9 Secrets of Yosemite! Know Before You Go!

#9 The water is gorgeous BUT super dangerous!

While you may have studied Pinterest and a million blogs and planned lots of nice days of basking in the cold waters of Yosemite during your hot summer trip, well, think again. First, it is against the rules at the national park to get in ANY of the water. There are warning signs everywhere about the dangers of being swept away. In the visitor center, there is a serious dedication to warning about the rushing waters.

It is easy for a babbling brook to turn to a rushing river around any turn. We saw it happen many times throughout our stay. So, please, please exercise great caution around the water. Don’t be like this guy!!

If you were dead set on getting that pristine water, stay tuned! We have an AMAZING option to keep every water lover intensely happy!

#8 The parking and road into the park are very, very tricky!

We thought we planned everything so well. Candace found a great Air BNB “near the entrance of the park,” and we did all the map calculations several times. Well, the best laid plans… the drive from the RV park to the entrance and the epic park sign wasn’t too bad, about 30 minutes in the mountains. (It was our third national park!)

However, from the entrance to the actual visitor center with maps, park ranger updates, trails, food, bathrooms, etc., was easily another hour. We got up early each day and were pulling out by 6am in order to avoid the crowds. This plan was great for parking! We were right up front! However, on the first day, we didn’t understand how the park worked, and how to get to the trails, and how to use the bus system. Basically, our early arrival was great for parking and seeing a few sights, but we still waited a long time for the park to open. This was fine after the first day, and we knew where to go. Which leads to the next secret of the park…

#7 Do NOT sleep in!

This is one of the most visited and most treasured of our national parks. We agree that it certainly deserves that high esteem, but so does, you know, everyone else. If you slept in until 10am, HA!, yeah, you missed it. You will be in a line of cars for HOURS with no chance of finding parking. You might get to the first trail or waterfall by 3-4pm.

This gives you a tiny amount of time in the park unless you plan to camp overnight. The line for camping in the most coveted areas was a lottery packed with people by 7am. And, you better have all the right equipment, or you aren’t going.

#6 You cannot imagine the views even just from your car…

These iPhone pics are gorgeous and yet still don’t do the space justice. It is the most breathtaking place we have ever seen or experienced. In absolutely every direction, you will be amazed with the magic of this Earth. Candace wished she had learned a bit more about using the camera and maybe even had a more professional camera just to catch the views. A thousand pictures can’t possibly capture the place.

#5 The wildlife is no joke!

We saw these amazing creatures just about everywhere. This was near the visitor center, so it was quite used to the people and the buses. They didn’t seem to mind a bit. When we ventured out a little further to Hetch Hetchy, the wildlife were definitely more cautious of interacting with people. Have a good look at the pic below. Yep, that is a huge black bear about 100 yards from us. He was running, playing, and rolling around for about 30 minutes. The park rangers were all going on and on about how lucky we were to see a bear on our first time in Yosemite! Lucky! HA!

#4 You know that thing where people stack rocks – it’s a Yosemite thing!

Ok, ok, yes, Yosemite might not have been the first place to see these cairns, or man-made rock stack, but it is a very popular thing to do here! Cairns have deep roots and can be used to do anything from mark monuments, honor the dead, or bring a contemplative spirit. There was a whole area dedicated to it. We all really enjoyed spending an hour trying to make the best stack. We even continued to do this at other national parks! Back at the RV for the night, Trav was quite happy to keep the stacking going!

#3 There are some seriously good local brews you must try!

We may be near wine country, but wow, those local brews!

In a region known much more for its wines, we were pleasantly surprised to find out the the local beers are stellar! You can find it in the park, but you will also be pleased to hear that you can also pick it up throughout the region and markets and restaurants – even the hole in the wall type places carried this great beer. We were sure to bring home a case, which, of course, didn’t last long!

#2 If you don’t like crowds, there are some other options!

Honestly, while there were TONS of people, the shear magnitude of this place will rarely leave you feeling the crowded once out of the car and into nature. However, yes, you still want a bit more solitude than the main part offers. We loved our adventure out to Hetch Hetchy, which is a massive reservoir for the entire region. There is plenty of camping, hiking, and small privately run parks – where you can get in the water. You can drive around to some glorious high peaks for an amazing overlook or you can enjoy a hike from the plentiful trailheads.

#1 You simply MUST venture off the beaten path and try other areas of the park!

Hands down, our favorite adventure in the park was the day we just tried something totally new. We got lost. We ended up in the national forest. We got shady directions. We accidentally found one of the most incredible swimming experience of our lives, and we love to swim! Carlon Falls is hike that begins in the national forest but does bring you into the outskirts of the national park. Check out this shot from Trip Advisor!

The pristine, chilly waters are slowly moving up and over several small waterfalls and find these magical places to pool among the rocks. You can find spots where you have a small pool completely to yourself. We only saw a few people there and most were locals. We have never been so happy to get lost on the road. We had no idea what to expect.

