Exploring Taroko Gorge

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The Mission: Marvel the marble at Taroko Gorge, Taiwan.

The Prep: 
This was my first tour I’ve booked through Viator. The $149 USD tour included pick-up, flight to Hualien, lunch, and train ride return to Taipei.

The Gear:
Walking shoes are a must, but hiking boots were not necessary.
Shades
Rain jacket for another rainy day!

The Execution:
The adventure began with an excruciating 6am pick up time. The driver took me directly to the airport where I met up with the others who would join the tour. The driver left us with our tickets and directions and we hopped on a quick flight to Hualien. When we arrived at Hualien, our tour guide was waiting to take our group to Taroko Gorge.

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The trip wasn’t quite what I expected. The van took us through the park, stopping occasionally to take in the sites  or have a coffee break with each stop being somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes long. I was hoping to explore more trails so a fellow passenger and I decided to take make the most of each stop and hike the trails in the area in the time allotted; which, on occasion, included sprinting back to the van so we didn’t get left behind!

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We stopped for lunch at a hotel in the park where we had the opportunity to hike up to a temple before we ate. After lunch, we had an extended stop at the Eternal Spring Shrine. My new friend and I decided to hike the 2.2km including the “sky ladder” stairs up to the Bell Tower.  From the top of the Bell Tower, we had an exclusive view of the canyon and falls below. We didn’t have much time so we sprinted down the steps, through the tunnels and back to the van before we got left behind. We left the park and the day ended with a stop at the beach.  The day was miserably cold and windy so we didn’t stay long. We all hopped back into the van and headed to the train station back to Taipei where we met our original driver to get dropped at our hotels.

The Highlights: 

  • Level of difficulty: casual
  • Although the park is beautiful, I don’t think the tour is worth the price tag.
  • The full day tour takes around 13 hours so be prepared for a long day.
  • If you want to see a lot of the park without doing a lot of walking this tour is for you. If you want to do more hiking, speak to your guide as I did and get recommendations to go off the beaten path and see more of the park.

Ice Climbing in Seward

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The Mission: Scale the crevasses of Exit Glacier in Seward, Alaska.

The Prep: 
Tourist season in Alaska is short-lived so making reservations in advance is recommended. After much research, I decided on Exit Glacier Guides- reservations can be easily made on their website. The trip is a bit pricey at $185, but well worth it!

The Gear: 
Exit Glacier Guides graciously provides all climbing gear. Check out their website for a list of what you’ll need:
http://www.exitglacierguides.com/trip_information

The Execution:
We arrived at the shop early and immediately felt comfortable with the staff who helped outfit us with crampons and a pack! Once we were fitted and packed, our small group hopped in the van for the short ride to the park. We moved at a fairly quick pace as we hiked to the trail to the glacier in order to optimize our climbing time. The hike took about an hour and a half with little to no stopping. I was happy with my decision to wear multiple layers as I got quite hot on the hike, but once at the glacier the wind was absolutely freezing!

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When we arrived at the glacier, the guides helped us strap on our crampons and ran us through safety and the basics on walking on the glacier. After a short introduction to climbing basics, we practiced our skills on an easy route to get used to the motions and using the crampons and ice picks. Taking turns climbing and resting was a great way to not only to catch our breath, but to watch and learn from the others in the group.

After a few practice climbs, we moved on to the crevasses! The guides would set up two routes at each crevasse throughout the day- one easier and one more difficult. After picking my route and getting hooked up to my belayer guide, I took my first plunge into a crevasse. The guide slowly lowered me to the bottom, talking me through the process to ensure I was comfortable. Once at the bottom of the crevasse, my guide directed me on how to initiate the climb- reaching and hammering my picks into the ice, pulling myself up and kicking my crampons into the ice to gain my footing. This took much more arm strength than I anticipated and by the time I reached the top, I was exhausted, but thrilled with my accomplishment. We had the opportunity to climb several crevasses before we had to break and hike back exhausted and basking in the glory of our accomplishments.

