Amish people on buggy

Staying with the Amish

I’ve always had a fascination with the Amish because of their distinct lifestyle, discipline and commitment to a simple life without the complication and entrapments of modern living. Drawn from principles outlined in their Christian faith,  the Amish are reluctant to embrace modern technology to varying degrees, and their seemingly more ‘back to basics’ existence focuses on the practices of rural living, manual labour and raising families.

The States of Ohio and Pennsylvania house the largest population of Old Order Amish and over Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania35,000 settlements lie within Lancaster County, Pennsylvania alone. Whilst the Amish retain a reputation of being fairly insular and wary of outsiders, it became clear to us from visiting Lancaster that not only are Amish people extremely friendly towards non-Amish, but are in fact very accommodating towards tourists also. Amish-made merchandise, baked goods, tours and even buggy rides are easily stumbled upon in some of the more built up areas of Lancaster County. We only had one day in the area which happened to be a Sunday, so as you can imagine most attractions were closed. However we still managed to get our Amish ‘fix’ by staying with the Riehl family on their working Amish dairy farm.

Beacon hollow farm guest house, PennsylvaniaI couldn’t believe my luck when I happened upon a website that enabled you to book a stay with the Amish. Beacon Hollow Farm Guest House, nestled in the heart of Amish Country, can be reserved by telephone or online through a booking agent who will provide details for your check-in. Typically this involves paying in cash upon arrival to the property, as was the case here. A quiet cottage on the grounds was our home for the night, complete with all the sounds and smells you expect from a farm, and somewhat surprisingly – electricity! The cottage was quaint and it felt like we had stepped back in time by about a hundred years (in a good way). Taking a pleasant evening walk around the farm meant that we were able to observe some of the animals, farm equipment, and crops growing in the fields. I will never forget sitting outside our cottage as the Corn fields on Amish farm, Pennsylvaniasun went down, a most serene moment, with nothing but the sound of crickets chirping happily in the grass. Somehow, it felt like home.

After an amazing night’s sleep in a creeky old bed, interrupted only by the falling rain, we were woken to Mrs Riehl knocking on the door with some fresh eggs from the farm, some homemade bread and a delicious strawberry smoothie. I struggle to think of enjoying a heartier breakfast at any other point on our trip. She offered us a tour of the cow shed whilst they did their morning chores, but sadly time was short and we had to hit the road again.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, a stay on this fairly remote, rural farm offered us a tiny glimpse into the way of the Amish. Seeking simplicity and quietness was high on my agenda but what I found was much more fascinating. We were made to feel welcome in a most unassuming and gracious way by a family from a culture so different from ours. I felt truly humbled to have shared in a small piece of their peaceful existence and gained a deeper understanding for what it means to be Amish .

Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania

Top tip: Unless you’re into heavily processed, greasy food (as was our experience at a local restaurant) I would recommend a trip to the local store and using the kitchen in the cottage. You will want to maximise your time here anyway, as words cannot express how tranquil it is.

Check out the nearby quaint village of Bird in Hand which I’m told is worth a trip (not on a Sunday as everything is shut) if you are interested in all things Amish.

Feature photo courtesy of Clark Young/Unsplash

Geothermal feature in Yellowstone National Park

A visitor’s guide to Yellowstone National Park

Looking to knock Yellowstone National Park off the wish list but don’t really know where to start? Then fear not, help is at hand! This stunning part of the USA boasts a unique combination of natural beauty, history, flora and fauna unmatched by any other place in the world. Established as America’s First National Park in 1872, Yellowstone lies on the largest super-volcano on the continent and contains many intriguing geothermal features. In a wilderness of over 8,000 square kilometres that is home to some of the USA’s deadliest predators, it can be difficult to know how to experience the park in all it’s splendour whilst avoiding the tourist trail and staying safe. Here’s a basic guide to getting the most out of your trip, even if you only have a few days spare on your US itinerary:

Bison jam in Yellowstone National ParkHire a car: This might seem obvious, but there is something quite liberating about being able to zoom off into the distance at the first sight of a bus load of tourists arriving to ruin the moment. There is no public transport within the park, and whilst there are tour companies that will provide a shuttle service and/or guides we chose to get about and explore the park on our own to allow us the freedom to go where and when we wanted to. There are five roads that provide entry into the park and at it’s centre is a 142 mile Grand Loop road that takes in most of the classic sights and scenic spots. It could easily take a whole day to travel the entire figure of eight loop, stopping at various points of interest along the way. Driving in Yellowstone is like being on safari – you never know what is round the next bend and that is half the fun!