All you see from the road is this tiny unassuming sign! But trust, us, it is amazing. It was our favorite afternoon. It is easily the best kept secret in Yosemite National Park!

Can you guess the oddest National Park? 4 hints below!

Hint #1: Edwardian Architecture

It is like stepping back in time! Absolutely every detail from the tiny mosaic flooring to the near century year old elevator, you will be transported through time in this visitor center.

Fancy an electro-massage or a moment on the parallel bars? Enjoy your time, but remember, men and women must stay separate (not today, historically).

Hint #2 – It is in a city center!

Just steps outside the visitor center, you are transported into a quaint city. We were lucky enough to be there for Christmas when it is absolutely dressed for the season!

The local art scene is also pretty great! We saw street murals everywhere.

The city also has amazing food from gourmet ice cream and cupcakes to local beer flights and Mexican food. We deeply enjoyed taking a few hours to explore the city and take in the sites.

Hint #3 – You can camp – first come, first serve!

The spaces are long, and there is ample parking. It was winter, and there were still spots open just a couple of days after New Years. Even though it is on a mountain, there spots are mostly quite level and easy to access. You will not be able to back straight into the spots, so an experienced driver is key. You cannot book in advance, so we recommend going straight to the site. Also, do NOT try to take your RV or travel trailer into the city. NOPE! Park first, we learned the hard.

Hint #4 – this one is a pretty big hint!

Head over to the front desk where a park ranger will share a cup with you! Then, head outside to try the local drink. There were mixed reviews from the crowds, but thought it was delicious and quite perfect on a cold winter day!

We loved it!

Can you guess the oddest National Park?! It was #11 on our National Park voyage. We loved every second of these unusual park! We will give the answer in the comments. What do you think?

8 Do’s and Don’ts for Mammoth Cave National Park

You know you have climbed a mountain. But in a cave, you can never be certain that the cave does not go on.

-Roger Brucker and Richard Watson

 even with very poor weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our recent visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. In fact, it made Clay’s top five favorite parks list! Here are a few things to consider when planning your trip.

Don’t worry about planning way in advance!

Unless you are dead set on a certain tour or are planning to arrive during a peek weekend, you don’t necessarily need to plan far in advance for this park, especially in comparison to the major parts like Yosemite or Yellowstone. It is a great place to stop even if you only have a few hours. We have been in caves all over the world, and this one was simply spectacular. If you have any interest in caves, this is an absolute must see spot as it is the worlds longest cave by quite a margin more than doubling the size of second place.

Do check out the Visitor Center

Not only is it the only place to book a tour, but it is one of the best visitor centers we have seen! The gift shops are filled with both the typical tourist items as well as many local artists and very unique gifts and souvenirs.

As you enter, there will be a park ranger to greet you and answer any questions. Then, you can head to the desk and book a tour. Below are the options available.

While the park used to do a river tour, it is not available anymore. Unfortunately, overly demanding guests don’t realize the impact of unpredictable weather, and the park was using all of its resources to manage this one tour. While we are sad they don’t run the tour anymore, we understand that the park must run efficiently to optimize its availability to everyone.

Do visit the hotel restaurant and ice cream parlor

While it was nowhere near our best meal in a national park, there are not a lot of options in the area. The food was decent but they did serve beer and wine, which is always a plus.

All of the dressings were homemade, and the kids meals were tasty and substantial. We were very sad to miss the ice cream parlor, but it is not open during the winter. However, everyone kept telling us how fantastic it was. Maybe next time!

Don’t touch the bats and don’t leave the trails

Although we did not see any bats, it is a vital to their ecosystem that you leave them alone. Upon exiting the cave, you also need to wash your shoes on the solution provided. There is a virus being transmitted in caves throughout the world which is killing the bats. All American cave systems now required this process. We were happy to oblige.

It may seem like an adventure to leave the main trails, but the guides are there for a reason. If you want a more backcountry experience, then take the rustic trail systems for a richer experience. The trails near the visitor center would be destroyed if everyone ventured off the path.

Don’t miss the tours

Not only is it the only way to enter the cave, but it is the best way to get a deeper experience. The park rangers are experts, and can add so much history and detail to your trip. Experienced cavers can also apply with their caving club, which we learned was called a grotto, to become a part of the cave mapping and exploration going on in the national Park. Our guide shared that there are constantly students and professors studying the cave from all over the world. As of 2017, the cave is listed at 412 miles long, but the park rangers know there are many more miles to still be uncovered and explored.

Don’t miss the museum and film

The park museum maybe small, but it is easily the best one we’ve seen. Most national parks have a few exhibits with information and some level of interactivity; however, none we have seen so far are on par with this small museum. It is packed with information, but it remains accessible, interactive, and fun for kids and adults alike.

The space is made to feel like a cave, small but full of life and packed with diversity.

The film room was the perfect way to get excited about heading to the cave. It really gave you a sense of what was ahead. It also shared the fascinating history of the discovery and exploration of the cave which continues still today.

