 was nice and flat, following the top of the canyon that the Colorado River runs through. The scenery is stunning, and it felt great to cruise along the mostly flat middle part. Then, you go downhill to the halfway point aid station (god bless whoever puts the port-o-potty there) before you start the big hike up. For basically the rest of the race. I packed hiking poles because I knew the giant hill was coming, and I’m not too proud to need some help hiking.

I thought the course was appropriately challenging, but it certainly isn’t a walk in the park. To me, the big hill was worth being able to run on beautiful trails in good weather.

Surface-wise, the first and last few miles are on a gravel road, but other than that you’re on glorious dirt trails. It got rocky in a few places, but wasn’t overly technical, particularly if you’re hiking most of the uphill like me.

The weather is obviously unpredictable in Colorado in the springtime, and over the years this race has seen literally all the weather you could possibly have. We had great luck; it was cloudy and in the upper 50s. I was really cold at the start (it was in the 40s then) and had a beanie and jacket on with gloves that I dumped back in the car before the start. Make sure to get there at least 45 minutes before the start so that you don’t have to talk to far from your car.

Ultimately, I ran in a long-sleeve shirt, tank top, and calf-length capris. I run cold, and that combo ended up working great for me.

Having my parents come to the race was super special! You can also tell how chilly it was based on my mom’s outfit.

Other People’s Athletic Prowess

Even if I wasn’t pregnant, I still would’ve finished in the back of the pack. Being preggo meant I walked a LOT and ended up in the last third of finishers. I took more than three hours, but I was fine with that.

I was interested to see how I’d feel about it at the end of the race, though. I knew the award ceremony would start before I even finished, and I wasn’t sure how packed up things would be. I packed enough food and water to not need an aid station in case they weren’t still fully stocked by the time I rolled in, and readied myself for a finish line that wasn’t super celebratory.

But the opposite was true.

The aid stations were totally up and running, with eager volunteers excited to see me. As I jogged the last half-mile, spectators were ringing their cowbells and cheering us on. I turned the corner to the finish line, and the race director stopped the awards ceremony, everyone turned around to face the finish, and cheered me on until I crossed the finish line. This happened for everyone who came in after me, too. The pancake breakfast was also kept in full swing until well after the last runner came in.

This may sound super simple, but I’ve read a lot of slow runners’ accounts of races that are packing up the show before everyone’s even finished. Being slow, especially somewhere like Colorado where everyone’s an elite athlete, can be really intimidating or demoralizing at races. I was so relieved and happy that us back-of-the-pack runners got the same recognition and perks as the ones that were getting awards.

Logistics

The race was very well-run. It started on time, and like I said the entire operation was really beginner-friendly.

Packet pick-up did take a while on Friday night and wasn’t the most efficient, but it’s a hard thing to do and totally dependent on volunteers so I don’t fault them much for that.

The race packet said to get there early – they are not exaggerating when they say parking runs out quickly. Get there at least 45 minutes ahead of the start so your car isn’t too far away, and carpool if you can!

There were tons of port-o-potties at the start, and a port-o-potty at the halfway mark which was an actual lifesaver for me. All the port-o-potties also had hand sanitizer and didn’t run out of toilet paper, which is pretty impressive considering hundreds of people were using them.

Miles 2-3.1 were a bit crowded because we were sharing the course with the 10k folks, and after we got off the nice wide road onto the much more narrow trail, there was a bit of a bottleneck. But once we split off from the 10k, everyone got very spread out (particularly because I was at the back of the pack).

Photos + Timers

Runners that finished earlier did get finish line photos, but the photographer also sits at one of the most scenic spots on the course, so I was thrilled to just have those. Particularly for free!

Your bib has a chip in it, but since my only concern was just finishing, I wasn’t too worried with the time tracking method. I’m not sure if chips on your shoes or certain companies are better, but I was satisfied with the timer.

Overall Impression

The beginner/slow-runner atmosphere was really excellent, and you can’t beat the location and likelihood of good weather for a trail race in Colorado in the spring. The snack spread was awesome, the race shirt was high-quality, and you get great photos. The course is stunning and Fruita is one of my favorite towns in Colorado.

