What travel blog would be complete without a year-end review of the best travel experiences from 2011? As I begin to daydream of all the amazing adventures that 2012 has waiting around the corner, I can’t help but reflect on the outrageous and memorable times I had on the road this year. Every moment spent road tripping across America is held dearly, but these ten moments stick out above the rest.
10. Escaping for a week of relaxation in the mountains around Hendersonville, North Carolina
My seven-week September solo trip deserves a big mention, but the leg of my adventure that deserves the biggest accolades is the week I spent lounging around Hendersonville, North Carolina. My ex-girlfriend’s mother invited me to stay at her charming country home, and I spent the week sampling the area’s best cuisine, picking apples at an orchard, dancing the night away at a climbing buddy’s wedding in Flat Rock, and exploring the mountainous region of Brevard.
My solo trip commenced with a rough patch of personal heartache, so this miniature escape truly assisted in establishing up the positive vibes that I carried throughout the remainder of my travels.
9. Celebrating my 23rd birthday boating on Lake Dillon in Frisco, Colorado
My solo trip ended just days before my 23rd birthday, and in true girly fashion, I was determined to make my celebration one to remember. Having freshly transplanted myself and my belongings to Denver, Colorado, I wanted to capitalize on my new surroundings. After browsing potential ideas like a pedal-yourself beer wagon, we settled on renting a pontoon boat on Lake Dillon. The drive out to Frisco was absolutely gorgeous, as was the entire day of mountainside boating. I discovered my new favorite whiskey, vanilla-infused Phillips Union, and our crew downed countless cans of beer while we cruised around the frigid lake.
Having been raised boating on the warm waters in Miami, this Colorado lake experience introduced me to a whole new style of waterfront fun – no sandy beaches around, this day was all about mountain peaks and snow forest landscapes.
8. A wild hike up a muddy cliffside during a rainy day at Boulder Canyon in Colorado
This was one of those totally unplanned, totally unpredicted experiences that taught me the value of relinquishing control and embracing the idea of getting very, very dirty. On our way to what we thought was a sport climbing area, a group of cohorts and I scrambled up a steep, chossy cliff that led to frequent falling rock calls, one very bloody knee, and more dirt caked underneath my fingernails that I could ever imagine – but it was too much fun.
I was skeptical about the messy scramble at first, since I was carrying my beloved Nikon camera and equipment in my pack, but after a sprinkle of rain turned our dirty hike into slushy chaos, all bets were off. I returned to the car slathered in mud, and spent the evening picking sticky burrs out of my hair – but again, too much fun.
7. Watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon in Arizona
As the final ‘big’ stop on my post-graduation road trip with Niko in May, we made a pit stop at Grand Canyon National Park – but our original intentions didn’t involve a sunrise. Niko had been dying to see the sunset, so we raced our way along barren roads to catch the sun before it dipped beyond the rim of the canyon. Literally missing the sunset by three minutes, we decided to spend the night in the nearby tourist town so we could watch the sunrise.
After spending a very uncomfortable night sleeping in a hotel parking lot, Niko roused me from my catatonic state and we returned to the park. This time we made sure to arrive well before the sun, and were pleasantly surprised to find the area was nearly deserted – I guess the 5 AM wakeup call for the sunrise is reserved for only the most diehard adventurers. I was cranky and cold, but I ended up with one of my favorite Niko photos of all time.
6. Pitching my tent at Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park
This campground, located inside Yosemite Valley, is one of the most legendary watering holes for famous climbers. It was inspiring to camp at the same spot that housed icons like Lynne Hill and Ron Kauk – Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia even used to sell homemade gear from the camp’s parking lot.
Everything from waking up at 6:00 in the morning to queue in line for camp registration to the rusty bear-proof food lockers and name tags we had to tie on our tents for the ranger check-ins combined to create this inspiring air of climbing confidence and community vibes that spread throughout the grounds. I woke up in the morning pumped to climb some Yosemite granite.
5. My first sport climb at Sandrock in Alabama
An avid climber from the moment my fingertips first grazed the plastic holds at Tallahassee Rock Gym, it was a damn shame that I had never sport climbed until August 2011. Two years into my climbing obsession, I finally embarked on a sport climbing trip to a beautiful crag called Sandrock near Steele, Alabama.
The exhilaration of clipping into the anchors at the top of my first lead was only rivaled by the experience of sleeping out beneath the stars atop the rock formations at the mountain summit, and waking up to explosive hues of sunrise. It was one of the moments that cemented my adoration for the outdoors and living in nature – although the chiggers that infested my bellybutton on this trip weren’t the best reminder of why I love living in nature.
4. Getting a taste of desert life in Moab, Utah
Anyone who has asked me about my travels in 2011 has heard an earful about my infatuation with Moab. Niko and I spent a week living in the desert in May, when we came to visit our two buddies who spent the summer working as river guides in Moab. I became enthralled with the lifestyle of these dirty, leather-skinned desert people.
Over the course of a very short week, I photographed beautiful roadside climbs at Potash, hiked through Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park, ate sandy campfire food alongside my fellow tent-dwellers at the Lazy Lizard Hostel, and met some of the most amazing people I have ever encountered while traveling – Josephine, Paul, Chelsey, and Mike, I’m talkin’ to you.
Seriously, you must visit Moab. It is my most highly recommended destination.
3. A weekend at Still Mountain Retreat in Willits, California
After weeks of vagabonding throughout Moab and Yosemite, Niko and I readily accepted an invitation to join some friends for a relaxing weekend retreat at family cabins tucked high in the mountains near Willits, California. The entire weekend was a fantastic blur of great homemade food, excursions into the woods and nearby waterfall, and peaceful time spent in great company.
Niko and I stayed in a small cabin with an attic-like entrance to the second-story sleeping area – which inspired notions of simple living and small spaces. It was so refreshing to experience this place tucked away from civilization, where all that mattered was when the next shuffleboard tournament would take place.
2. Driving into the mountains on I-25 on my way to Denver, Colorado
My September solo trip concluded with a final haul down to Miami to load up my hatchback with my belongings before returning to Denver to move-in. The push back to Colorado from Florida was grueling with a jam-packed car, but as I finally hit the Rockies after driving through hours of flatlands, I was overwhelmed by the most intense feeling of pure joy I have ever felt. My music was blasted at full volume, all windows were rolled down, and I literally burst out with ecstatic squeals as I wound my way through the beautiful mountains that would soon become home.
1. Camping solo for the first time at Lake Barkley State Park in Cadiz, Kentucky
Of all my travels throughout 2011, there is one experience that shines above the rest. My first night spent camping solo was a huge milestone for me as an independent traveler. While I spent seven weeks on a solo road trip, the first night of successfully pitching my tent, building a fire, and surviving the wilderness through daybreak was easily my biggest accomplishment.
My evening was spent at Lake Barkley State Park, a tranquil slice of outdoors paradise sitting near the town of Cadiz in rural Kentucky. Family and fans of my adventures had been dreading this day since the beginning of my trip, but I approached the evening with a calm attitude and wound up having a great night tending to my fire and basking in the peace of solitude. My first experience camping solo left me with overwhelming sentiments that I can handle anything my travels throw my way – and I don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
What are your top travel moments from 2011?
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