Don’t miss the trails and waterfalls

While it is true that this national Park is mostly about the cave, don’t miss out on the trails and waterfalls all over the park. Around every corner is something new to see from a babbling brook to a large sinkhole and countless waterfalls. It was magical even in the freezing rain weather. We certainly wish we had more time to stay and explore.

Christmas in NYC, 2 Day Itinerary for Families (Day 2)

Welcome to our day 2 itinerary for New York City! We recommend grouping your plans by neighborhoods in the city to cut down on wasted time for transportation. To go just a few miles in the bustling city center could take between 30 minutes to an hour depending on where you want to go. We saved all of our downtown activities for the second day. This can get a little bit dry for children, so we found a few ways to keep it exciting for them as well.

Ground Zero, Oculus, 9/11 Museum, One World Observation Tower

The former world trade center area has become a large part of the city which includes several different experiences. First, there is the 9/11 Memorial exhibits. The spirit is very solemn and quiet, and you will certainly find no one chatting away on their cell phones. The building straight ahead in the picture above is a museum dedicated to the lives of those killed by the terrorist attacks as well as the valiant rescue efforts going on for days afterwards. You could also pay to go to the top of One World Observation Tower, which is the tallest tower in the western hemisphere. However, the cheapest entry price is $44 per person. This was out of our budget in addition to there being zero visibility. Next, there is a major transportation hub here called the Oculus. It feels like a cross between a posh airport and a high end shopping district.

It is completely decked out in festive Christmas decorations absolutely everywhere you turn. You will likely end up using this transportation site at some point during your stay has multiple subway stops, Path trains to Jersey, and other destinations are all located at this point.

You will have to decide what is the best experience for your group. An entire day can easily be spent here.

Ferry to Ellis Island or Statue of Liberty

Taking a ferry will give you a great opportunity to see the skyline and an outside view of the buildings. When you’re in the city center, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer magnitude of the space. The ferry offers a great view, and the kids will love taking a ride on a boat. You can take the ferry out to Ellis Island or to the Statue of Liberty. However, during the winter, you should expect it to be extremely cold. We were fine all day, but being right there on the water was absolutely chilling!

Chinatown and/or Little Italy

A family favorite experience was our trip to Chinatown. We all really enjoy a variety of Asian foods, so this was high on our priority list. Chinatown is the largest population of Chinese people living outside China.

You would think it is a heavy tourist destination (and I’m sure it is), but everywhere we stopped we were surrounded by locals. We saw very few other tourists even in the peak season. 

You will find everything from fresh seafood markets to quick bites like a dumpling shop. There are also other foods like Thai and Vietnamese.

The sights and sounds and make a credible experience for anyone. This is a very highly recommended stop. If half of your group would choose pizza over potstickers, you’re in luck! Little Italy is right next door!

More options…

The business district has so much to offer even when you’re traveling with kids. You can go to worlds largest Starbucks which post some really interesting architectural design. You can see Trinity Church both for its history and it’s grandeur. You can see the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street, and get a picture with the Charging Bull. We listed our favorite activities, but there are so many adventures to choose from!

Top 6 Boondocking Hacks, Dry Camping Made Easy

6. Repurposed Jumper Cables on Inverter

Because we are on a budget, our inverter is not hardwired in. Brian re-purposed these jumper cables to connect the inverter to the battery using alligator clips to hold it in place for powering the inverter from the battery. We do plan to eventually hardwire it, but this was an awesome hack as a short-term fix while we had other priorities on the travel trailer.

5. Use 2.5 Gallon Water Jug as Sink Faucet

By placing the 2 1/2 gallon water jug right at your sink, it is almost like you still have your faucet operational. Of course, you must use the water sparingly. You won’t believe how quickly you will go through the water. Boil some water on the stove and make it a two station dishwashing area like in the picture above. For those stuck on messes, just save the dishes until you have a water source or discreetly walk it in to wash somewhere. Just be sure to maintain very sanitary practices.

4. Meal Prepping for Stove Cooking

With enough planning, you can make just about any meal using only propane on your stove. A family favorite is bacon made at home and then put in a Ziploc in the fridge for those Boondock mornings. After one or two minutes in the pan, the bacon will be fresh and ready and you will have a bit of grease to make some eggs next. Be sure you have a high-quality pan that’s very easy to clean. We have had everything from tacos to chicken and dumplings.

Pro tip: chicken stock is great for reheating! Fried rice, spaghetti meatballs, taco meat, etc, just about anything will reheat on the stove top with some chicken stock.

3. Extension Cord with USB

When we first started dry camping, we immediately noticed our inability to charge our phones. Since it is both about safety and convenience, we were quickly looking for a solution to this issue. Here is the link to the one we got on Amazon!

Power Strip 3 Outlets and 3 USB Ports with Switch Control, Desktop Charging Station with 5 ft Extension Cord, Compact for Nightstand, Office and Travel – Black

Brian found this extension cord with both USB and regular wall socket outlets. We use these to charge our phones and watch movies in the evening.