The race does require an overnight trip out of Denver, and driving home for four hours afterward wasn’t the *best* idea I’ve had, but it’s worth the trip for a high-quality trail race in April that’s driveable from Denver. You could also just stay the night in Fruita after the race if you’re able to get the time off.

If you’re looking for races a different time of year, make sure to check out Gemini’s fall series in Eagle and May race in Fruita, one of which I may make my post-partum running goal!

Beginner’s Guide to Packing for Alaska

Visiting Alaska has been at the top of my bucket list for a long time, but as someone who gets cold easily and doesn’t *love* being wet, packing was giving me a little anxiety. If nothing else, the weather is consistent in the springtime (Billy and I visited at the end of May). Almost every day had highs in the mid 50s and lows in the upper 40s with a good chance of rain mixed in about half the time.

We also went on a lot of ~excursions~ for this trip, so I had to actually bring some gear instead of just things for lounging on the beach. This meant my normal quest to fit everything in one carry on was not gonna happen. Still, we were flying Delta and didn’t want to shell out a ton in baggage fees, so we managed to get all the gear and extra layers we both needed into one additional medium-sized duffle bag that we checked.

But we were gone for 11 days…how did I get most of that into one carry-on? AirBnb with laundry. I looked up doing laundry at our hotel and it was literally $4…per shirt. Instead, we just chipped in an extra $5 for utilities at our AirBnb that we stayed in a few days earlier, about halfway through the trip.

So, what did I actually pack? A lot of layers. Waterproof shoes and a jacket. Here’s the whole run-down:

Clothing

Shirts and Tops

  • Base Layers (brought 3 long-sleeve, 3 short-sleeve, used all of them): Staying dry and warm can be tough to do somewhere as wet as Alaska, so bringing moisture-wicking base layers that aren’t cotton is super important. I brought three thin long-sleeve shirts, including this wool one from Smartwool that’s my favorite. Wool doesn’t get as smelly as synthetic fabrics, but is also more expensive, so I also recommend REI’s base layers. I also brought three non-cotton t-shirts for warmer days.
  • Mid-Weight Layers (brought 4, used 2-3): A nice mid-weight top and a long-sleeved base layer was perfect for the sunnier days we hiked and for sightseeing days. A Patagonia top similar to the layers I brought is at REI here.
  • Fleece/Heavy Layers (brought 4, used 3): Nice warm fleeces were a must-have for chilly, windy rains and the only reason I ended up not using all four is because the second half of our trip ended up being much warmer. My go-to fleece for chilly days on the water is this one from Patagonia.
  • Versatile Sweater (1, used for dinner and travel): I never travel anywhere cool without a warm, versatile sweater I can throw on to look nicer for dinner or to warm up on the plane.

Pants and Bottoms

  • Long Underwear (1 pair, used multiple times): A VERY handy layer that’s warmer than regular leggings and easy to put on under hiking pants or rain pants. I waited for a nice wool pair to go on sale (which they currently are at REI for limited sizes!). I love how warm those Smartwools are, but I don’t love that there’s a lot of extra fabric in the crotch region. They’re not particularly flattering, but I only wore them under another pair of pants so I didn’t care.
  • Waterproof Rain Pants (1 pair, used only for kayaking): Either hiking pants OR waterproof pants are a must. The only time I absolutely HAD to have waterproof pants was for our kayaking trip, but the guide company offered them too. Call ahead to see if your guide service does! (PS, if you’re looking for a guide in Seward, go to Liquid Adventures!) If you’re looking to buy a pair, I like the basic REI ones.
  • Hiking Pants (1 pair, used multiple times): Hiking pants are stretchy like leggings but have pockets and are harder to tear like jeans. But also like jeans, finding a pair of hiking pants that fit and look good can be a journey. I tried on basically every pair at REI and ended up liking their Kornati pants, if you’re in the market.
  • Leggings (5 pairs, used all five pairs): I mostly used leggings as a base layer but also used them as my all-the-time pants because I was preggo on this trip and couldn’t button any of my pants (my hiking pants were hanging on by a thread). Alaska is super casual, so I was never under-dressed, but if you want to “dress up” a bit throw some jeans in your bag.
  • Shorts (1 pair, used only as PJs): I brought one pair of shorts and ended up only using them to sleep in. At least this trip I remembered pajamas!

