Ms. Bakes-A-Lot had a baby 6 months ago and asked if we could meet her in Seattle / Olympic Peninsula where her parents live this summer for our annual travel week. So we packed our bags and found a straight flight with Alaska Air to Seattle for the very first time!
Seattle in the summer is gorgeous. Lovely 70-80 degree weather, crisp air, and sunshine all day long. At Our first Airbnb in Seattle, the hosts had a giant fig tree in the backyard. The figs were the size of my fists!
We ate a lot of dim sum and visited Pike Place Market. There is a Chinese bakery called Mee Sum which is to die for!! Living in Arkansas made me forget what really good Chinese food tastes like. We stopped at a green tea place called Nona’s Green Tea and tried a couple of the ice creams. I really thought we weren’t going to finish all of these desserts, but I was wrong. We finished every sip of this.
The second day we rode on the ferry for the first time across from Seattle to Bainbridge. It was much shorter than I thought it would take. It only takes 30 minutes on the ferry. We saw the lovely skyline of Seattle along with some cargo ships, a cruise, and many many more sail boats.
Then it’s a couple of days of hiking, walking on the beach, fish tacos, oysters, crabs, salmon, clams, and endless fields of lavender!
Here’s us hiking up Mount Townsend. We counted how many switchbacks we hiked and it’s about 35 one way… You also won’t take your legs for granted after the hike, because we were all sore for about 3 days after this hike.
From Mt. Townsend, you can see Mt Rainier (above) and Mt Baker all in a 360-degree view. It was absolutely stunning.
We also visited Dungeness Spit, a thin strip of beach filled with driftwood and seashells. We also saw a bald eagle chilling on this tree (see below on the right side of the big tree 4 branches up!)
This deer barrier sign at the master garden is hilarious. What’s more hilarious was literally within the hour we were hanging out here, there was a doe with her baby walking through this… I guess the barrier is a moo-point.
We visited the Port Townsend library which apparently has the biggest collection of maritime related books. Ms. Bakes-a-lot got as many books as she could carry.
We sat out on a bench and ate some freshly harvested blueberries.
On the day we travel back to Seattle, the first ferry was full so we had some spare time and went over to the Bainbridge art museum right by the ferry. I found this fantastic ceramic & copper artist Eva Funderburg. Her work is absolutely stunning!
Look at this joyous creature (second from the front) riding in the chariot!
There were so much lavender from Ms. Bakes-a-lot’s mom’s garden which I carried home in my suitcase. My entire suitcase smells like heaven.
When COVID seemed like it was almost stampeded out by the newly invented vaccines in March 2021, Mr. Code Junkie and I were hopeful to go back to our normal life. So we made travel plans to go to Iceland for the first time. Little did we know, COVID came back with a vingence wrecking havic with the Delta variance as its new weapon. After debating long and hard about it, we still decided to go to Iceland and take extra precautions (and paid for cancellable flights, in case it didn’t work out.)
What type of travel style do we like?
This is not a typical “MUST DO”/”MUST SEE” itinerary trip report. We try to practice slow, eco-friendly travel while supporting-local economy. We enjoy submerge ourselves into the local living and experiencing different lifestyles and creating connection with the local communities as much as a two-week time would allow. Because of this, even though it is our first time going to Iceland, we decided to not do the ring-road or the golden-circle, and ventured into the deep Westfjord.
Itinerary In A Glance
We decided to go in the fall (a bit shoulder season for Iceland) to avoid crowd. September is also around equinox time which means we are more likely to see some good aurora performance (and we did!).
Despite all the shit show 2020 played on us, it felt like this year went by faster than I thought. It rather felt much like a blur other than March COVID news flashings, and the November election in the U.S. Mark Manson mentioned in his recent post about life lessons from 2020 that when we slow down, strangely time seems to be speeding up.
At the end of 2020, I wanted to start a new tradition of hiking somewhere to see the New Year’s sunrise, so we came to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado.
The sand dunes are about two and a half hours from Colorado Springs, but the tricky part is the living situation. In order to be able to see the sunrise, we had to stay the evening somewhere close. We were lucky to find this Airbnb 15 minutes outside of the sand dunes so we can sleep until 6:00 a.m. before driving up to the park. Even though this Airbnb had a bucket as the toilet, and barely a curtain for privacy, we all have survived. It was nice that the Airbnb had a microwave so we packed my favorite. . . (wait for it) SANDWICHES and canned soup for dinner on new year’s eve.