2. Pour Over Coffee

There is little more important than a hot cup of coffee in the morning. It was a very high priority on Candace’s list to create a solution for coffee when dry camping or Boondocking. We found this pour over coffee maker on Amazon, and it is currently on an amazing sale! We paid way more!

Bodum Pour Over Coffee Maker

Just boil the water on the stove top and follow the instructions for a great cup of coffee. It also uses a permanent filter; however, it can be a little tricky to wash without using excessive amounts of water. Planning to try a bottle brush!

1. Rechargeable Water Pump

You can purchase a water pump that will sit on top of a 5 gallon water jug. When you push the power button it shoots out just like any water dispenser would. We like this one! Currently – ON CLEARANCE!

Water Bottle Pump, 5 Gallon

We set it up by the tub if we need a quick rinse or move it in the kitchen to use for drinking water or cooking. It’s extremely easy and effective. Here is a link to the one we purchased on Amazon: water bottle.

What are your best boondocking hacks?

Christmas in NYC, 2 Day Itinerary for Families (Day 1)

Christmas in New York City can give a magical experience for any family! Check out our tips for an action-packed two day itinerary in the bustling island of Manhattan.

It is very easy to spend lots of time on transportation in any major world city. You’ll need a basic understanding of the subway unless you plan to spend lots of money on taxis or Uber. We decided to divide the city into two different days: uptown and downtown. Downtown is full of important cultural and historic sites, but uptown has more appeal to kids. We decided to put our uptown itinerary first in order to kick off the festivities and excitement in the hearts and minds of the kids. We identified several sites from movies that they would recognize and be eager to see and experience.

Day 1 – Uptown

Bryant Park

You’ll want to organize your activities based on location, any particular showtimes you are trying to catch, and also the weather. It was very cold and drizzling with rain on our first day, so our priority was hot chocolate!

There are literally dozens of options for food and drinks. right at the skating rink, there is a hot chocolate shop specializing in chocolate which looks like various tools. You have to really look closely to see that it’s actually chocolate and not rusted hand tools.

Bryant Park is a medium sized city park tucked in among the buildings in the city center. During the holidays, it is packed with numerous festive options for anyone in your group. We opted to try ice-skating, which has an extra high price during the holidays. It was around $100 for skate rental and ice time for three people.

The incredible setting is half the fun as you are hidden in this metropolitan area with a giant Christmas tree, holiday music, lights and decorations. 

After skating, we could not escape the smell of truffle fries in the air. We had to try them!

They come in a large brown bag for you to take and find the picnic table elsewhere in the park. They were amazing! The birds liked them too. If you are patient and willing they will eat right out of your hands.

FAO Schwarz and Rockefeller Center

A trip to New York with your kids is simply not complete without a stop at the famous toy store. However, during the holidays, expect outrageous crowds. It was definitely among the top two most crowded places we visited. The store is very savvy and takes a modern approach to the toy store concept. There are interactive displays and store employees showing you how to use a variety of exciting toys, magic tricks, or other fun activities to try.

We did not have time to get the full experience of Rockefeller Center, but we certainly had to see the famous Christmas tree which is literally right outside the doors of the toy store. You can smell the incredible Christmas tree from a block away. Many people don’t realize it is actually a real tree from the region. After the holiday season, the lumber is donated.

Plaza Hotel Dining and Shops

While it may be impossible to to get a hotel room at a reasonable rate, you could still experience the hotel by dining in their restaurants and shops area on the first floor. There’s absolutely something for everyone. From noodle shops to Italian food, you can find anything your group needs right at the plaza hotel.

We absolutely loved the gourmet donut shop called the Doughnuttery. It was the perfect small treat after lunch.

Not only are the food options brilliant, the location is perfect for a stop. You are right at the corner of 5th Avenue and Central Park. It’s just a short walk to the subway or the zoo! 

Central Park Zoo

This metropolitan zoo may be small, but it is packed with great sites. From the snow leopards and bears to the indoor rain forest, it is an excellent couple of hours in your day.

There is also the option to upgrade your ticket for a few dollars to see the 4D show. It is not usually our thing, but it was the holidays and Polar Express was showing. It is a quick 15 minute show, but full of fun.

Times Square

No trip to New York is complete without a stop by Times Square. You can have a walk by it simply snap a few pictures, or you can easily spent half a day here having a coffee, doing some shopping, or enjoying a great meal. Of course, you should expect heavy crowds at any time of year but the holidays are extra packed. There will be lots of security and police on every corner.

More options…

The list of other options is endless, but some top picks would be visiting a museum or catching a show. The American natural history Museum and the Museum of modern Art are both free museums. The entry fees listed are actually suggested donations. Of course, Broadway is one of the most important theater districts in the world. However, expect very high ticket prices and limited options during the holidays unless you’ve booked well in advance. You can also enjoy numerous activities within central park. There are trails in every direction and play structures as well as various street performers a little cafés. you can also stop by the iconic Empire State building, and ride to the top. It is drastically cheaper than the One World Observation Tower!