Black bear at Yellowstone National ParkWildlife viewing: It isn’t difficult to find tour companies that will take you on wildlife viewing trips within the park and this is a very valid option. However, it is perfectly possible to see wildlife up close without a guide if you have your own car. During our three day stint in Yellowstone we managed to see grizzly and black bears, bison (known more commonly by visitors as buffalo), beaver, wolves, marmots, elk and pronghorn by driving to some of the well known spots for wildlife viewing such as Lamar and Hayden Valley. Be prepared to wait for a sighting and if you see parked cars congregating, it’s often a sure sign of a good spot. We saw some serious binoculars and zoom lenses on display here, but don’t despair – you may be lucky enough to have a close encounter like we did of a black bear and cubs right next to the road, and if the animals are too far away to view by the naked eye someone may offer to lend you their bino’s.

Park ranger - led hike in Yellowstone National ParkJoin a ranger – led hike: The National Park Service put on a series of fairly easy hikes (and talks) with a park ranger that vary in length from 45 minutes to 5 hours at various locations throughout the park. No need to book, just turn up at the meeting point. This is a great way to explore the park away from the confines of your vehicle and with the knowledge and expertise of a park ranger, lending itself to those unfamiliar with hiking in grizzly bear country. The NPS currently advises visitors to hike in groups of three or more for safety reasons, as there have been fatalities in the park. It was wonderful to be able to walk through even just a small section of the park’s natural forest, meadowland and pasture with our small group shouting “hey bear!”, an exhilarating memory I’ll cherish forever. In the 2.3 mile hike we did at Indian pond with Tom, our ranger, we spotted a marmot colony, osprey, bison and a red tailed hawk. He also educated us to be able to differentiate between lodgepole pine, fir and spruce trees.

Geothermal features: Once you get over the rather unpleasant smell of sulphur Geothermal feature in Yellowstone National Parkin the air, it’s quite fascinating to visit some of the park’s many geothermal features. If you don’t already know your fumaroles from your mud pots,  your geysers from your hot springs – you soon will. Each are beautiful in their own right and as inviting as the turquoise waters of the geothermal pools look, don’t be tempted to get too close as they are highly acidic – be sure to observe the safety notices which warn against entering dangerous areas. The park’s visitor centres also offer a plethora of information about the history and nature of the park, conservation and advice about making the most of your visit.

Yellowstone National ParkThe Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without gawking at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. At 24 miles in length and up to 4,000 feet wide, this impressive landmark attracts a lot of visitors and for good reason. The 1,200 foot deep canyon carved out by the Yellowstone River was discovered by the explorer Charles Cook in 1869 and continues to impress today. Easily accessible by car, a comprehensive network of short walking trails takes you to various viewpoints including views of the photogenic waterfalls.

 

 

Top tip: For a very reasonable $90 a night, you can stay in a pioneer cabin at Lake Lodge, Bison at Lake Lodgeoverlooking the stunning Yellowstone Lake. Don’t expect luxury, but everything you need for a comfortable stay in a beautiful spot. The main lodge has a restaurant, an enormous log fire and a bar perfect for exchanging exciting tales from the day – don’t miss the yellowstone sunset cocktail, yum! You might even have some unexpected visitors when you open your cabin door in the morning…

Whilst you may encounter animals near the road at any time of the day, dawn and dusk are particularly good times to see them.

Plateau point, Grand Canyon

A three day Grand Canyon adventure

I once heard it said that less than one in ten people who visit the Grand Canyon  step below it’s rim and I can believe it having observed the hubbub of people scuttling off their tour buses by the visitor centre, eager to tick it off their sight – seeing checklist. Another popular way to see it is by taking a helicopter ride from one of the neighbouring towns or cities, such as Las Vegas.

In my humble opinion, the wilderness that can be experienced in the Grand Canyon National Park can only be truly appreciated on foot, and what better way to do it than to hike to the bottom and back. This can been done in a day, but there are plenty of warnings surrounding the dangers of doing this as people often underestimate the magnitude of the climb and of the climate. In fact, there are many accounts of people that have lost their lives attempting to do this – and I have a book aptly named ‘Death in Grand Canyon’ to back me up on that! (I don’t suggest reading it before you go).

We decided to book a local guide through Four Seasons Guides based in Flagstaff, partly to secure our permits but also because it saved us a lot of hassle with regards to planning and bringing our own equipment from overseas. We couldn’t have been more impressed by the professionalism and organisation of our guide, who took care of all the necessary practicalities – from setting up camp to cooking some amazing meals. We never went hungry!