The bed wasn’t the most comfortable ever. I tossed and turned all night on the sofa couch, but we were just glad we had a proper shelter and aren’t either camping out in the 5° F (-15° C) weather or getting up at 4:00 a.m. and drive in from Alamosa.
There is no defined trail so we just aimed for a semi-high peak and started walking. Trudging up the hill seems fun at first, but it gets tiring after a while trying to pull your legs out of the sand with the strong wind whipping the sand against your face. Alas, we finally made it and I am allowed to sit down and have some water.
The sun rose over the mountain range right around 7:30 a.m. and we were all so happy it heats up our bodies a little! Ellie (my friend’s pup) is sitting on the pad probably cursing all of us for dragging her out in the cold this early in the morning.
2020 has taught me many things. For one, this is the first year I really started saving and tracking my expenses after reading Vickie Robin’s book on Your Money or Your Life. I’ve always traveled abroad every year whether for work or personal; and the pandemic has prevented me from doing so this year. Instead, I found myself much calmer settling into a morning healthy routine I like at home, mostly borrowing from Tim Ferriss. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol & coffee completely this year and I am going to keep doing this. I took on a huge project of renovating the barn this year. I thought I could finish it by 2020 but we are nearing the finishing line! I am glad I took my time this time around unlike my first renovation, and I was able to keep the renovation expenses on a budget.
I know I am somewhat privileged to not have been impacted by the pandemic as some of the others this year. Mr. Code Junkie and I were able to save up some money to go to Alaska when the COVID numbers were decreasing in September and had a blast. We are grateful for our friends and family who supported us emotionally throughout this year and they have also been in relatively good health.
May 2021 bring a little more hope and prosperity to everyone’s lives!
Despite the train-wreck Coronavirus brought to everyone’s life, we were grateful we got to take a vacation this year. My original plan was to go to Ireland and see my friend Ms. Bakes-A-Lot but Ireland closed their borders for most of 2020 so we decided to stay within the U.S. and go to Alaska.
I planned this trip to be around the fall equinox because I wanted to have the best chance to see the aurora borealis. It turns out the aurora is not all that picky with dates. I’ll get into the details below.
Denali is a huge park, so if it’s your first time, I’d recommend:
1) take the transit bus ($43 a person in 2020) one of the days you are there, and visit the Eielson Visitor Center about 66 miles into the park. I know, who wants to ride on a bus after a 4-hour drive from Anchorage? But believe me, you want to do this. Since a giant portion of the park is only accessible by national park buses, you can see a LOT more wildlife on this bus than with your own vehicles.
We lucked out getting onto the bus as we did not buy the tickets ahead of time. Apparently in COVID times, the bus has limited seating (only 1/3 capacity) and there are only 2 drivers a day. Check out the COVID page of the transit bus company for update information if you would like to go. We showed up at 6 a.m. that morning and purchased standby tickets and hoped someone wouldn’t show up (and two of them didn’t!). It was a long wait (2 hours+) with uncertainties. I would get the tickets ahead of time next time I go to Denali.
2) hike around the park visitor center (right next to the gate) and mile 15 Savage River (the farthest a private car can go).
Pro-tip for saving money: get groceries in Anchorage. Groceries in Denali are hard to get, much more expensive, and less variety. We didn’t stocked up enough food from Fred Meyer’s in Anchorage and still had to go grocery shopping in Denali. The biggest grocery nearest to Denali is in Healy (about 10 miles north of Denali entrance) and it’s called Three Bears (248.5 Parks Hwy, Healy, AK 99743). They had the most amazing dried mango and beef jerky; I HIGHLY recommend it!
We stayed 5 days (4 nights) in Denali but we would love to go back and do a wilderness hike from Eielson Visitor Center. This will probably take a lot more planning than showing up at the national park and hope everything works. When we took a bus into the park, we met a hiker who spotted the Northern Light the night before camping not too far from Eielson Visitor Center (September 15, 2020 for reference).
Another novelty is they also have various stamps at the rangers station. The ones I’ve found are Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park (at the park visitor center), and Toklat Visitor Center. I am sure there are more that I didn’t discover (such as Wonder Lake).
The Aurora Chasing
We stayed in Fairbanks for three days to see the aurora. It is the perfect amount of time for people like us who don’t enjoy driving and love to sleep. We booked the last-minute aurora tour and stayed up all night to see the aurora. For someone who doesn’t have 3 days to spend in Fairbanks, you can definitely do it in less time (perhaps 2 days 1 night).