Check out our Day 2 Itinerary for Downtown in another post!

ABCs of Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Choose Your Own Adventure!

1. Where should we eat?

A. Quaint local spot

B. Chain restaurant

C. Picnic in the park

Well, if you know us at all, then the obvious answer is A!

Candace likes to use TripAdvisor when deciding where to eat. There’s a convenient feature where you can typically also read the menu for the restaurant. Some of the highest rated places were either not open or served more of a deli style meal. We firmly believe you should eat the local cuisine when you are traveling as much as possible. This log cabin looked promising, and it certainly did not disappoint!

Be sure to ask for the specials. The shrimp and grits was simply phenomenal. One of the best we’ve ever had. At first, we thought the bacon on our breakfast dish looked burnt, but we were definitely wrong. It is a maple glazed bacon which was chewy and perfectly delicious. We are now on a hunt to find more of this style bacon. The atmosphere in this small restaurant was a special part of the experience. If you go, we recommend sitting in the loft.

Helpful tip: the restaurant only takes cash although there is an ATM inside. There is a three dollar fee. All in all, we highly recommend Timbers Log Cabin restaurant.

While answer C sounds great, we were ready for a meal at a restaurant. If you ever choose answer B, we just can’t be friends.

2. What should we do in the national park?

A. Check out the visitor center

B. Enjoy some short hikes

C. Drive to one of the high points

Our answer was A and B this time!

Unfortunately, Travis wasn’t feeling well. However, it was still an amazing day in the park.  we always recommend going to the visitor center when visiting a national park. It is not only important for your safety that you know about any closures or other important announcements, but there is always information to be gleaned from the knowledgeable Park Rangers as well as park volunteers.

Another of Candace’s favorite things to do is to watch the National Park video played on a loop at visitor centers in every national park. You will always get a great overview of the area, some important regional history, and an idea of things you might want to do while in the park.

Immediately inside the park, there are numerous trails of varying difficult and very near Sugarlands Visitor Center. You can even take a trail all the way back into the city center of Gatlinburg only a couple of miles away.

Be sure to check out the informational signs about the various flora and fauna. The boys loved seeing a “gum tree.”

3. Which of the famous gravity coasters should we ride?

A. Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster

B. Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster

C. Whatever is cheapest!

Our pre-trip research meant we planned ahead for option B!

While there were several other options for an adventure including other gravity coasters, we did our research. TripAdvisor highly recommended specifically Gatlinburg mountain coaster. The reviews were very good. However, prices are definitely cheaper for other options. If you mention competitor prices, they will offer you a 10% discount.

It was pretty expensive, but Travis was not feeling well and this was high on his priority list. We simply had to go for it. We were glad we did! It went much faster than expected and felt like a theme park roller coaster. It went faster than we expected!

4. Should we try the Tennessee moonshine?

A. Yes, of course

B. No, we don’t like it

While moonshine isn’t our thing – it’s Tennessee! Answer A, of course!

We didn’t have the time, or honestly the inclination, to do one of the famous moonshine tours where you travel to multiple different distilleries. So, we opted for a popular option in downtown Gatlinburg, which also allowed us to check out the incredible Christmas spirit of the town.

The sampling at Sugarlands Distillery was a memorable experience! Your $5 wristband allows you to taste 10 different selections, but then the five dollars can be used towards any purchase at the location. The city has tight regulations on the industry, and we were glad that they were very serious about checking everyone’s ID and not allowing people to share the alcohol. Even though it was extremely busy, there was virtually no wait as their process was efficient and well organized.

You can ask for a half portion of a sample, but actually each sample is already quite small. Neither of us enjoy sweet flavors, so we were worried that this would not be enjoyable as almost everything was quite sweet. However, it was still a great experience, and we were surprised that we did like several of the options. A good sized bottle is $25, but there are also various specials if you want to take away multiples. We opted for the root beer moonshine to take back to our neighborhood poker friends. We also really liked the ones you could add to coffee, but it just isn’t our thing. There is also a first responder and military discount of 20%!

5. Where should we go to see the best Christmas lights?

A. Along the country roads

B. In the city center

C. Down the main road

D. Absolutely anywhere in Gatlinburg

The answer was clear – D! Gatlinburg had the best Christmas decorations for an entire city that we have ever seen!

Around every corner, down every street, and in every shop you will see an unforgettable dedication to the Christmas spirit. From large scale lighting structures to huge Christmas trees on every street corner, you will be surrounded with holiday cheer.

During the day, every shop has its own celebration of the Christmas holidays, but the real magic is at night. The entire city is committed to the festivities of the season.

6. Where should we stay?

A. Hotel in the city center

B. Lodge in the mountains

C. RV AirBNB

D. Camping in a tent

While all of those options sound good, we opted to bring the travel trailer! Answer C

Candace researched several different options, and she decided on another great Air BNB spot. The location allowed very quick access into the national park, and it was just a couple of miles into the city. The best part, however, was the ambience!