Outerwear

  • Waterproof Winter Jacket (used every day): I finally got a new winter jacket this year after taking advantage of a good ski shop sale. I was initially hesitant to get one with an interior puffy jacket that zipped out, but it came in super handy on days that were warmer but wet or windy. I didn’t have to also pack a raincoat, which helped me save space. If you don’t have the option of unzipping the inner part of your winter jacket, pack a raincoat separately!
  • Beanie (used every day): Bring a beanie that you can fit your hood over – you’ll want that when it’s super windy or wet.
  • Gloves (used every day): Make sure to bring a light-weight pair to keep your fingers warm, particularly hiking or when you’re out on the water.
  • Buff (used nearly every day): Buffs are an easy and versatile way to add another layer of warmth. It’s basically a strechy tube of fabric you can wear a bunch of different ways. I used mine as a ear warmer for hikes and as a scarf/neck warmer/gaiter whenever we were out on the water. But, if you don’t already have one and tend to run cold, just pack a scarf!

Shoes

  • Hiking Boots or Running Shoes (brought both and used one or the other every day): We planned a lot of hiking on my own, and as you may have figured out by now, Alaska is wet! I brought my waterproof hiking boots and *definitely* needed them for muddy hikes with water crossings. I had trail running shoes on hand for sightseeing or days I didn’t need something waterproof. If you’ll only be hitting the trail with a guide company, they may provide you with waterproof shoes (our kayaking guide and glacier trek guide companies both offered this option).
  • Casual Shoes (brought 1 pair, used for travel days): I also brought a pair of Toms for driving days or other times when it was dry out and I just wanted to let my tootsies breathe. It’s probably not going to be warm enough for you want anything open-toed.

Undergarments

  • Sports Bras (brought 4, used 4): I personally prefer getting sweaty in sports bras, so I recommend you bring one for each day you know you’ll be doing something sporty before being able to do laundry.
  • Regular Bras (brought 2, used 2): If I brought more sports bras, I could’ve done with just one regular bra, but that’s just who I am as a person. There were plenty of times where I didn’t feel like putting on a real bra, but was too low on sports bras to sacrifice one on a regular day.
  • Socks (brought 8 pairs of varying height, used most of them): I brought two pairs of knee-high super warm socks and only ended up using one pair on the day we went kayaking. Darn Tough’s calf-height hiker socks were my go-to for the entire trip (I brought three pairs). I also brought three pairs of ankle socks, just because I was wearing a lot of leggings and don’t like how high socks look with leggings.

Gear

  • Extra Traction: We brought microspikes but never ended up using them. The only time we needed spikes was on our glacier trek, and the guide company provided crampons (giant spikes) for that.
  • Backpack: I brought a regular-sized backpack that I normally use for hiking. I used it to store snacks, my Kindle, and my wallet on the plane and then for normal hiking things when we went out and about.
  • Reservoir: I wanted to have plenty of water on hand, particularly for hiking, so I brought a 1.5-liter reservoir. However you prefer to store it, just make sure you always have plenty of water to stay hydrated!
  • Hiking Poles: Being preggo also meant my cardio ain’t what it used to be, so hiking poles came in super handy for me. Billy ended up not using his much, but I took mine with me everywhere. We both recently got collapsible, lightweight ones, which made them super easy to travel with.
  • Binoculars! This made a HUGE difference for wildlife watching, and both of us having a pair also made a huge difference in us not fighting over them to see something cool. Let’s be real, there is no affordable way to visit Alaska, so just spend the money and get a pair.

The Other Stuff

  • Sunglasses: Don’t leave home without them!! Even on a cloudy day, being on the water or around a lot of ice/snow makes a huge amount of glare.
  • Hat: I just like wearing hats, particularly to shield my face from the sun or rain. If hats aren’t your thing, skip regular ones, but don’t forget to bring a beanie or other warm option.
  • Reusable Water Bottle or Coffee Mug: I brought a collapsible water bottle, which was super easy to stow in my backpack. I wish I had brought my travel coffee mug. Usually it’s too big of pain in the butt and I don’t end up using it much, but I drank a lot of coffee on this trip and was totally mortified at how much waste I produced in coffee mugs alone. Try to bring one or the other to reduce your waste!

