Sunday, August 20, 2023

Girls Trip 2023: North Cascades and Mt Rainier Loop - Hiking, Camping, and Sightseeing

Hiker with a cloudy Mt Rainier behind.  Text reads Washington Hiking Road Trip - North Cascades and Rainier Loop

 It's that time of year again... GIRLS TRIP!  Leanne and I are far from "girls" its seems as 40-year-old women, but we still have been having this traditional trip since 2007!  With my parents in Portland, Oregon willing to watch the kids for a week, I looked for a trip that would be easily accessible from this site.  Never having been to North Cascades National Park nor Mt Rainier National Park, I decided to plan a camping/hiking trip that visited both parks with the bulk of the trip centering around some intensive day hiking in North Cascades.  As it seems to happen to us a lot, our plans were sadly changed when fires broke out the day before we entered the park and escalated - forcing us to evacuate and change our plans a bit.  We rolled with it and it still turned out a great trip.  Here's our *revised* itinerary.

Here's how to recreate this adventure....

Day 1: Pick up Campervan in Portland, Oregon and Drive to Olympia, Washington

We started by renting a camper van out of Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, we didn't love the van so I'm not going to name drop (feel free to DM me on instagram for the name). But it had over 300,000 miles on it, broken hubcaps, dirty, and overall beat up. (Spoiler: it made the trip) However, I wasn't pleased.  Either way, we picked it up and drove north.  Our first night camping was at a private campground in Olympia that was meant to break up the drive. The campground was called Riverbend.  Tent sites were large, private, and had a great waterfront access.  There was a flush bathroom on site but it was a bit of a walk, however, each tent site had it's own porta potty too! We made dinner, enjoyed the river view, and spent our first night figuring out the van bed. 

Day 2: North Cascades - Visitor Center, Set up Camp, Short Hikes

We had a leisurely morning, then took off to North Cascades National Park.  We stopped at the visitor center near Newhalem, got a park map, bought some souvenirs, then took off to do a set of short hikes before reaching our campground.  Here are some great small hikes to do when you first arrive:

- Stirling Munro Trail: This short but scenic boardwalk trail is only 300 feet long.  It weaves through trees to a mountain overlook and departs directly behind the Visitor Center.

- Trail of Cedars: This short and easy 0.6 mile out and back trail weaves through Cedar giants, along the shores of the glacial blue Skagit River. 

- Ladder Creek Falls: Though only 0.5 mile loop, this trail is steep.  It crosses a bridge and climbs behind the Newhalem Gorge Powerhouse to Ladder Creek Falls - small, yet beautiful waterfall.

- Gorge Overlook Trail: This 1/3 mile loop trail climbs to give views of the Gorge Dam and Ross Lake.*Here we got our first glimpses of (at that time) a very small wildfire on the hill across.

After we finished these hikes, we checked into our campsite at Colonial Creek South Campground.  We booked this site exactly 6 months prior to arrival - the soonest offered.

Happy to be in North Cascades National Park!

Day 3: North Cascades - Maple Pass Loop and Rainey Lake

- Maple Pass Loop: Today was about a very special hike.  I was dying to hike Maple Pass Loop.  We woke up to a smoke campground and drove east, hoping to escape the bad air on our big hiking day.  We had read that this was a popular hike so we arrived at the trailhead around 8 am and found plenty of parking.  While the hike started smoky, we soon hike above the smoke and had clean air, blue sky, and perfect hiking weather.  We tackled the loop in a counter clockwise manner, which we were happy with.  The hike was moderately challenging, and extremely rewarding.  We got to back to the van around 2pm where we switched shoes and hit up one more little hike.

- Rainey Lake Trail: This trail is 2.0 out and back to the clear blue Rainey Lake.  The ADA trail meanders through flat forest, then emerges on a viewing platform.  We cooled our feet in the water before heading back to the car and campsite.

On the drive back to the campsite, we saw views of the growing smoke and fires erupting from the shores and Sourdough Mountain on Diablo Lake - just a couple miles from our campground.  It was eerie and nerve-wracking.