If you are interested, here is the link: https://abnb.me/alcW1ugsR2 

We were directly on a gorgeous and quick flowing creek. The sounds of the water rushing over the rocks filled the air with the music of nature.

Having this creek just steps out our door was the perfect way to spend our time in the Great Smoky Mountains!

5 rules of Boondocking. Yes, you can sleep in a parking lot!

Although our 11-year-old thought we might get arrested, we had an uneventful evening in a Target parking lot on Christmas night. It was our first boondocking experience, and it was easier than we expected!

1. Be sure to park far away from the main entrance

Walmart stores across the country do allow people to sleep in their parking lots with only a few exceptions. However, as we found ourselves driving late at night through northern Alabama, there was not a Walmart in our area. So, we tested out a local Target parking lot. Be sure to park far away from the entrance as you might get trapped by cars arriving in the morning. It is also more polite for the store.

Edit: It is important to call ahead to the store to be polite! We have actually never been told no, but it is a good practice!

2. Make a purchase

Luckily, this particular Target store had a Starbucks inside. We also needed to buy some medicine for a sniffily kid, so it worked out well that the store open right at 7 AM. It is somewhat of an unwritten rule that if you use the parking lot for the night, you should become a patron of the store in the morning.

3. Inverter and batteries make all the difference

While your RV does come with a basic set of batteries, it is unlikely to last for the night. We upgraded our batteries and also purchased an inverter to extend the use of electricity while Boondocking or camping off grid.

The battery box is a NOCO Marine Battery box. Brian cut the old single 12 volt battery box and welded added support angle iron for the weight and size of the box.

This inexpensive inverter is from Harbor Freight. It’s 2000 watts. There are better models out there, but we have had no issues with this one.

These small additions to our rig allowed us to stay overnight using the furnace in moderately cold weather, watching a movie, and running a few appliances. While you are still unlikely to be able to use the microwave or run a hair dryer, most other electricity uses will be OK.

4. What if we run out of water? Check this trick!

While it may not be for the faint of heart, you can reclaim your gray water and use it to at least flush a toilet. Brian found a large oil container, and we have re-purposed it to use for flushing a toilet while off grid.

Just as with any time you are handling gray water, you must be sure to maintain sanitary practices. We always use bleach and hand sanitizer to keep our RV a clean environment.

Savvy Amazon link!

Large Plastic Container

5. Dry shampoo, deodorant wipes, and hand sanitizer are game changing!

Small creature comforts can make a big difference especially if you have a long day of driving after your overnight camping in a parking lot. Since most freshwater tanks are pretty small, you might not be able to have a hot shower in the morning. In order to stay fresh and ready for travel, Candace always uses dry shampoo when showers aren’t an option. We recommend this brand: Not Your Mother’s Dry Shampoo.  Its well priced and works great!

You can also conserve your freshwater by using hand sanitizer. Deodorant body wipes are another great way to feel fresh in the morning before heading out.

A little cheaper on Amazon than in the store:

Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak Refreshing Dry Shampoo Duo Pack 14 ounce

Reach out with any questions! Happy camping, y’all!

Sam Houston Jones State Park Review

Just Outside Lake Charles

Sam Houston Jones State Park is located just a few miles outside of Lake Charles Louisiana. The site has a variety of options for stays including overnight cabins, RV campsites, tent campsites, and group pavilions. There is also a boat launch, picnic area, and multiple playgrounds. The park is named for the Texas folk hero who traveled extensively through Louisiana as well as Texas.

Helpful and Knowledgeable Staff, No Gift Shop

The staff in the small visitors center were very friendly and helpful, but do not expect a typical state park gift shop. There were no items available for sale or snacks to purchase. There were several bathrooms throughout the park which were all clean and well taken care of.

There are two different boat launches which will allow you access to a river connecting to a lake about 20 miles away.

Plentiful Trails

Consisting of about 8 miles, there is a decent amount of highly accessible trails for those interested in hiking or trail running. There are a few closed trails which are unfortunately the ones closest to most camping areas. However, you must be on the lookout for alligators. It is Louisiana, of course. There are also several wide and well-maintained roads throughout the park.

Great but Small RV Campsites

We stayed in the RV park area. The prices are very reasonable starting at $20 a night up to $33 a night for a premium site which had sewer and pull through. We arrived late at night, and it was extremely difficult to see where our campsite was located and also the best way to enter and exit each site. It took around 30 minutes to identify our site and park our RV the night. However, the next morning, the layout of the sites made much more sense with the light of day. Each spot is fairly close to others around you, but everything is in excellent working condition and there are numerous bathrooms and laundry sites all around.

With over 1000 acres of soaring trees and meandering rivers, Sam Houston Jones State Park is a beautiful stop for a few nights on any trip or a great place to stay while visiting Lake Charles. With the amenities of a big city so close by, you can enjoy both the serenity nature and modern conveniences.

Top 10 List of Things To Do in Havana, Cuba!