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised that no matter where we were, there was always a Safeway or gas station or general store where we could get anything we forgot. I thought going to Alaska would be more remote, but it’s not much different than Colorado or any other large state. Stuff is a lot more expensive in Alaska, but if you forget something it’s certainly not the end of the world!

Beginner’s Travel Guide: Three Days in Caye Caulker, Belize

If you look up “relaxing tropical island vacation” in the dictionary, it’s just a picture of Caye Caulker (Caye is pronounced “Key,” FYI). If you want to sip rum drinks, relax in a hammock, soak up the sun, or drift around in some teal blue water, look no further. Caye Caulker was so wonderful I would’ve personally skipped San Pedro altogether for the relaxed, laid back vibe of Caulker.

The only drawbacks are the water taxi ride there and the fact that you’re slightly less in civilization, but that’s not something you should be super attached to if you’re going to Belize in the first place. It’s not like Mexico where you can still hit up McDonald’s or Starbucks. This was only inconvenient when I came down with bronchitis (which should tell you how much I loved Caye Caulker that I still enjoyed it while I had bronchitis).

Getting There

Once you fly into Belize City, you take a water taxi to Caye Caulker. It’s about a 45-minute ride, and while I did have bronchitis while doing it, I think it would’ve been unpleasant even under the best of circumstances. The water taxi between Ambergris Caye (where San Pedro is) and Caye Caulker was much larger and airy. Our water taxi from Caye Caulker back to Belize City was smaller and PACKED, but perhaps they shove less people in when you’re going the other direction?

belize express water taxi on the dock in caye caulker belize. palm trees and bright blue sky in the background.
Let’s just say they fit A LOT of people on here. Like I thought we were going to have to leave people behind…and they just kept shoving them in.

When you get dropped off from the water taxi, you’ll be bombarded with taxi offers, but Caye Caulker is pretty small (everything’s within a mile or so of the water taxi dock) so you can easily walk to wherever you’re staying. There aren’t really many cars, and you don’t have the same level of golf cart traffic as in San Pedro, so it’s very pedestrian and bike-friendly. Once I came down with bronchitis we did get a taxi (actually a golf cart) back to the water taxi station, but we ordered it through our lodging.

Where to Stay

Colinda Cabanas was THE SPOT. It’s a little farther away from “downtown” Caye Caulker, but since they provide bikes it doesn’t matter. The cabanas are super cute, you feel like you’re in a tropical jungle paradise, and the service was fantastic.

lush palm trees frame a collection of bright blue and yellow cabanas leading to the beach in caye caulker belize
Actual heaven, I couldn’t believe this was real.

We did splurge our first few nights on a Beach Front lower suite, which was honestly amazing, but we didn’t really *need* the full kitchen. We never used it. But the beach front deck was the perfect way to start our morning. The splurge was about the price of your average Hampton Inn.

We stayed in a Stand Alone Raised Budget Cabana for the second half of our stay, which was more of a studio apartment with a bathroom, but still really nice. Both had air conditioning (#blessed), private balconies, and hammocks. So how did we spend our time there? Read on:

Day 1

Bike down to Errolyn’s House of Fry Jacks for breakfast to get a taste of a local staple. Fry jacks are basically fried bread, so it’s hard to go wrong. Most importantly, immediately next door is a fruit stand that makes fresh smoothies every morning with any combination of fruit you want. I had one every morning and was never disappointed. They were cheaper and tastier than the smoothie places on the main drag, plus it was an easy way to kill time while waiting for your order to come up at Errolyn’s.

We headed back to our room to eat since it was pretty effing hot and humid even early in the morning. After you’ve got a full belly of fry jacks and smoothie, lather up and put your swimsuit on for a day at the Lazy Lizard. It’s on one side of “The Split,” which is a literal split in the island of Caye Caulker.

Make sure to try their signature lizard drink. It’s some lime green blended concoction that’s delicious and makes you feel very much on vacation. A pastry guy will make the rounds on his bike at least once. His snacks are a steal (bring cash) and delicious so stock up, particularly on the banana bread (it goes fast!). The Lazy Lizard also has its own kitchen you can order from.

We rotated for several hours between the bar, beach chairs, and floating in the clear blue water (or sitting at the bar in the water…Belize thinks of everything!). I thought Lazy Lizard would be much more belligerent than it actually was, so don’t be intimidated if, like me, you aren’t trying to get down with the frat boys.