The first day involved hiking the South Kaibab Trail to the Phantom Ranch area at the bottom of the canyon where we camped overnight to the sound of crickets and frogs by the river. The trail is steep and it’s unmistakable bright red sand gets everywhere and sticks to everything like glue. Poles came in useful as the descent took its toll on our knees as we approached the bottom. After an early start we had ample time to enjoy a side hike once we reached the bottom, exploring the banks and tributaries of the Colorado river and it’s fascinating wildlife. The river provides nourishment to more greenery than I ever imagined would exist in such a dry landscape – the canyon is full of surprises. We were even lucky enough to listen to a talk by a park ranger near to where we camped about the canyon’s native animal and bird life before having the option to take a walk to find some scorpions, which light up under an ultraviolet lamp. At well over forty degrees centigrade, the heat we experienced at the bottom of the canyon (in June) was unrelenting.

On day two we began the ~1,250 foot ascent to our second resting place, Indian Garden, roughly half way up the canyon on the 9.9 mile Bright Angel Trail. Stepping to one side to allow the mule trains to pass by, the trail began to feel busier the further we climbed from the bottom. A series of switchbacks called the Devil’s Corkscrew makes the climb feel endless but having another early start and taking plenty of water on board meant that we were able to complete it at a fairly leisurely pace. Dinner was an unforgettable experience. Our guide managed to secure his favourite ‘table’ – a flat piece of rock at the aptly named Plateau Point. As the sun set, we feasted on freshly cooked burritos whilst drinking in the incredible views of the Colorado River below and the Canyon above. We were greeted by a group of excited teenagers on our way back to camp, who had just seen a rattlesnake on the path. Sadly for us, it had slithered away before we had a chance to see it.

The 5 km hike back to the south rim on day three covered ~3060 foot elevation and was equally tough. Keen to avoid climbing in the heat of the day, we started early and stopped regularly in the shade to rehydrate. We were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the magnificent California Condor, with an impressive three meter wingspan, which once was extinct in the wild.

In hindsight I feel it would be very managable to do the hike over two days if you have a good level of fitness, however lingering for a few more days gives you the option to explore areas off the main trails and savour the moment a bit more. It also makes it possible to avoid hiking during the hottest, driest part of the day.
The north rim has a fraction of the visitors that the south rim receives and there are many more multi-day hikes in the Park to be enjoyed, not to mention rafting on the Colorado. We barely scratched the surface of the Grand Canyon but the experience we had was phenomenal and has left us wanting more… watch this space!

Angel's Landing Trail, Zion National Park

Hiking Zion’s infamous ‘Angel’s Landing’

With spectacular vistas and accessible hiking – Utah’s Zion National Park has it all. Think glassy pools, coruscating waterfalls, towering rock formations and an impressive network of hiking trails.

I struggle to remember a more stunning view on our American road trip than that seen from the top of Angel’s landing. Not for the faint hearted, this five mile trail is an adventure up steep slopes and across narrow, vertiginous ledges. Allow four to five hours as it is particularly strenuous and covers a total elevation of around 1,488 feet. This is American canyonlands at it’s finest, and you’ll struggle to find better views of Zion Canyon from anywhere else in the park.

Part of the beauty of Zion is that it is not accessible by car during peak months (usually April to October), so the tranquillity is not spoilt by traffic jams and car horns. There is an excellent free shuttle bus service that leaves from the town of Springdale, where there are many lodgings available. More information about the shuttle bus can be found here.

Plan for an early start if hiking during the summer months as hiking in the midday heat is never pleasant. The trail becomes extremely dangerous in winter due to snow and ice so aim to visit in spring, summer or fall. Needless to say, don’t even think about doing the hike if a storm is brewing. Stay safe and check the weather forecast before you go.

As with any hike, ensure you have plenty of water and energy snacks. You will want to have your hands free to be able to hold on to the chains.

The trailhead can be located by the picnic area near to the grotto shuttle stop in Zion Canyon. From here you will follow the west rim trail for the first section of the hike which takes you along the river before starting to climb up towards Refrigerator Canyon. This is followed by a series of switchbacks called ‘Walter’s wiggles’ which takes you to Scout’s lookout on top of the ridge. The views from here are great which is good news if you don’t like the look of the last section. From here things get much more challenging- exposed drop off’s and steep  switchbacks make it unsuitable for those with a fear of heights . Chains are bolted into the cliff face at particular points to hold on to as things become a little hairy. You don’t need to have elite fitness to do the hike, but a reasonable level of fitness and agility is required.