Theoretically, if you lived in a place somewhere around Fairbanks vicinity that:
has a clear horizon of the north
outside of city light pollution
you are visiting around the time from September to April timeframe, and
with some clear night sky (weather-wise)
you can see the northern light. No tour is required.
But if any of those above basic requirements cannot be met, I’d say spend the money and let the tour guide drive you somewhere where you can see the aurora.
The tour itself was $195 per person which was quite pricy but since we don’t know much about where to go see the aurora other than internet research, I decided to fork over the money and give it to the professionals. It turned out to be well worth the money! Not only did we learn a ton about the aurora, being driven around and get your photos professionally taken is worth the $195.
This tour is run by one guy named Aaron and you can text him from the number he left on the website to get in contact with him for last-minute aurora tours if the website shows no availability. Aaron is also the driver, the weather forecast, the aurora chasing expert, and the photographer. It is just a one-man show so I totally respect it. This $195 is definitely hard-earned money.
Just for comparison/level setting, the night we went to see the aurora, the Kp level was 2 (which is pretty low) and the activities were average, but with a professional camera and long exposure shots, it came out amazing. In real life, the aurora seemed more like a band of slightly yellow/white smoke (way less impressive in person than on photograph!). We were told that 2020 is actually the year of solar-minimum, which means there are very few solar activities that create the aurora. As we go out of solar minimum and climb to solar maximum (predicted 2025), there will be more opportunities to see a more vibrant aurora when you visit!
Bonus to seeing the aurora, you also get to see the Milky Way since there is no light pollution 🙂
Being a museum geek, I also went to the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. For a museum, it was on the smaller size, but for a school museum, this is HUGE! The museum itself (and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks) is on a beautiful hill where you can see miles and miles of the Alaska Range. The museum hosted many specimens including polar bears, grizzlies, Alaska’s unique dinosaurs, Inuit heritage, Russian heritage, etc.
The most fascinating part, aside from the animals and dinosaurs, is the WWII history in Alaska and the memorial for the Japanese Internment. Alaska was the only land battlefield of WWII in North America. NPS has a summary of WWII in Alaska here. Of course, talking about WWII on American soil, it is important to acknowledge and learn more about the Japanese Internment that followed where the U.S. government forced relocation and incarcerations of Japanese Americans living on the west coast. Needless to say, I got emotional while looking through this exhibit with loads of handwritten letters from the Japanese Americans writing to their relatives wanting to know that they are well and when they can reunite again. George Takei gave a powerful TedTalk giving his experience on the Japanese Internment in 2014.
The Magic of Seward
Seward is apparently pronounced “sewer-d” according to the locals. The city is named after William H. Seward, the guy who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Seward is about two hours from Anchorage and the drive itself is beautiful.
Just walking around downtown Seward, you can see so many wildlife. We saw two bald eagles (and they look just like the Great Seal of the United States), seals bopping up and down in the Fjords, a sea lion catching a salmon just strolling around the boardwalk.
The food in Seward was amazing. We went to this cute taco place called the Lone Chicharron downtown and they are connected to the Seward Alehouse so you can sit at the bar and eat your food while having a beer after a long day of strenuous hiking. We also met lovely locals who almost convinced us to sell everything and move here!
Here’s the thing about sled dogs: They never know how far they are going to run.
As a musher — the human driver of a dog sled team — this is one of my main challenges. There are many ways in which my dogs know more than me. They know if a storm is coming, or if a moose crossed the trail days before. They know how ice shifts under their paws. They know if we’re being followed and by what kind of animal. They know their own power — that they’re stronger than me, much stronger, and if they turn or stop when I ask them to, it’s because they’re choosing to listen and trust me. Running together is a gift they give me every day.
Even though Alaska is within the United States, it feels like a different country. The topography is strenuous, harsh, and unyielding. The wildlife is incomparable to anywhere else I have been, including the safari in South Africa (though those are different animals there). The wildlife in Alaska seems to be much less accustomed to human interactions, no doubt through the efforts of the tireless Alaskans and conservationists. The last frontier is a well-deserved title for this place of majestic beauty.
I recently had an opportunity to visit Colorado for a full week (seven full days!) in January to do some research (see full analysis here) on possibly moving here in the near future. I decided to go see the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP for short) north of Denver on the weekend before heading down south to Colorado Springs for some outdoor climbing.