I know it seems very “basic white girl” but I did get my hair braided. Honestly, I was so sweaty and it was so humid outside that I got tired of dealing with my hair, even in a bun. In retrospect, I would’ve showered before getting my hair done, but we were biking back from the Lizard and I couldn’t wait any longer.

Queen Etty was the most delightful human on the planet and I regretted not getting a picture taken with her, so Billy and I went back on our way home from dinner that night to at least get a picture with the stand.

Getting your hair braided will make you realize how much pain black women go through getting their hair done, but also why cornrows are really great. I just got two french braids, but since my hair is so thin, the braids were about as thick as cornrows. At first I thought I looked ridiculous, but then I didn’t care because my hair was FINALLY out of my face, and then I started to really like them. Plus I looked like I had a sweet perm when I finally took them out at the end of the trip.

After showers and ample time in the air conditioning, we lounged around in the hammocks on the end of the dock at Colinda and read. Top off your first day by going to Chef Juan’s for a laid back dinner. His food is fantastic, but his wife’s key lime pie is the real star of the show. It WILL run out so don’t miss it.

Day 2

If you want a more traditional breakfast instead of fry jacks, try out Amor Y Cafe for a yummy start to the day (and coffee if you need it). Ice N Beans, as you may have guessed from the name, has yummy iced and blended coffee options too.

While at Lazy Lizard, you may have seen another beach establishment called Koko King. It’s the GREATEST. Take the water taxi from Lazy Lizard (the lack of competition concerns in Belize really blows me away) to Koko King in the morning and park it on the beach chairs for the day. You can also float around in an inner tube (highly recommended) or hang out on the swings (very good Insta opportunity) to get some shade.

girl sits on a wooden swing on the edge of a dock in caye caulker belize, with teal water and a blue sky stretching out before her at koko king

Koko King was a little quieter than Lazy Lizard and had much more water access, but keep in mind the food service is slow and you’re stuck on the side of The Split without civilization (it’s just you and Koko King). So maybe just plan ahead a little further than I did (the classic waiting until “I’M STARVING AND HANGRY AND NEED FOOD NOW”).

We came back in time to shower and sleep off the sun exposure before dinner. I was feeling like having a nicer evening and some pizza, so we went to Il Pellicano Cucina Italiana, which was wonderful. They had really good live music and an overall nice, romantic ambiance. It was full of fellow gringos, though, if that’s something you’re not into. For a little more local touch, try Reina’s.

Day 3

If you haven’t already gone to San Pedro and snorkeled, do it from Caye Caulker! You’d be a fool not to go snorkeling while you’re in Belize, and I’ve already written a whole guide for that. Going snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve is hands down one of the coolest things I’ve EVER done. We went while we were in San Pedro, but our Airbnb host there (who was a pro diver) also recommended Anwar Tours for Caye Caulker trips. Book the morning snorkel trip to get the best chance at nice weather!

At this point, I was in the throes of full-blown bronchitis, so we mostly just napped. If I’d been feeling better, I would’ve gone snorkeling again and spent the afternoon at Koko King. Billy did coax me into leaving our cabana to get some lunch, and his choice of Chef Kareem’s didn’t disappoint.

This place may look suspect since it’s just a guy and his family in a tent cooking up some jerk chicken, but it’s SO GOOD. The BBQ was delicious, Kareem and his family are a delight, and one of his relatives will literally cut a coconut off a tree for you (it’s not free, just fresh and delicious). Make sure to get a good photo op in at the Caye Caulker sign across the street.

One last note: Caye Caulker sunsets are beautiful, but you don’t need to go to Maggie’s Sunset Cafe to experience them. Their service is meh and the view of the sunset is actually quite narrow, so even if you get a table on the dock, you’ve got a bunch of people clamoring around you to get a view and a picture. My advice? Grab a Beliken at the Lazy Lizard and enjoy panoramic views from the sea wall. It’s the perfect way to cap off your trip.

the sky is lit up orange at sunset in caye caulker belize. sailboats are visible on the horizon and the sunset reflects off the water.

Caye Caulker is everything I could’ve wanted in a tropical island vacation. I’d go back in a heartbeat, and still regularly dream about Chef Juan’s wife’s key lime pie. If you want a laidback trip on island time, spend some time in Caye Caulker. I guarantee you’ll be hooked!