1. Visit the capital building, El Capitolio, in central Havana !

You can’t miss the capital building during a trip to Havana. Most likely, you will pass the building several times on various cab rides. It is quite easy to work into your plans and is in a very pedestrian friendly area with plenty of shops, hotels, and restaurants nearby. We were immediately struck with its similarity to the US Capitol, but it is not exactly the same and has more color and character. It is, however, very similar. As you can see above, the capital is under construction and has been since 2013. The building’s restoration is a slow process to be used for Cuba’s National Assembly.

You might find it hard to get tickets at the last minute during a peak travel season, so you can plan ahead and get tickets for the tour a day or so in advance. We were lucky and found a guided tour with two spots. Tickets were about $4 per person with the guided tour. We highly recommend using the guide, which was both in Spanish and English. We learned that women make up nearly half the National Assembly! There were lots of questions being asked and the guide was able to answer each one. We were very pleased with the quality of the experience and the break from the heat!

2. Almacenas San Jose Artisans’ Market is a essentially a flea market on the water, a great stop!

If you are looking for souvenirs, this is the perfect one-stop shop. We aren’t really into buying the typical tourist items when we travel, but this place was more than just a tourist trap. It was very pedestrian friendly, filled with local artists, had great food, and a perfect location for a stop. You can find anything from cheap souvenirs and beautiful, original art.

There is something for everyone at Almacenes San Jose Artisans’ Market. We were out of cash by the time that we made it over there, so we weren’t really looking to bring home a large piece. Instead, we opted for some photographs which we will frame back home as a memento of our trip! This way, we travel lighter, save money, but still supported the local art scene.

3. Be sure to see Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, the national art museum!

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, Museum site photo

The museum is easily located and very near the Plaza de la Revolucion. You can easily see both in the same day. Consisting of two buildings, one dedicated to Cuban artists and one to universal art, you will see a huge diverse selection of pieces. The substantial scope of local art was incredible considering the size of Cuba. This museum was easily our favorite in Havana.

The interactive exhibit above was one of several experiences that really made the museum come to life. There were no instructions, and you simply encountered the experience on your own. The headphones shared various pieces of music which correlated to performing artists on video. Below are a few of our favorite pieces from the afternoon!

The entry fee is low, even the tourist rate is lower than we expected at around $5 per person. You can also get a guide in either Spanish or various other languages for an additional $2-$3 at certain times. We suggest at least two hours as it is a substantial museum with several interactive experiences.

4. Venture to Vinales!

We had an amazing experience with a day trip booked through Air BNB. A taxi picked us up at our casa particular early in the morning and we headed on the long but nice drive to Vinales. (Our taxi was a large vehicle, but at six feet tall Brian absolutely did not fit in the back seat. It would have been fine for a short trip to city center, but to drive a longer distance it was very uncomfortable and he eventually moved up front. If you are tall, be sure to get a larger taxi or sit in the front!) Vinales is a tiny village, but you can chose to spend the night out there as well. It is very quaint. We saw a tabacco plantation, took a horse ride in the mountains, saw a massive painting, and went a boat ride through a river cave. The food and drinks every where were very, very tasty and fresh. They crushed the sugar cane right in front of us to make the drinks.

Our entire trip included absolutely everything for about $85 per person. We felt this was a great bargain and enjoyed that we didn’t have to do any planning at all. We also paid before leaving the US, so we didn’t have to spend much cash at all on this day. It was a great way to pay for something ahead of time that didn’t require using our little supply of cash once we were there. Through Air BNB’s site, you can send questions back and forth with information for pick up, etc. However, because cell service is very, very minimal, this could have posed issues. Luckily, we found a cafe with free Internet where we were able to confirm our details the day before. We did hear about other groups who weren’t so lucky.

5. Cannon ceremony at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana was a brilliant surprise!

After we arrived in Havana, we made a relaxing plan for our first night. The owner of our house for the week highly suggested dinner in the city and then seeing the ceremonial firing of the cannons. You will need to take a cab to the other side of the bay, which is about $10 for the short ride. Our driver was willing to meet us again afterwards, so we didn’t have to look for another cab. We ended up splitting the ride back with some Europeans to save money, which worked out well! You can pay a small fee to tour the fort, which was, well, a fort and interesting but not too much to see. There were lots of vendors everywhere. Then, we headed to see the ceremony. Everyone was crowding around the cannons quite tightly, and ended up on the side of the fort quite close to the edge, and there was no wall. If we had gotten there earlier, we definitely would have found a different vantage point. However, we did get to see everything easily. A group of men in the military dress in period costume and sing about the tradition. They have various military exercises and march during the singing. Then, promptly at 9pm, they light a cannon and shoot it into the bay every night like clockwork.

The ceremony is historic and is a recreation of a tradition where a cannon was fired to let the city know the gates would be closing, and the city would be safe from pirates for the night. It is a colonial ceremony and one of the oldest traditions in Cuba. We were surrounded both by tourists and Cubanos eager to watch. The energy was exciting and made a great first night in Havana! You simply cannot miss El Canonazo de las Nueve!