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The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: moderate
  • The guides made the trip. They were very knowledgeable, friendly, and made the trip a ton of fun!
  • Wear layers! The temperature varies dramatically from the hike to the glacier.
  • The hike to the glacier is fast paced and you will be wearing a pack. Make sure you are physically prepared for this.
  • The only bathroom is at the bottom of the mountain. Bring TP and be ready to go behind a rock if need be.
  • Sunglasses are recommended, the sun reflecting off the ice can really hurt the eyes.
  • This is an all day tour. Be ready to commit to an 8 hour day.
  • This was one of my favorite experiences, but if you’re not ready to climb, they also offer glacier hikes that are not as rigorous.

 

Kayaking Resurrection Bay

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The Mission: Navigate the open waters of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska via Kayak.

The Prep: 
During peak season, I always recommend making reservations in advance. I love kayaking, but I’m no pro so I decided to go with a half-day tour instead of the full-day tour in hopes of having full use of my arms the next day. Opting for the half-day tour gives you more time options, so if you’re not a morning person you can go later in the day. I made reservations with Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking for a 3-hour tour of Resurrection Bay for $70.

The Gear:
Check out Sunny Cove’s recommendations for what to wear and bring here.
I recommend bringing a warm, dry pair of socks for afterwards.
Once again, it was a lovely rainy day for my adventure so I packed on light layers, my waterproof jacket and waterproof pants. Once out on the water, I completely forgot it was raining. I felt totally dry and comfortable the entire trip.

The Execution:
We arrived 15 minutes early at the gear shed to get outfitted with everything we would need for our day on the water. Once geared up, the guides moved the group down to the beach to go over safety, the basics of kayaking and answer any questions. Once we were rigged, the guides helped us into our kayaks and pushed us out into the water.

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The guides were great about keeping us together as a group, pointing out wildlife, and answering my questions about landscape and the color of the water. Despite the rain, the waters were smooth and our paddles glided through the water like a knife through soft butter. The lush green landscape, rocky beaches and soaring wildlife made paddling through the dense mist feel like a dream. After paddling for a while, we stopped off at a black rock beach for a quick walk and sightseeing. We ran into a few campsites and man-made shelters before we  got back into our kayaks to continue our trip. Once back on the water, we were lucky enough to have the rare opportunity to spot humpback whales in the distance! We stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the beauty of these majestic creatures before we continued our trip back to Lowell Point. In total, we spent about 2.5 hours on the water and my arms weren’t even sore the next day!

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: moderate
  • The scenery was beautiful and a great opportunity for wildlife viewing.
  • Waterproof, not water-resistant clothing is highly recommended.
  • A walk on the beach is not guaranteed.
  • Yes, my arms were a bit tired the next day, but still functioning!

Glacier Hiking in Iceland

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The Mission: Hike my first glacier in magical Iceland.

The Prep: 
You’ll want to make arrangements for this one in advance. I booked online for $177 USD which included hotel pick-up and drop-off and all the gear you’ll need, but no food or beverage.

The Gear:
Heat gear leggings
Hiking pants
Waterproof insulated jacket
Fleece lined hat
Gloves
Merino wool socks
Hiking boots

The Execution:
After a long night (and morning) of Brennivin (aka Black Death) drinking, we dragged our hungover selves on the bus for Solheimajokull glacier. Once at the glacier, we were offered waterproof pants (definitely necessary) and geared up with crampons and ice picks. The guides offered a lot of interesting facts about the history of the glacier and its formation and were extremely knowledgeable and eager to answer all of our questions, not only about the glacier, but also about their lives in Iceland. We saw waterfalls and crevasses and learned that the black ash all over the glacier was due to a recent volcanic eruption. The guides took us on a 3.5 hour exploration of the glacier before we headed back to the bus and toward our next stop. We made stops at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls to explore and take some photos before heading back to the hotel. Overall, the trip lasted around 10 hours. An incredible and unique experience, that I imagine would be even more enjoyable not hungover!

 

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The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: moderate
  • Bring plenty of water and lunch.
  • Be prepared for any weather conditions- weather on the glacier can be much different from weather off the glacier- quite windy and possibly rainy.
  • Waterproof gloves will make your life way more comfortable.
  • Not recommended for people with balance issues.

Bikes and Brews in Bruges

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The Mission: Bike from Bruges to the tiny town of Damme in Belgium.

The Prep: 
Before you head out, hit the internet to find the closest bike rental shop.  No need to reserve a bike in advance, but a little research will save you from wandering around town in search of a rental spot.