Beginner’s Travel Guide: Three Days in San Pedro, Belize

San Pedro is the most popular destination for Americans in Belize (to the point that you can get a protein smoothie just about anywhere). It’s a short plane ride from the main airport in Belize City, full of delicious restaurants, and great for anyone who enjoys a little hustle and bustle while on vacation.

The drawback of San Pedro? There isn’t much of a beach scene. But if you like adventure (but don’t like getting places efficiently) you can rent a golf cart to make the trek to Secret Beach. Belize is a place I would absolutely go back to; here’s how I spent three days in San Pedro with my hubby.

Getting There

Belize is an easy flight from most places in the US. Once you fly into Belize City on a regular airplane, you take a terrifyingly small plane to Ambergris Caye (key not cay), where San Pedro is located. I sobered up very quickly (thanks Southwest drink tickets) when I saw the little baby plane we had to get on – Billy practically bent in half just to get on it. But the ride was smooth and the views were insanely gorgeous.

view from airplane flying over the caribbean sea to san pedro belize

The San Pedro airport is tiny but surprisingly busy. We were walking distance to our Airbnb and quickly learned that the streets of San Pedro aren’t the most pedestrian-friendly. There are golf carts EVERYWHERE, to the point that it’s like being in regular car traffic as they buzz all around you.

Note: I consider anything within 3/4 to a full mile walking distance, particularly somewhere like Belize where you’re at sea level and it’s flat as a pancake.

Where to Stay

To be upfront, wherever we go, we don’t look for the fanciest accommodations. We basically look for the most affordable that’s still doable and relaxing. However, it is worth it to spend money on air conditioning if you’re there for the winter. We went in February 2018 and I personally wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night without air conditioning.

We loved our AirBnb, Zen Belize. Sure, it was basic, but it was a great studio and Frank was a fantastic host. He set us up for snorkeling (more on that momentarily) and was full of local suggestions. Plus, there are yoga classes on the top floor of the building in the morning that we got to attend for free as guests.

**As of March 2020 it looks like Frank is no longer the owner of Zen Belize, but there is still a room available. I can’t guarantee the same experience, but linked to the new listing above.**

Day 1

Grab breakfast at Estel’s (walk along the beach to avoid golf cart traffic). Be prepared for the seaweed in the morning – it’s a little bit smelly, but there are seemingly endless people employed to rake it away (I’m not sure how I feel about this). We happened to be there during an especially bad week for seaweed, but we didn’t mind.

The darker brown between the sand and the water is seaweed.

Estel’s breakfast is phenomenal. We made sure to order fry jacks, a quintessential Belizean food. It’s basically fried bread…and it’s SO good. I got banana pancakes, and of course assumed the bananas would be on the pancakes, so when they arrived seemingly banana-less I flagged down our waiter. I immediately felt like that annoying white lady because the waiter politely told me they were…in the pancake mix. After realizing the error of my ways (and blushing just a little bit), I enjoyed some ridiculously good banana pancakes.

Ramon’s Village Resort is a fancy resort right on the beach, but if you buy a drink at the bar, you can lounge in their beach chairs. Seaweed or no seaweed, all I cared about was the sun, palm trees, a good book, and a nice rum drink. I finally felt like I was thawing out from the Denver winter.

Hang out at Ramon’s for as long as you like. We left in time to make sure we could do a beach walk with some shelter dogs. The local animal shelter lets you take the adoptable pups out for a stroll! Zen Belize is right by the Saga Humane Society, so after some time in the air conditioning and a quick change, we walked over. The staff is super friendly, and you can pick whichever dog(s) you like to go for a walk. They’ll tell you a little about them and then hand over the leash.

woman walking on the beach of san pedro belize with a small dog from saga humane society

Word of warning: we were very close to bringing a dog home with us (that we so don’t have the ability to take good care of) so make sure to bring your willpower! The dogs love getting out and you can tell that the time to stretch their legs and get loved on totally makes their day.

After a shower, hit up Hungry Grouper for dinner. This place is so good we went back multiple times. Get any fish blackened or the garlic shrimp, and don’t miss the coconut cream boat dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Woman enthusiastically eats a coconut boat dessert from the Hungry Grouper restaurant in San Pedro Belize
My future as a food blogger is bright.