Maple Pass Loop Views

Leanne hiking along Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades

Day 4: North Cascades - Blue Lake, Washington Pass Overlook, Cutthroat Lake, and Winthrop

Again, we decided to drive east, this time, not only to escape smoke put also to end in the town of Winthrop where we could resupply on ice. The smoke had blown through the cascade valley and unfortunately our entire day air quality showed evidence of the fires back on Diablo. Our hikes and stops included:

Blue Lake Trail: This 4.6 mile out and back trail was a relatively easy to moderate trail that rewarded with beautiful forests, mountain views, and a beautiful alpine lake.  This trail was crowded and busy at the lake.

Washington Pass Overlook: This overlook was our picnic lunch spot, and also included a 0.3 mile steep, yet paved overlook trail that awards is stunning views of Washington Pass and the twisted road below.

Cutthroat Lake Trail: This 3.8 mile easy to moderate trail had views of rising peaks on either side and ended at a solitude lake.  We had to drive a bumpy forest road to get to the trailhead, but the van handled it fine. We started this hike at 4:30 pm and saw few other hikers.  The views were beautiful but the air quality provided a reminder that the park was suffering. 

From this hike we drove another 30 minutes from Cutthroat Lake to the town in Winthrop where we planned to sightsee, grab dinner, and resupply.  Shockingly, when we returned to "service" we discovered the campground and highway 20 had been closed due to the fire and we were suddenly without a campsite.  While the letter said we could get our "stuff" until 10 pm at night, at that point we were 1.5-2 hr drive from the campsite and it was already 7:30 pm.  We decided to abandon our items (laundry line, table cloth, and some food in the bear box) and stay put.  I got us a last minute waterfront tent site at the Winthrop KOA and we hit the town.  We enjoyed walking the cute western town, grabbed burgers at the burger bar, ice cream, and settled in - trying to figure out our next plan of action.

Observing Fire-fighting efforts.  Thank you firefighters!
Winthrop's Western theme was adorable!

Day 5: Drive Winthrop to Leavenworth to Snoqualmie

Unfortunately, now it was a Saturday and we were striking out on finding a campsite as we meandered south toward Rainier.  Fortunately, a family friend offered her home!  Even though they weren't in town, they gave us access to their house in Snoqualmie and we slept in the van on their driveway.  We took off from Winthrop in a cloud of horrible air quality which continued for hours into our drive.  Looking to make the most of this new roundtrip, we decided to stop in the Bavarian-themed tourist town of Leavenworth for lunch.  It was rainy when we arrived, yet still enjoyed sightseeing and window shopping.  We waited in line for about 30 minutes to get a bratwurst and pretzel at M√ľnchen Haus, followed by pastries at the Danish Bakery. We had planned to hike near Snoqualmie, but it continued to rain and we just weren't feeling it.  We settled in at our friends, took much needed showers, visited a local gem and rock shop, then made our camp dinner in their kitchen.

Leavenworth is a Bavarian themed town in Washington.  We loved it!

Day 6: Mt Rainier - Longmire Area

Since check-in at our Rainier campground wasn't available until 1 pm, we had a leisurely morning and had a short (and very steep) hike:

Snoqualmie Falls: This was a 1.4 mile out and back paved trail through forest descending from the top parking lot to the bottom of the falls.  AllTrails says its 331 ft elevation gain which isn't too bad but it felt steep!  

Snoqualmie Falls

We drove to our next campground - this was a delight!  Elkamp campground was small and wooded with mossy cedars.  A brook ran next to our tentsite with a meadow and mountains behind.  It was only 30 minutes to the Longmire Visitor Center in Mt Rainier.  After setting up camp, we drive through the Nisqually entrance and to Longmire.  We visited the visitor center and did the following hikes in the area for the rest of the day:

- Trail of Shadows- This 0.7 mile loop is an easy trail of packed dirt and boardwalk.  It passes through a large forest with nurse logs, towering trees and marsh.