The Gear:
Comfortable shoes
Light layers
Shades
Sunscreen
Water

The Execution:
I hit up Bauhaus (no, not the band) youth hostel AND bike rental spot a short walk from the center of town. They offer bike tours, but I wanted to explore on my own so I opted for the hourly rental. I traded my photo ID for a bike, lock and map and hit the road.

I started pedaling and headed out-of-town, stopping at a few of the windmills to explore and take a few photos before continuing my journey down the path that parallels the canal. A very easy, flat, dirt, tree-lined path took me through the quiet countryside all the way to Damme. Damme is a charming little village; I stopped on the bridge over the canal for a few photos and made friends with a nice German couple before continuing into the village. I pedaled through the village before hopping off my bike to explore the remains of the lovely old church. After a peaceful walk through some gardens, I set out to return to Bruges. On my return ride, I cycled down the opposite side of the canal for a different perspective.

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Upon my return to Bruges, I stopped by De Halve Maan Brewery for a tour and ice-cold beer (nothing like a nice beer after a long ride). No reservation was necessary, and for 8 Euro, I received a tour of the brewery and a beer! The tour is not only an interesting way to learn about the history of the beer and how it’s brewed, but there’s also a fantastic view of the city from the brewery roof. And the best part of all….a blonde Brugse Zot to end my day. Bikes and brews make for an iconic Belgian day; just remember…don’t drink and bike!

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: casual
  • Take water and snacks as there is nowhere to stop between Bruges and Damme.
  • Take your time and enjoy the ride!

A Day of Hiking in Kenting

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The Mission: Find the entrance to Kenting National Park and hike some trails!

The Prep:
I decided to stay in Hengchun, a small town north of the park. From here, I took a local bus down to the Kenting area. It can be quite confusing as Kenting is the name of the park as well as the name of the area surrounding the park.

The Gear:
Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen!
Shades
Hiking shoes
Merino wool socks
Shorts and tank top
Plenty of water and snacks

The Execution:
I started early and hopped on a bus for Kenting, not knowing exactly where to disembark. I told the driver I was trying to get to the national park and to let me know when we were close. At some point the driver stopped the bus and shouted “here! off now!” and off I went with the faint sound of laughter from the other passengers in the background. I took in my surroundings and realized I was in front of a resort, not a park. After aimlessly walking down the highway for a while, I found a Starbucks and asked for directions….at least I was walking in the right direction they said. I continued walking for another 20 minutes when I found the park entrance. I was hoping to find an information booth or some sort of map, but found nothing of the sort so I continued walking into the park and finally saw a road sign for “Kenting Forest Recreation Area”- I was going in the right direction. I waited at the bus stop for a while only to realize it was never coming so I started hoofing it up the hill. A few cars stopped and tried to offer me rides (I think), and as much as I would have loved to forego the long uphill walk, I figured hitchhiking probably wasn’t the smartest idea so I continued on….and on…and on. After about 45 minutes, I reached the entrance where I received applause from some of the other visitors who had driven by me on the road.

After paying the NT$150 entrance fee, I roamed the area wandering through lush forest greens, coral reef and narrow canyons. I explored the Fairy Cave and encountered some bats, took in the views from the observation tower and roamed the Valley of the Hanging Banyans with its’ hanging roots. The park is very easy to navigate via the paved trails and numbered signs that direct you to 17 different attractions.

When I was finished exploring the recreation area, I took a walk down the road to the Sheding Nature Park. Here I found multiple trails winding through more coral formations and narrow caves. I hiked up to one of the viewing platforms where there was a spanning ocean view and extreme winds. Wanting to escape the cold of the winds, I headed back down to the trail system and continued around the loop chasing butterflies through the dense greenery.

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After completing a loop around the area, I was sufficiently tired and ready for lunch, but I still had to walk another 45 minutes back down the hill to town!  After a quick bite to eat, I hopped back on the bus to Hengchun where a much longer day than anticipated resulted in a nap.

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: casual to moderate
  • Save yourself a lot of trouble and rent a motorbike to get around the park. It will save you a lot of extra walking!
  • Arrive at the recreation area early as it tends to get crowded.
  • If you forgot water or snacks, there is a visitor center at both Sheding and the Nature Area as well as restrooms.
  • Grab a map at the entrance of the Nature Reserve and decide which direction you want to go so you don’t backtrack- it’s easy to get turned around in this park.
  • Parking is available at the Nature Area for a fee.

