Yellowstone: Mountains, geysers and canyons, oh my!

America’s first national park may just be its best — Yellowstone National Park is a truly special place. It’s also in the middle of NOWHERE.

The first stop on our Wild West road trip, we drove six hours from Salt Lake City (time includes a Target run and several aimless attempts to find gas in Nowhere, Idaho) in a race against the sun to get to our resting place for the night, the Old Faithful Lodge, before the sun went down and the likelihood of hitting an unsuspecting animal in the pitch black with our rental car went up. We pulled into the parking lot at 7:15, just as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, and only had to navigate our way to dinner that night.
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Road tripping through the Wild West

Wild West mapSeventeen-hundred miles, six national parks, four states, two adventurers. Or pseudo-adventurers.

After covering a good chunk of the West Coast last year and this past spring, it was time for the Addingtons to check out uncharted (for us) territory: The wild west. I had the opportunity to present at a conference in Salt Lake City in late September, which put us smack in the middle of a beautiful and largely unpopulated part of the country and close to numerous iconic national parks.

And so, we adventured — driving on quiet 80-mph highways and two-lane scenic byways, hiking up and down mountains, taking 1,000 pictures of big blue skies and deep canyons and craggy peaks and curious hoodoos and expansive arches. But always sleeping in a comfortable bed and drinking delicious local beer each night and eating giant sandwiches and salads because I wouldn’t take a vacation that didn’t include those things.

By the end, we had traversed Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. All places with few people, crappy cell service and some of the most amazingly beautiful sites.

I’m continually intrigued by the western half of the United States. Only residing on the East Coast, it’s a whole different world out there. I’m also grateful to have such beauty in our own backyard and always cognizant that many had their lives, lands and culture stripped from them to make it possible.

Here are our stops:

  1. Yellowstone National Park
  2. Yellowstone: Hiking Mount Washburn
  3. Grand Teton National Park/Jackson Hole, Wyoming
  4. Antelope Island State Park on the Great Salt Lake
  5. Salt Lake City
  6. Moab: Canyonlands and Arches
  7. Bryce Canyon National Park
  8. Zion National Park

The Ultimate Guide to St. Augustine, Revisited

St. Augustine just celebrated 450 years. By American standards, that’s a really long time. So in honor of the big 4-5-0, I’m revisiting my guide to the Ancient City that I started nine months ago (life apparently got in the way).

I covered a lot of places to go in Part 1: The Castillo de San Marcos, St. George Street, the Nights of Lights (when in season), the Bridge of Lions. Here are some other places to check out:

Nombre de Dios

It sits slightly on the outskirts of downtown (though if you walk from downtown, check out all the cute vintage shops along San Marco Avenue) but worth a visit. It’s an Spanish Catholic Mission run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine and is free to check out (donations suggested). The main highlight is the GIGANTIC bronze cross that rises 200+ feet into the air. As you head towards the Matanzas River, you run into Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of city-founder Pedro Menéndez’s fleet and one of the first of the city settlers to set foot in what is now St. Augustine on September 9, 1565.

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Rising up behind Father López is the Great Cross is supposed to be a beacon of faith for all those that pass by. Two-hundred and eight-feet high,  it was completed in 1966.

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My favorite part of the grounds is the lush green Chapel of Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) that sits just beyond a graveyard. It was built to reflect the Spanish mission style of the 1500’s. If you feel inspired, you can light a candle in the shrine. We opted to admire it from afar the day we went.

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The Oldest House Museum and Gardens

This was our first stop on our first trip to St. Augustine, mostly because we were scoping it out as a potential wedding venue (or at least I was). The spot, owned by the St. Augustine Historical Society, is the oldest surviving Spanish colonial dwelling in Florida.

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The house itself is pretty cool if you like history — it shows how people lived long ago. There are tours of the house, a museum on local history and the gorgeous gardens — the latter being my favorite part! While we didn’t end up getting married here (we got married across the street at the Llambias House, another St. Augustine Historical Society building), it’s still worth a stop in at least once, to take in the majestic oaks and little features that make it such a cool spot (like a small kitchen building and the lions below).