- Comet Falls Trail - This 3.8 out and back trail leads to the beautiful Comet Falls.  The trail climbs 900 feet in elevation on packed trail, some rock, and even a ladder.  AllTrails rates it as hard.  We saw gorgeous waterfalls, pika, marmots, and deer!  We arrived at the falls (one of the tallest in the park) at 5:30 pm.  We enjoyed taking photos, soaking in the views, then headed back down.  

We saw the sunset as we drove back to Elkamp, had a late dinner and prepared for an early morning hike the next day.

Comet Falls in Mt Rainier near Longmire area

Day 7: Paradise in Rainier: Skyline Loop and more

Today's goal was to hike the Skyline Loop.  The weather continued to mess with us.  After weeks of clear weather, both days we were in Rainier had horrible rain/fog forcasts.  However, we decided to try anyway.  Nervous about parking, we got to the Paradise Visitor Center Parking around 7 am and scored a spot in the first row.  Woohoo!  Banked in thick fog, it seemed silly to start the hike. I snoozed in the van while Leanne packed a trail lunch.  Around 9:30 am, we donned our rain gear and set out on the trail, doing it clockwise.

- Skyline Loop - Skyline Loop might go down as one of my favorite hikes of all time.  I can see why it's so popular.  It has everything in summer - glaciers, mountain views, gorgeous waterfalls, and even epic waterfalls - all in 5.5 miles.  The first part of the hike was all in fog and rain - however, not far after the glacial vista turnoff, we got a few "peeks" of Mt Rainier.  A few more showed up (although Panorama Point was in the clouds), and got a few fun photos with the volcano.  As we hiked the downside, I loved the glaciers and flowers.  We got lucky that the opposite ridge cleared and we enjoyed gorgeous mountain views throughout our descent. With all the stops and crowded trail, we didn't get back to the van until 2:30 pm.  

Our view of Mt Rainier through the clouds.

Not wanting the day to end, we got ice cream at the visitor center cafe, rested in the sun, toured the visitor center, and headed out on another little trail.

- Nisqually Vista Trail - Wanting to continue our experience, we hiked the 1.1 mile Nisqually Vista Trail near the visitor center.  It traveled through lichen adorned forest and (had the mountain been visible) a a nice view of Mt Rainier.

- Reflection Lake - We packed up the van and made one last stop.  We hit up Reflection Lake about 30 minutes prior to sunset hoping the mountain would emerge out of the clouds.  It never did, but the lake was beautiful and we enjoyed walking the short trail around half of it.

We returned to Elkamp and crashed for the night.

Day 8: Return the van

We had to have the van returned to Portland at 10 am.  So, we got up early, packed up and drove back. Returning the van was easy.  I was incredibly relieved the van survived the trip.

In summary

Even with the rickety van, wildfires, and canceled plans - I really enjoyed this trip.  It was definitely "hiking heavy" which was the intention.  Maple Pass Loop and Skyline Loop goes down as top ten hikes of my life.  If you have questions about the trip or want to see more photos, visit my instagram and DM me on here!

Woman looking out at view of mountains in North Cascades National Park at Washington Pass Overlook.

Here are some other similar adventure trips you might enjoy:

LA to Colorado - Hiking and Adventuring

Michigan Nature


Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Trip to Greenleaf Hut with Appalachian Mountain Club

I was lucky enough to take part in a guided hut trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club!  This is not my first trip to the high huts.  I worked for AMC from 2007-2010 and regularly took groups to the area.  This felt like a coming home as well as a reawakening to the many possibilities of the mountains and how much the AMC contributes to my hiking happiness.  

Text:  A trip to Greenleaf Hut with Appalachian Mountain Club by Freelance Adventurer
Check out the three day guided trip to Greenleaf Hut
 with Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in the White Mountains.

If you'd like to do a guided trip, check out both the free (day hikes) and pay (overnight) trips offered by the club here.

Don't need a guide?  Book your own stay at Greenleaf Hut or another AMC facility.

Before you book, become a member.  Members get 20% off their stay as well as other discounts and benefits!