Seeking the Summit of Hallasan

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The Mission: Ascend the tallest mountain in South Korea.

The Prep: I started in Seoul and flew Asiana airlines to the island of Jeju. Flight time was about an hour and there are multiple airlines that fly this route daily.

There are multiple routes to the summit and I chose to take the Seongpanak trail- 9.6km to the top and one of the most popular trails.

The Gear:
Waterproof hiking boots- I opted to do this hike in the dead of winter so I wore my Sorel, fur-lined Tivoli boots.
Smart wool extra heavy socks
Heat gear leggings
Hiking pants
Heat gear long-sleeved shirt
Pull over fleece
Water resistant winter jacket
Glove liners
Fleece gloves
Fleece lined beanie
Shades
Sunscreen
Hydration pack
Snacks (lots of protein)

The Execution:
Mt. Hallasan is located on the island of JeJu in South Korea. I started my journey before dawn at the JeJu Express Bus Terminal. The agent did not speak English so I showed her the destination on my phone written in Korean and bought a round trip bus ticket (Bus #780). Once aboard, it was roughly a 30 minute ride to the trail head. When I arrived at the park I was shocked by what I saw…hundreds of people preparing for the hike! I soon realized this was going to be a crowded and slushy trail.

After a quick stop at the restroom, I was off. Since the days are short in winter, I started my journey before sunrise. The trail was quite dark so I followed a group of people with headlamps to guide the way. The sun quickly started to rise and with it, the melting of snow. With so many hikers on the trail and the sun high in the sky, the trail became very slushy and slippery. While most hikers had come prepared with crampons, I had only my hiking boots and meticulously chose my steps to remain upright.

I eventually reached the park checkpoint en route to the summit. The park requires you pass this checkpoint by noon in order to continue to the summit or you must turn around and head back down. Since I started early, I reached the checkpoint in plenty of time and decided to stop for a few minutes to use the restroom (which I don’t recommend using unless absolutely necessary…ewww!) and refuel before continuing my journey. By this point I thought “it cant be much further…” and boy was I wrong, the worst was yet to come. The remainder of the hike was steep and slick. Once I passed the tree line, the trail turned to ice, complete with high winds. This portion of the trail was very slow going with people hiking in both directions and very few areas to place your feet in the thick ice and snow.

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When I finally reached the summit, the views were immense and so was the wind. With so many hikers reaching the summit at the same time, I became very overwhelmed and anxious to get some space. I quickly took a look around and snapped a few photos before I headed back down out of the elements and craziness. Once I was below the tree line, the wind subsided and the rest of the trip down was more comfortable and less crowded. When I reached the end of my hike, I went across the street and easily hopped back on the next bus back to the terminal where I welcomed the chance to sit, rest my feet and dream of the hot shower I would enjoy back at my hotel.

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: ugh!
  • Elevation: 1,950 meters
  • A headlamp would have been helpful.
  • Crampons are not necessary, but would definitely make life easier.
  • Make sure you have enough food and water.
  • Hiking poles will help with the steep terrain.
  • Wear proper hiking boots, NOT sneakers.
  • Most hikers come in groups on tour buses, you will have more flexibility to go at your own pace as an individual.
  • Start early!! It will take roughly 4 hours to reach the summit.
  • Some food is sold at the entrance of the trail and at the checkpoint, but I would recommend bringing lunch with you so you can stop and eat where and when you need to.
  • If you drive to the entrance, parking is free.
  • Entrance to the park is free.
  • You can opt to take one trail to the top and a different trail return.
  • Take your time and enjoy the journey.

Biking Denali National Park

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The Mission: Cycle 30 miles through Denali National Park.

The Prep: 
Since I was visiting Denali in June- the height of tourist season, I contacted Denali Outdoor Center a few months prior to my visit to reserve a bike. For $40, I reserved a bike including helmet for the day of my choice. There are 2 locations for bike pickup so be sure to specify that you would like to pick your bike up at the Canyon office. The Canyon office is a short 2.5 mile ride to the Wilderness Access Center at the park entrance where you will board the bus into the park.