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The St. Augustine Lighthouse

The black and white swirl of the St. Augustine Lighthouse rises above the flat lands of Anastasia Island, making this iconic structure not just visible from sea but from numerous bridges and landmarks across the city. It’s the city’s oldest surviving brick structure, dating back to 1888, a replacement to lighthouses long gone that were built in far more flammable materials (like wood) or too near the shore (those waves are relentless when storms hit).

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It’s not quite as tall as the Great Cross, rising to 165 feet, but it’s still a long way down! The 219 steps and open ledge are slightly harrowing if you’re not a fan of heights (like me), but are still doable and worth the effort.

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The view can’t be beat no matter which was you look — a sailboat-lined river, the ripples of waves in the ocean, the landscaped doted with homes and historical buildings.

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The St. Augustine Distillery

Covered in detail here. One of the newer gems in St. Augustine. Also, free.

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Henry Flagler’s legacy

Besides the Spanish, Henry Flagler was king in this city. There’s the Lightner Museum, which Flagler opened as the Alcazar Hotel in 1888. The railroad magnate built the hotel to appeal to people who headed south for the winter. IMG_5453

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Across from the Lightner sits the campus of Flagler College. Flagler built the Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888, which is now part of the college campus. The Spanish Renaissance Revival buildings are still beautiful, 100+ years later, and give the area of the city a distinct look. IMG_5451

Clearly there is plenty to see in St. Augustine. Coming soon: where to eat and stay!

Florida Fun: Tubing Ichetucknee Springs

Way down yonder of the Ichetucknee…

Yea, I know, those aren’t the words. The song’s about the Chattahoochee, not the Ichetucknee (although they don’t sound that different). But rolling down the slow current in a tube, we couldn’t help but recall Alan Jackson’s ode to a meandering southern river.

Except the Ichetucknee water ain’t muddy like the Chattachoochee.

Florida is well known for beaches, Disney and general dysfunction, but the state is also full of an awesome natural phenomenon — freshwater springs. Like the nine named springs that feed the Ichetucknee River, which is pristine, cold (72 degrees year-round) and fully in a Florida State Park that bears its name (Ichetucknee Springs State Park).  Continue reading

Lately: Big Talbot Island State Park

When most people talk about Florida parks, they’re usually talking about the theme variety — Disney, Universal and all the other Orlando/Kissimmee theme parks that attract people from all over the country and the world.

But the Sunshine State has plenty of other kinds of parks:

  • Three National Parks (Biscayne and Dry Tortugas by the Keys and Everglades in South Florida)
  • Two National Preserves (Timucuan, here in Jacksonville, and Big Cypress down near Miami)
  • 174 State Parks, trails and historic monuments
  • 337 parks in the City of Jacksonville, making it one of the largest urban national park systems in the country.

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On an incredibly hot Sunday in early July, we went to explore more of one of the many state parks located in the Jacksonville area: Big Talbot Island State Park. Located in the northeasternmost section of the city, the park is one the seven that make up Talbot Islands State Parks. The area is a maze of marshes, winding waterways and coastal islands that border both the Atlantic Ocean and Nassau Sounds. Big Talbot Island is, as its name indicates, an island, nestled between the Nassau Sound, Intracoastal Waterway and Simpson Creek. It’s an undeveloped slice of heaven only a few miles from condo- and house-lined beaches to the south and the subdivisions and neighborhoods that fill up the rest of the city.

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Tips for DIY home improvement beginners: Lessons from building a patio

When Joel and I moved into our new (old) house, we had high expectations… for our ability, the ease of completing projects, how much things would cost.

A year later, we’re slightly wiser. Emphasis on slightly. We did successfully do simple things like painting the entire interior, some of the exterior, and landscape the front yard. That said, we recently took on our first bigger DIY project, the task of building a patio in our backyard, and learned many lessons along the way. The handiest of people, we are not.

Here are some of our tips: Continue reading