Read on to learn how to have a memorable 
adventure with AMC at Greenleaf Hut in 
the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Here's how to recreate this adventure...

Day 1:  The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch.

I arrived at AMC Highland Center in the heart of the White Mountains of New Hampshire around 5:30 pm.  Just in time for happy hour in the living room!  It was a rainy night, but the field of lupine in front of the lodge made for a welcome site.  I was given a name tag, checked into my private room/private bath, and mingled and met the rest of the group at happy hour.  

Highland Center at Crawford Notch
Enjoyed my first night at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch.

At 6 pm, we moved to the dining room where we enjoyed a delicious lodge dinner - served buffet style.  After dinner, we convened in one of the classrooms.  Our guides facilitated introductions, went over the hiking plan, and what we needed to pack.  Next, we were shown to the basement LL Bean gear room.  This is available to guests and participants.  It has everything from high quality hiking boots, fleeces, sleeping bags, backpacks, and more.  Many of the participants borrowed packs, boots, and rain gear.  Around 8:30 pm, we departed to our personal rooms to pack, shower, and rest up for the next day's hike.

All your gear needs will be met in the LL Bean room
available free for guests at AMC facilities.

Day 2: Hiking to Greenleaf Hut

I woke up and packed, then headed downstairs for a hearty breakfast from the lodge cafeteria. We got a weather update and set out.  Our trailhead was a short drive away.  We were offered to either be transported by van or travel alone.  I took my car to cut down on the next day's drive.

We arrived at the Old Bridle Path trailhead in Franconia Notch around 8 am.  Our lead naturalist, Nancy, gave a rundown on some of the flora and fauna we might see on the trail and we took off at a moderate pace. 

Trailhead - 2.9 miles to our destination.

 A ways up the trail, we reached a section that was being worked on by the Appalachian Mountain Club's professional trail crew.  I was amazed to see their beautiful work and learned about the "Restoring the Ridge" project - a collaboration between the federal government and Appalachian Mountain club - to preserve this iconic loop hike for generations to come.  We also learned that our AMC membership helps this project!  

two female trail crew members build steps by hand on the Old Bridle path
AMC professional trail crew makes steps
that will last generations and handle thousands
of yearly visitors and harsh weather.

This project combines federal dollars with
AMC funds from your membership.

Soon, we popped out onto a ledge.  While the Franconia ridge above was still in the clouds, we were able to see views of the valley below.  While taking a restful snack break, our naturalist brought our attention to various bird calls.

hiking group takes break on ledge and view valley below
We take a break along Old Bridle Path.

The trail got steeper as we approached the hut.  When we got to Greenleaf hut, it was hugged by a cloud.  Now, around 1 pm, we were ready for our trail lunch (given/packed by the Highland Center kitchen).  After choosing a bunk in the hut, we sat on the porch and enjoyed our lunch.  

two girls climb up to the top (3rd bed) bunk in AMC hut
Bunks come with a pillow and three wool blankets. 
Bring sheets or sleeping sack/bag.

We still had plenty of time until dinner, so even though the visibility wasn't great, we decided to summit Mt Lafayette.  Hoping the clouds would clear by the time we got up there, we continued up into the alpine zone.  Nancy pointed out new plants off the trail.  In about an hour, we reached the ridgeline.  Unfortunately, there was no view due to clouds and mist, but that's ok.  We descended off Lafayette, back to the hut.  

We were treated to an informative talk about the climate science done by AMC scientists as well as their citizen science programs.  We also learned about the hut systems that makes it sustainable in the peaks.

approaching greenleaf hut in fog
Greenleaf Hut is run by Appalachian Mountain Club. 
In summer, it is a full service hut with bathrooms, meals, and beds.  Reserve online.

Dinner was multiple courses - served family style at long tables. You won't go hungry!  The food was both delicious and plentiful.  After dinner, guests read from the library, played games, and chatted before quiet hours at 9:30 pm.  Around sunset, the clouds cleared and we were treated to views of the magnificent Franconia Ridge!  It was a welcome site for guests and staff!