At 92 miles long, you could spend days biking the road through Denali, but as an amateur biker, I thought 30 would be more reasonable. I contacted the park to reserve a space on the shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Center at 9am for $34.50. It’s important to make your reservation in advance and let them know you will be bringing a bike as not all buses have bike racks and they fill up fast!

The Gear:
Check the weather before your trip as weather can be quite unpredictable. At this time in mid-June, it was quite chilly in the 40s and raining so rain gear was a must!

Light layers
Rain jacket
Rain pants
Wicking socks
Waterproof hiking boots
Bike gloves
Skull cap for under the helmet
Hydration pack
Lunch/snacks
Camera
Road ID
Bike and helmet from rental company

The Execution:
After gearing up at Denali Outdoor Center, I cycled the short 2.5 miles to the Wilderness Access Center where I picked up my ticket, loaded up my bike, and boarded the bus toward Eielson. My goal was to take the bus into the park and ride back out toward the entrance. After some time on the bus, I decided I would hop off before Eielson and disembarked at mile 39- Sable Pass.

The road through the park is unpaved gravel and on this lovely rainy day, I was covered in mud before long. The wet and muddy road conditions definitely made cycling more difficult this day. The ride started off easy heading downhill and cruising into fairly flat terrain. After a few hours of enjoying the lovely scenery, I stopped for some lunch and a rest only to be immediately attacked by swarms of mosquitoes! I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes, and the only way to escape them was to keep moving so I cut my break short and hopped back on the bike.

I continued riding until I reached Sanctuary River where I hit an intense incline. After much stop and go (and a little walking my bike), I had climbed over 1000 feet. After the climb, my legs felt like Jello and I wasn’t sure how much further I would make it. I continued pedaling, though much slower now until I ran into a shuttle bus heading toward the entrance of the park with an open bike rack on the front. I flagged the bus down, mounted my bike, and headed back to the entrance covered in mud and mosquito bites! After another 2.5 mile ride back to the Denali Outdoor Center, my journey came to a wet and muddy end.

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The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: ugh!
  • You cant control the weather so be prepared for various riding conditions.
  • Wildlife sightings are NOT guaranteed! Im still disappointed I didn’t see a bear or moose.
  • I only saw one bathroom along the route so bring TP in case you need to make a stop in the woods, but remember to always take out what you bring in…preserve nature!
  • Reservations for the bike and shuttle are necessary in peak season.
  • You can hop on and off the shuttle buses at any time so if you want you can ride a ways, wait for a bus, hop on, bypass the giant inclines, and hop back off to continue riding.
  • Buses do not run that frequently so may have to wait awhile before you can flag one down to hop on.
  • Bug spray, bug spray, bug spray.
  • Check the elevation map from nps.gov below before you plan your route.
  • Take your time and enjoy the scenery!

Biking the Grounds of Versailles

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The Mission: Discover The Palace of Versailles in one day!

The Prep:
Tickets can be purchased online or at the palace. I arrived early and purchased “the passport” ticket for 18 Euros.

The Gear:
Comfortable shoes
Sunscreen
Shades
Light layers as it was a bit chilly inside

The Execution:
Chateau de Versailles, the opulent palace known for the grand Hall of Mirrors. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed upon entering this vast estate. Many visitors tour the palace and a bit of the gardens and call it a day, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to see it all, explore all the estates and frolic in all the gardens, but how you ask? By bike of course!

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After seeing the palace, I walked through the gardens at the back of the estate toward the Grand Canal. On the north (right) side of the canal near the restaurant, I found a bike rental station. I also rented a lock so I could stop and explore some of the other estates. There are numerous paths throughout the vast estate that are gravel, paved, or dirt and make for a very smooth and easy ride. I road around the canal, through the tree lined paths of the gardens, stopped to tour the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s estate before I found an old farm. After riding for a few hours, I stopped for a bite to eat at one of the food stands before heading back to drop off the bike. There is absolutely no better way to see Versailles!

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: casual
  • A photo ID is needed for bike rental.
  • Food and restrooms are available throughout the estate or bring your own picnic!
  • Biking offers the opportunity to see much more of the estate than you would see on foot.
  • Arrive early and enjoy a full day at the estate.