The Angel’s landing is a must for anyone visiting Zion National Park and is an ideal escape for travellers with only a day to spare on their Wild West itinerary. If you have a spirit of adventure, don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with the natural world. You may even be lucky enough to spot some wildlife on your way: bighorn sheep, canyon tree frogs, porcupines and mule deer are amongst the animals native to Zion Canyon.

     

Nashville

My two day Nashville itinerary

A visit to this vibrant city in the heart of Tennessee is every country music lover’s dream. Nashville has always been the place to be for anyone trying to make it on the country music scene. From the Carter family to Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton to the Dixie Chicks – you name it- they’ve all been here. And whilst there are plenty of other things to do in Nashville, let’s face it, it’s all about the music and that’s exactly why we went.

Here is a suggested two day itinerary that has plenty to get the toes tapping and gives you a good feel for the city, especially if you are short on time.

Day one:

Gray line bus tours:

It’s hard to beat a hop on, hop off bus tour as a convenient way to see the highlights of a city when pressed for time. We went with Gray line bus tours who were offering a discount on entry to some of the local attractions with their tour. With fifteen stops the route takes in music row, downtown Nashville, centennial park and the gulch to name a few- just  hop off at any place you wish. Their ‘bundle and save’ two day ticket gives you access to the bus tour on both days plus entry into two of your chosen attractions, and will set you back by around $81 per person.

Country music hall of fame;

With three floors of exhibits to satisfy your inner country music geek, the county music hall of fame costs $24.95 for standard adult entry and is worth every penny.  Here you can gawk at Elvis Presley’ s “solid gold” Cadillac, the original hand written manuscript of  Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’  and guitars played by Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn in their heyday. With footage of country music’s legends from a bygone era and an original recording console from 1955, you’ll be impressed at Nashville’s musical heritage. Allow a good couple of hours to soak it all in.

The Ryman Auditorium:

The Ryman, also known as the mother church of country music was home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show between 1963 and 1974. Many of country music’s legends made their debut here including Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline. Take a tour of the auditorium or catch an evening show (check the website for show dates), or like us, do both! The building has been restored to it’s original design, giving the whole experience such charm and authenticity. Be prepared to get a little cosy with your neighbour if staying for a show as the old wooden pews are not all that comfortable. In my opinion, this was a small price to pay for what was probably the most memorable experience we had in ‘music city’.

Day Two:

Shopping

Downtown NashvilleNo trip to Nashville would be complete without buying yourself a Stetson or some cowboy boots and there are literally thousands to choose from. If you’re worried about feeling self conscious, fear not – you definitely won’t be the only person wearing them! There are plenty of interesting shops selling gifts, clothing and leather goods in downtown Nashville. If this leaves you wanting more, try Opry mills shopping centre for further retail therapy.

 

Jack’s Bar-B-Que

Look no further for cheap and seriously scrummy barbeque food in downtown Nashville. This canteen style restaurant serves up Tennessee pork shoulder, St Louis style ribs, smoked Texas sausage amongst other delicious (but slightly naughty) treats for a reasonable price. Recommended by a local, Jack’s Bar-B-Que certainly didn’t leave us feeling hungry!

Downtown

Downtown NashvilleDowntown Nashville is a pretty unique place. At any time of the day or night you will hear live music blaring out from the street’s many bars, or honky-tonks. If you hear something you like, grab a beer, take a seat and soak up the atmosphere. You won’t be short of places to try and this is a great way to hear some of the city’s newest talent for free.

The Grand Ole Opry

Most of you will have heard of the Grand Ole Opry before coming to Nashville as this is claimed Grand Ole Opry, Nashvilleto be “the show that made country music famous”. It began as a radio show in 1925 and is now a venue that showcases a variety of musical styles, from Legends such as Marty Stuart and Reba McEntire to some of the newer generations of artists. We took in an evening show at the Opry and whilst it didn’t have the same charm and old feel as the Ryman auditorium, it is a much more comfortable venue and the music did not disappoint. Expect to see several different artists perform, some of which are not finalised until the week or so before. If booking in advance (which we did) expect a few last minute additions to the evening. Check the website for the show schedule and for information about their backstage tours.

 

The Bluebird Cafe

This legendary venue has gained a worldwide reputation as a listening room for songwriters to perform their own music and on any given night high profile musicians mingle with writers to produce a show that you will never forget. Sadly we did not manage to get tickets for the Bluebird but you can try your luck by applying via the website here one week in advance.

Top tip: parking is both sparse and expensive in downtown Nashville. Avoid driving in if at all possible, either by staying close to town or using public transport.

(Feature photo courtesy of  Joshua Ness /Upsplash)