Day 2

Rent a golf cart and head to Secret Beach. Buckle in for a LONG drive. It’s slow and even bumpier than you’re imagining. We stopped halfway at Akbol Yoga Retreat and Ecoresort for lunch, and after a few rum drinks, the drive seemed more tolerable (not so for my sober husband driving). Secret Beach was totally gorgeous, but just be emotionally prepared for a long drive home that you really wish could go smoother and faster.

Despite the name, “Secret Beach” is not secret at all. There are signs at multiple locations along the way, and it has a bit of a tourist trap feeling when you get there with multiple bars next to one another. But after the journey, it’s still a nice escape from the craziness of San Pedro and it’s pretty much the only real beach on Ambergris Caye.

colorful wooden beach chairs line the shore of secret beach in san pedro belize on a sunny day framed by a palm tree frond
The view from Secret Beach wasn’t bad.

We didn’t come back until dinner time, and went back to the Hungry Grouper. Tragically, they were out of coconut cream boats that night, but the blackened snapper was so good that I didn’t even mind. If you don’t want to go to the same restaurant two nights in a row, we also heard great things about several other places including Elvi’s Kitchen and Caroline’s Cookin.

Day 3

Snorkeling is a must do while you’re in San Pedro, and I’ve already written a whole guide for that. Going snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve is hands down one of the coolest things I’ve EVER done, so book with Belize Pro Dive Shop and thank me later. Book the morning snorkel trip to get the best chance at nice weather, and nap it off once you’ve gotten back.

boats sit on teal tropical water under a bright blue sky in belize
My amateur photography will do no justice to the underwater view. Just Google it.

Once you’ve napped and showered and are ready to hit the town again, head over to the Palapa bar. The food is just okay, but the real fun is the floating inner tubes (with a pulley system to get drinks delivered to you). You’ve got nearly 360-degree views of teal blue water and the drinks are yummy. Try the electric lemonade (as long as you have no shame about your mouth turning blue…I didn’t). Don’t forget your sunscreen. It’s easy to forget how hot it is when you’re partially submerged in the water (which, might I add, was the perfect temperature in late February).

a couple stand in front of the turquoise water at the palapa bar in san pedro belize. Children on inner tubes float in the water behind them.
Narrowly avoided sunburn thanks to putting my tank top on. Central American sun doesn’t mess around!

San Pedro has a lot of great restaurant options, but I was hellbent on getting some coconut shrimp after breaking out of land-locked Colorado. Blue Water Grill delivered, and although drinks were on the pricier side, it’s right on the beach and the food was delicious. A great way to cap off your three days in San Pedro! Whether you’re headed inland or to another beach town, San Pedro is the perfect introduction to this amazing country.

Beginner’s guide to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley Snorkeling

Snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley was one of the top five coolest things I’ve ever done. It put Florida to shame. I did chicken out of “truly” experiencing Shark Ray Alley (more on that later) but snorkeling around Hol Chan was like being in an episode of Planet Earth. It’s an amazing experience and can’t-miss part of visiting Belize.

But if you’ve never been snorkeling before, or it’s your first time in Belize, you may need a little help knowing what to expect.

How to get there

San Pedro is the most popular destination for Americans going to Belize. It’s the major city on Ambergris Caye (pronounced Key, not Kay) and is the easiest starting point for a snorkel trip to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. You can also get there from Caye Caulker, it’s just a bit longer of a boat ride. There are plenty of dive shops on both islands.

Where to book your tour

Our AirBnb host (a former pro diver) booked us a snorkeling trip with Belize Pro Dive Center. The office staff was incredibly professional and our guides were equally fantastic. Getting checked in was a smooth process, and our captain Jason (I can’t remember our other guide’s name…I’m a jerk) was very safety-conscious. There were two dedicated snorkel guides (including Jason) and one dedicated scuba guide for our group of about 15 snorkers and four divers.

There are two trips each day. Book the morning one since tropical weather can be unpredictable and you’re much more likely to get nice weather earlier in the day. The tour cost $40 per person in 2018 for the 2.5-hour snorkel tour and gear.

What the tour includes

The tour includes a long stop at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 10-minute or so ride to Shark Ray Alley where you have a shorter stop, and then back to the dive shop. Even though the tour is “only” two and a half hours, the dive shop staff had plenty of snacks and water on board, which was a nice touch.