Day 3: Summit views and hiking down

The hut croo (yes, that's how they spell it), woke us up to some soft singing at 6:30 am.  We got up, dressed, and packed and then had a delicious breakfast in the dining room at 7 am.  After breakfast, the group discussed our goals.  Half of the group was ready to take Bridle Path down to return home before noon.  Some of us (me included), wanted to summit Mt Lafayette once more to get a summit view.  With multiple leaders, we were able to split the group.

morning light on tables laid out for breakfast at AMC Greenleaf hut
Morning light streams in at Greenleaf hut -
laid out for breakfast.

As our group moved up the mountain, the clouds came rolling back in.  Fortunately for us, however, we were able to get a ridge view (with clouds) from the top.  

Woman (The freelance adventurer) stands center and behind her franconia ridge on Mt Lafayette
Arguably Mt Lafayette is one of the best views in the White Mountains.

After a leisurely summit break, our small group worked our way back to the hut.  After a bathroom break, we chose to take a different trail down - the Greenleaf Trail.  Some highlights of this trail included mossy "fairy forest" and Eagle cliff.  

Our guides brought us back to our cars two exits down the road.  It was a sunny, warm summer day and couldn't have been a better end to the trip.

Cliff face and ferns along it.
Eagle Cliff along the Greenleaf Trail

Want to try this experience?

Go to AMC activities, and check out the backpacking options.


Hike yourself without a guide!  Book your hut stay!


Become a member to support the trail work, science, and recreation by Appalachian Mountain Club.

Want to see more video and photos from this trip? Check out more on my instagram account the @freelanceadventurer

Text: hut trip with AMC - 3 day guided trip with Appalachian Mountain Club
Highly recommend going on a guided trip with Appalachian Mountain Club.

You might also like these adventures:

Carter Notch Hut in Winter
Lonesome Lake - Perfect Family Hike
24 Hour Affordable Getaway in the White Mountains

Friday, February 3, 2023

Key Largo Weekend Getaway

When my friend asked if I wanted to getaway for a three day weekend in Key Largo,  I thought he was nuts.  Fly 1000 miles for a weekend? Clearly, I was convinced.  In the end - this mini vacation was a great reboot, felt like a real getaway, and wasn't rushed.  A Key Largo weekend getaway was full of adventure, relaxation, and great food.

Here's how to recreate this adventure:

Adventure: 3 Day Weekend Key Largo Getaway

Friday Night: Fly BOS to FLL

After looking into flights to both Miami and Fort Lauderdale, my friend and I chose to fly to FLL.  It was cheaper and only a little longer drive.  I caught a 6 pm flight out of BOS after work on Friday and flew direct to FLL.  My friend, Matt, flew in earlier that day, grabbed our rental car so he picked me up right from the airport.  We spent the night at the Stadium Hotel in Fort Lauderdale - 15 minute drive from the airport.  The hotel was the right location and had an impressive complimentary continental breakfast.

We had a great time on our half day kayak in Key, Largo

Saturday: Kayaking, Pedicures, and Food

We got up around 7 am, enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at our hotel, packed up and headed south.  Our only plan for the day was a half day paddle with Paddle The Keys.  It was an hour and a half drive from our hotel to the paddle spot in Islamorada. It was a surprisingly cold day in the Keys - 60s Fahrenheit.  We bundled up and met our kayak guide - Suzanne.  The kayak was really lovely - we meandered in mangroves, and traveled down residential channels.  Suzanne pointed out fish, waterfowl, and iguanas. We saw some dolphins but no manatees.  We returned around noon - ready for lunch!

We looked for a lunch spot with good drinks and local food.  We settled on Blackwater Siren where I got the fish reuben - really good!  Matt and I shared the "Blackwater Bucket" which was delicious and strong (glad we shared it!)

After lunch, we checked into our airbnb in north Key Largo.  It was modern, clean, and the owner was accommodating and helpful. 