We stayed in Estes Park, Colorado right outside of RMNP. I first learned about Estes Park from Tommy Caldwell‘s book ‘The Push‘, the famous Dawn Wall rock climber superstar I met earlier this year. I was so shocked to find out that Estes Park, as a mountain town, is actually quite a lot bigger than I imagined in my mind. What a place to grow up as a kid! No wonder Tommy was drawn to outdoors and climbing.
We stayed with River Rock Cottages (Terry & Carolyn) and only about 10 minutes drive from most of the trailheads. The house was perfect with hot shower and a kitchen for 2 nights.
We went on a hike to the Loch Lake and it was only about 2.5 miles one way (5 miles total) but feels like 10 miles trudging through snow with microspikes (rented here for $5). It would’ve been better if it weren’t so windy so you have some desire to take your hands out of your pockets and fish for some food in your pack.
The last 100 yards by the lake was EXTREMELY windy. I really was hoping for a view of the quiet tranquil frozen lake where I could possibly find a bush somewhere to relieve myself from having drunk too much tea in the morning. But the +40 mph windchill probably made a 10-degree-Fahrenheit day feels like NEGATIVE 20 degrees. It is quite an experience peeing in the high wind in the ‘feels-like-negative-20-degree’ weather. I understood what it’s like to instantly freeze within 5 seconds of exposed skin. I seriously couldn’t feel my buttocks until we got off the mountain and into town.
After this wretched hike with cold that chilled to our very souls, we came down the mountain and had THE BIGGEST burger we can find in an Irish pub, and it goes without saying, a nice cold beer (cider for me!).
Last year I had a marathon frenzy and decided to run the Patagonia Marathon in Puerto Natales, Chile. My friend and I stayed after the marathon and had a three-week hiking trip down the coast of South America.
Getting to Patagonia
If you are like me and live in the U.S., the most economical way to get down to Patagonia is to fly either to the capital city of Chile (Santiago) or Argentina (Buenos Aires) first, then book a separate flight down to Punta Arenas (Chile) or El Calafate (Argentina).
*Pro tip: If you you need to traverse countries while on your trip, it is cheaper to fly domestically and use ground transport (buses) to get the last few hours to your destination. Flying within the same country is cheaper than taking an international flight between Chile and Argentina. For example: If you want to start from Chilean Patagonia and travel to Argentinian Patagonia, the best way is to fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then take the bus up through to Argentina.
Getting around in Patagonia
Patagonia operates on buses.You can find a few bus companies that will take you through the borders between Argentina and Chile. You can purchase bus tickets online prior to arrival from Bus Sur (one of the bus companies in Patagonia), but it might be easier to figure out the timetable once you arrive in Patagonia and purchase the bus tickets from the bus station as you see fit. *Pro tip: Go to the bus station a day early and figure out your ride.
September is considered a “shoulder season” (before and after the busy season) of Patagonia. There are plenty of spaces in the campsite but the national park may require a reservation confirmation to let you inside the park. The temperatures in Patagonia around September is about 25F° (-3C°) – 40F° (4C°). I had a thermo jacket
The route we took was: Punta Arenas –> Puerto Natales –> El Calafate –> El Chalten. Because we were trying to save money, we took a bus back to Punta Arenas then flew back to Santiago. If you are short on time, Punta Arenas and El Calafate both have airports.
We had also rented a car and drove between El Calafate and El Chalten. It was a wonderful experience to not have to rely on bus schedules for once during the trip. It was not much more expensive for two people to rent a car than to take the bus. We were a lot more efficient with our time having rented our own car.
Puerto Natales – Torres Del Paine
Chile National Park service (CONAF) now requires local guides for you to enter the park in September due to past season’s increased number of rescues (2019). However, my friend and I did not find out about this requirement until after we had spent 5 days in the park. The CONAF staff asked whether we have a guide at Paine Grande point. When we told him no, he just asked us to write our names down for record keeping. It seems the weather was nice the 5 days we were there. I suppose that is the reason the CONAF staff was not super concerned about us not having a guide.
Most of the information can be found from one of my favorite travel blogs, Yes Mom I’m Alive. I received a lot of help from Britt, author of Yes Mom I’m Alive in the planning stage on maps/camping/weather condition/routes.
Here is an easy map for the ‘W’ and ‘O’ Circuit. Camp Central is Camp Las Torres. Camp Italiano, Cuernos, and Chileno only open during the busy season (October – February).