6. Plaza de la Revolucion and El Museo de la Revolucion was a unique experience as an American!

We weren’t really sure what to expect, but it is hardly a trip to Cuba without visiting this museum. Housed in the palace of the former president, the museum wasted no time in proudly sharing the history of the Cuban revolution, interference of foreign powers, and reverence for its leaders from the past and present. There is a large indoor portion of the museum which is dedicated to the history of Cuba including pre-Columbian culture, through the fight against Batista, to society today. Then, another portion of the museum, pictured below, is an outdoor area with planes, tanks, boats, etc used in the revolution.

In the center is the small boat which brought 80 revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, from Mexico to Cuba. The planes and tanks were used in various important moments in military history of Cuba and each had explanations and information about the history of the piece.

The museum costs about $4, and we recommend at least one hour but we took two! There was so much to see and read, and it was quite an education to hear another narrative about your own country, which we, of course, expected. Brian has experienced living in communist countries, but this was a first for Candace. You simply can’t go to Cuba, without an experience like this one! The museum is part of the Plaza de la Revolucion. The square is commanded by the massive memorial tower to Jose Marti, standing over 350 feet tall, which is in front of the government buildings.

The square stretches out to the sea and the Malecon, making it a great part of your day on this side of Havana. You can easily walk to the sea and to the National Fine Art Museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

7. Callejon de Hamel offers the most colorful moment in Havana!

Everywhere you look around this little street is packed with vibrant art and the joyful people of Cuba! It is really just a narrow alley but simply packed with the beautiful taste of local culture. It is an Afro-Cuban style from artist Salvador Escalona.

The alley is a small and beautiful little moment in Havana that you don’t want to miss. Our guide also said that this is a hub for practicing Santeria, a widely practiced religion in Cuba. Plan for about thirty minutes to see the alley, and there is no cost associated with it. It is located between Calles Espada and Aramburu.

8. Explore the local neighborhoods on a walking or bike tour!

Whenever you find yourself in a new city, it can be very helpful to get an overview on a bus tour or with a local guide. Unlike many other major world cities, there was no clear system for easy public access to a typical tour of this type. We booked the tour through Air BNB before our departure from the US, which was also great because we could pay in advance and save the all important cash while in the country. We arrived in a neighborhood early and selected among quality bikes. Brian was a bit bored with the 4-5 hour tour and was happy to escape with the guide toward the end and race down hills with technical turns. Candace was more interested in a leisurely tour and stayed with the group. We were able to see the University of Havana, a small art district Callejon de Hamel (described previously), Plaza de la Revolucion, some local parks, and get a general idea of the layout of the city and some places where we wanted to return later. While it was a great exposure to the city on our first full day in Havana, we would have chosen a slightly shorter tour if we returned for this particular excursion.

9. Walk and dine down Calle Obispo or O’Reilly!

The colors, the people, the vitality of Havana is intense down Obispo or O’Reilly streets. There are several ways to get there, but it is anchored by El Floridita, the famous bar (which is overrun by tourists like no other place we saw), and the second location of the National Art Museum. So, you can take a taxi to these spots and just start walking. The tourists shops are tucked in among local stores and markets which makes the experience unique to other shopping districts in major cities as locals are completely around you everywhere you go. This a great place for people watching, a good meal, some live music, and Internet!

While we love to unplug during travel, it is helpful to check on the family after a few days and confirm your bookings for various excursions. We found a cafe with free Internet, a terrace, and a great lunch offering. It was the perfect reprieve from the heat, and we were glad for the opportunity to have a mojito and message the family back home. There were several of these cafes but they aren’t necessarily widely advertised, so just ask around and read the signage. Another key thing to look for is shade! Just on the other side of the street, people looked miserable on the balcony with the sun glaring down on them, but we were quite comfortable in the shade.

10. Meet the locals!

When in Havana, the people will absolutely be a highlight of your trip. Everywhere we went, the locals were incredibly kind and welcoming. Our tour guides were all studying or teaching at the university as biologists or engineers. In fact, just about everyone we met in the tourism industry was a doctor, lawyer, or chemist and had multiple advanced degrees. They told us that it was a quite hard to make money in Havana, and this was their way to get ahead. Most worked 7 days per week. One of our guides described his goal of getting hot water in his house. This made it very important to tip. Cash is a great way to give these hard-working people your gratitude for sharing their beautiful city. While you won’t meet very many people in the streets who speak English, any guide will have excellent skills. Candace’s Spanish speaking skills were very helpful in navigating the city, negotiating cab fare, and understanding prices and directions, but we had no issues communicating with everyone in the tourism industry. Some were eager to question American politics and better understand the American mentality toward Cuban, but most were just happy to share their country and their hearts with us. Everyone went above and beyond to make sure we felt comfortable, knew where to go, and left wanting to come back. We are so eager to return with our boys one day soon!

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