The rest of the day was taken up getting pedicures at T & T nails (call ahead), gourmet desserts at Pinecrest Bakery, and a late dinner at Senior Frijoles*.

*Tip: A lot of local establishments have a coupon to Senior Frijoles.  We saw them near the register at  Divers Direct.

Pinecrest Bakery

Sunday: Everglades National Park, Smoothies, and Sunset Cruise

Sleeping in on Sunday was lovely!  We had a delicious breakfast at the popular The Hideout Restaurant.  I highly recommend paying extra for the hash brown casserole side!  After breakfast, we packed up for a little visit to the Everglades.  It was a 35 minute drive from our AirBnb to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center in the park.  The National Park has an entry fee of $30 per car.  I have a yearly America the Beautiful Pass this year so we didn't have to pay.  Although the original goal was to make it all the way to Flamingo at the other side of the park (see my previous blog post about this drive), we ended up going just halfway so we didn't have to rush or worry about time.  

Everglades National Park Trails:

We enjoyed two easy hikes in the park:

 Ahinga Trail: Royal Palm Parking Area: This 0.8 mile boardwalk loop trail is a fantastic way to see wildlife and Everglades beauty.  The ADA trail walks over lily pad covered marsh.  Spot fish in the water, birds in the trees, and alligators in the water and shores.  On this particularly chilly day, we saw spotted eight gators hauled out along this trail.  It was both thrilling and a little scary!  This trailhead also has a gift shop and bathrooms.

Mahogany Hammock Trail: This 0.5 mile boardwalk loop travels through jungle-like forest.  Listen for birds and try to spot critters in the thick "hammock" of vegetation.  This is also an ADA trail.

Alligators on the trail in the Everglades.

Smoothies at Robert Is Here:

After our little hikes, we left the park.  Before heading back to Key Largo, we stopped at the popular tourist destination-fruit stand called "Robert Is Here".  We enjoyed a fresh smoothie, a walk around the market, and the small animal yard - including emus and giant tortoises.  The market is free to visit and is a fun spectacle.  

Smoothies at Robert is here fruit stand

Sunset Cruise:

We returned to our AirBnb, regrouped and headed to Pirates Cove Watersports to check in to our Sunset Cruise.  Pirates Cove is located at the Reefhouse Resort and Marina.  Our Captain Henry took us out on a little pontoon boat with another couple.  He was easy going and informative.  We had a pleasant water tour of Key Largo, a bit of history, and a fantastic sunset  - complete with jumping dolphins!  This was not a "booze cruise" like I'd done before with another outfit.  I enjoyed the relaxed boat trip. Highly recommend this experience.

Dinner and Drinks:

After our cruise, we walked over to the Breezer's Tiki Bar for dinner and drinks with a view.  It was a great day!

Monday: Snorkeling the Reef, Italian Lunch, and Souvenirs

Our last day in Florida was a delight.  We checked out of the AirBnb and headed back to Pirates Cove Watersports for our snorkel trip.  It was still chilly so we rented wetsuits from them for an addition $10 each (worth it!).  

 The snorkeling was excellent!  We saw schools of barracuda, colorful fish, sea turtles, and gorgeous and diverse coral.  It was amazing.  I LOVED that they took us to two different places.  Both reefs had slightly different communities of fish and it was fun to explore both.  

Snorkeling in Key Largo was fine in the cold with a wet suit.

After snorkeling, we washed off with a hose and headed for an Italian Lunch at The Italian Food Company.  It was a great meal with huge portions.  The best part was the desserts. They had both imported Italian desserts as well as in-house baked items.  

After lunch we drove back to Fort Lauderdale, returned the car, and flew home!

A weekend that felt like a week!

Even though we were only there for a weekend, our Key Largo weekend getaway felt like a week-long vacation.  We packed it in but at the same time felt relaxed.  Whether we were floating at sunset on the ocean, snorkeling with sea turtles, or cruising route 1 for great restaurants, it was a real vacation.  If you love this idea or want to stay longer, check out when I came for a week in summer!

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