Belize Pro Dive Center provided all the gear we needed, including a life jacket. I would highly recommend swallowing your pride and opting for the life jacket unless you’re a really good swimmer.

The children in the background were the only other ones to sport this lovely life jacket set up (around your waist helps you float more evenly and be able to keep your mask in the water)

You aren’t doing strenuous swimming, but you are swimming and out of the boat for 30 minutes or more. Billy was fine, but I was extremely grateful I had a life jacket on (around my waist #fashion) because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it. The snorkel guides also brought a little floating ring for people to hang on to if they got tired.

What you should bring

SUNSCREEN. And then don’t forget to re-apply it a million times. Your back is facing the sun the entire time, but you don’t feel it get hot because you’re in the water. The Belizean sun doesn’t eff around, so don’t be shy! Ideally, use some sunscreen that won’t hurt the coral reef (they sell it at the dive shop). The boat is covered, so you will get a break from the sun when you’re out of the water.

Also bring a towel and flip flops. We decided to bring one of our phones (and then ended up not really taking many pictures) and a bag with one of our wallets in it, too, since we obviously needed a way to pay.

There are benches on the boat that you can put your stuff under, and you don’t need to worry about stuff getting stolen since it’s just a small group of tourists and guides. Still, we didn’t want to bring anything we didn’t have to – it’s much less stressful!

The actual snorkeling

After getting on the boat, you take a 10-minute ride out to the coral reef, so you are out in the open water. But, it’s very shallow and there isn’t a strong current, so it wasn’t intimidating. The water is insanely clear and (in late February) also pretty warm. The water temperature was 80 degrees, which I thought would feel like being in a bathtub, but it was really refreshing! It was definitely warm enough that I didn’t feel cold while still in the water. Plus, you forget about any water temperature concerns once you see the coral reef exploding with marine life. It’s bananas.

One of the reasons I really loved our guides at Belize Pro Dive Center is that they were super knowledgeable about the coral reef and all the animals that lived in it. They were excited to point out different fish to us and did a great job of keeping the group together while also letting us explore a little bit. I’m a total animal nerd, so I was eating up everything our guide was telling us about different types of coral and fish and animals. It was amazing!

However, just know that you won’t be by yourself. All the other dive shops head out around the same time, so there’s lots of other groups. It seemed like the guides all had a good system to rotate around the reef so we weren’t all on top of each other. It only felt annoyingly crowded a few times, but there’s nothing you can do about that and it’s totally worth putting up with for the overall experience.

When we got to Shark Ray Alley, for some reason, the water was pretty murky and much colder even though in all the photos I’ve seen of it, the water is totally clear and beautiful. Maybe we just got unlucky. This was the one time I felt cold in the water and kind of wanted to get back out, but that’s probably more because I was feeling pretty nervous.

Ok so about the nurse sharks

The reason Shark Ray Alley is named as such is because nurse sharks congregate there. Historically, fisherman dumped the leftovers at the end of the day (yum, blood and guts) so the sharks have a Pavlovian response to even just the whir of boat engines.

A lot of people think this is a cool tourist attraction because you can be surrounded by these totally harmless sharks and it’s a ~crazy~ exhilarating wildlife experience. My fear (let’s be honest, it’s a phobia) of large animals in the water is still something I’m working on, so I don’t have a story of persevering and getting past my fears.

My big victory was even just getting in the water when the sharks were in the general vicinity. I let everyone else go on ahead to swim to the boats actually feeding the sharks (not our guides), but I hung back and tried to control my heart rate. Fortunately, this was pretty easy to do since our boat wasn’t actually feeding them. If that had been the case, I would’ve just stayed in the boat and watched from the deck.

One of my friends told me she just told herself over and over again that she wouldn’t be scared if she was in a swarm of puppies. Because of that, she stayed calmed and enjoyed the experience of being in the mix with the sharks. A swarm of anything (even regular fish) in the water freaks me out, no matter whether they are carnivores or vegetarian.

So whether you pretend that sharks are puppies or just sit back and enjoy them from a distance, snorkeling at Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley will be a highlight of your Belizean vacation. Leave a comment if you have questions and have a blast!

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