Camping in Torres Del Paine
The two privately owned companies that operate in the national parks are Fantastico Sur and Vertice. I have linked the specific reservation link I found from researching it for a while. It is not very obvious on Fantastico Sur’s main website where to reserve campsites. Neither of their websites are always up to date. When you see the campsite dates unavailable for consecutive days (especially outside of the busy season of October to January), email them and ask for availability. I have emailed them and found they respond quite quickly. *Note: their website advertises their own tour in addition to the accommodation. It is a bit pricy and not necessary to go with a guided tour. I’d always suggest go by yourself.
Campsites are way cheaper (~$20 a night) but requires time to set up. You can pay a little extra ($~10) to have the park set it up for you prior to arrival (*totally worth it*). After a long day of walking with 25lbs on my back, having a place to sit and lay down is totally worth the extra money. They gave us sleeping bags (20 Fahrenheit) but we doubled up with our own sleeping bag because it is COLD at night.
The refugios have nice buildings with electricity and almost like a big hostel hotel. The bathrooms were modern and some of them can even flush! Coming from primitive camping in the U.S., this was a pleasant surprise.
There are designated areas for cooking but definitely no stove. We brought our jetboil and pre-cooked some sausages to bring on the trip. Alternatively, most of the refugios have food you can purchase, from a simple pizza to elaborate dinners. They all have hot water which was the cherry on top (hot chocolate after a cold day of hiking, yum!).
Sunrise for the tower Cerro – My friend and I woke up at 2:30 am, packed up our sleeping bags and started hiking up the mountain in the dark. It was easier to hike up than down. The trail is frozen towards the last 2 miles and it was basically an ice scramble on our hands and knees going up the mountain (note: if you are going in October, it will probably be a lot easier). I would recommend trying to time your arrival to the mountain around sunrise because if you are early, it is extremely cold on the top while waiting for the sunrise.
El Calafate, Argentina
While we were getting from Puerto Natales to El Chalten, we stopped at El Calafate for a day. This is the place to visit one of the most famous glaciers in the world. Unlike most of the glaciers in the world that are receding due to global warming, Perito Moreno Glacier continues to accumulate mass at a rate similar to that of its loss. It is one of the most magnificent and powerful places I have ever been. We took a tour with Hielo y Aventura where you can wear crampons and get onto the glacier for a whole day. We were told that there is only one official tour company. Other companies who offer glacier walk are agents and will lead to back to this company. Find this company locally once you arrive in El Calafate (this link for google map location).
The trip started at 7am, we took the bus into the national park, paid the park entrance fee, and took a walk to the overlook where the glacier touches the land. Then we rode on the boat across the water to the left side of the glacier. It is about an hour hike to get onto the glacier, punctuated by a lovely beach, safety debriefs, and tasks such as putting on our harnesses, helmet, gloves, and crampons.
We had lunch out on the glacier while huddling in an ice cave carved out by the strong wind on the glacier, observing nature’s biggest glacier making machine in the world. The blue color emanating from the glacier is indescribable. I tried to capture them in my photos but the photo does not do it justice. While we were on the boat back to the city, Hielo y Aventura surprised us with whiskey on the rocks (‘rocks’ from the glacier) and local chocolates to give us some relief from our tired and aching knees and body.
El Chalten, Argentina
Chalten city limits are within the national parks, therefore you don’t need to pay to enter the park (unlike Perito Moreno Glacier). There are many things you can do in El Chalten and it is fully equipped with restaurants and outdoor recreational shops to prepare you for any type of adventure from hiking to alpine climbing.
Unfortunately, only 1/3 of the places are open during the shoulder season of September when we arrived. We hired a local guide and climbed our first multi-pitch right next to the town!
Everything is walkable the moment you arrive El Chalten. It was a town established around 1985. Trailheads start from the town and lead you to Mt. Fitz Roy, the most famous adventure Chalten has so much to offer. It is a convenient basecamp to all types of adventures you can possibly imagine. My second trip to Patagonia will be centered around Chalten.
Other helpful tips
Patagonia is EXTREMELY windy, so it is always necessary to have layers, and possibly scarf to cover your face.
Learn some games that can be played while hiking. 8 hours of walking is only so much fun. A rainy day poker card game is a fantastic way to meet handsome guys on the trail!
All the photos are taken by me or my friend Kat. It seemed daunting when I started planning at first, even with Yes Mom I’m Alive‘s extremely detailed walkthrough and personal help (hats off to Britt!).
I hope this is helpful for you to plan your first trip down to Patagonia. If you have any questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.