Looking back on our 2021 travels, I realize that it was filled with changes. Some of that was from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related travel limitations. But the weather also affected a lot of our travels. If there is one thing that we have learned over the years, it is to expect the unexpected.
No matter how much you plan, there are certain things that are out of your control. Dealing with those unexpected changes can certainly be frustrating but they also are part of what makes travel fun.
So, let’s take a look at where we went this year and what we learned along the way.
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January – Southwest US
We started 2021 on the tail end of a visit to Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Initially, we expected to visit New Mexico rather than Arizona. We changed our plans to respect the COVID-19 quarantine requirements that New Mexico had in place at the time.
We were bummed to miss out on a few national park sites in the Albuquerque area, for sure. But it meant that we had time for a quick stop at the Grand Canyon instead. That was Grant’s first visit to the Grand Canyon, and it had been many years since I had been so that was quite an unexpected treat.
From there, we stopped at Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks. We had visited Arches and Canyonlands in the winter a few years ago, so it was good to finally round out the “Mighty Five,” the nickname given to the five designated National Parks in Utah.
We spent New Year’s Eve in Grand Junction, CO after visiting Colorado National Monument. After that, it was a grueling three-day drive home.
Traveling in this area of the country during the winter is always a bit risky. Snow is not uncommon, especially at higher elevations, but it doesn’t occur all that frequently. Even a small amount of snow can have a big impact on travel. In fact, we missed out on a few things at Capitol Reef NP because roads were closed due to snow.
While we hated missing out on things we wanted to see and do, we are not upset to have a good reason to return to that region! There are tons of other neat sites in the area that we didn’t have time for, so we know that we’ll enjoy another visit there in the future.
February – South Texas
For our February breaks, we tend to visit somewhere warm, like the South Florida National Parks or a cruise to the Bahamas. We initially decided we wanted to switch things up a bit this year and travel north. Our first plan was to drive to Virginia to visit Shenandoah National Park and a few other parks in the Washington, DC area. We also hoped to drive at least part of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We knew it was a risky plan so kept things very flexible. Of course, about a week before our trip a huge snowstorm rolled through, with a second one on its way. It quickly became apparent that we would not be able to do most of the things on our itinerary. So, we switched our plan and headed to Texas.
Of course, the snowstorm hit Texas as well, forcing us farther south than we originally planned, to Brownsville and South Padre Island, all the way south at the Mexican border. While we managed to avoid the winter weather, we did not escape its effects.
It was bitterly cold and windy, causing several places to close one day. The bigger impact, however, was that our hotel lost water and there were rolling blackouts in the area. We enjoyed a couple of relaxing days at the hotel and managed to get to Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park one day. We definitely missed out on a lot, though.
The drive back home was eerie, with hotels in eastern Texas having little to no availability or no water and/or electricity. Getting gas and food was also difficult. This prompted us to really consider our emergency preparedness. We fared ok but it certainly was a bit dicey at times.
While we enjoyed the adventure, it certainly was not what we expected. But we learned a lot and that’s one reason why we love to travel.
April – Great Smoky Mountains NP
Our Spring Break trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of the few trips of the year that went just about exactly as planned. We spent a week at the Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort and enjoyed several days of hiking and scenic drives in and around the park.
While this was not our first visit to Great Smoky Mountains NP, it was our longest and most comprehensive. Still, there is so much more for us to explore here! The park is large and quite spread out. Of course, the mountains make getting around a bit more difficult as well.
If you enjoy hiking, you’ll find hundreds of miles of trails for day hiking and overnight backpacking. For those who prefer scenic drives, just about every road is filled with mountain views or follows along a cascading river.
Perhaps what we enjoyed most about this trip was that Grant’s dad and stepmom joined us for several days. It was a treat for us to drive them around and share their enjoyment of seeing this grand landscape.
May – Shenandoah National Park
Since we didn’t make it to Shenandoah NP in February, we tried again in May. We spent nearly 8 hours driving up to Virginia after school on Friday. The plan was to spend Saturday at Shenandoah and then drive home via the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The good news is that we did make it to Shenandoah NP. Unfortunately, rain and low clouds completely obscured the view and made driving the curvy mountain roads even more difficult than normal.
We spent about half the day driving the northern end of the park but abandoned that just after lunch. Since we were unable to see anything, it just didn’t seem worth the time or effort as we knew we weren’t really getting to experience all the park has to offer.
Sadly, the low clouds continued on Sunday morning, so we just drove home on the interstate. This is still a trip that is high on our list of things we want to do… we just need the weather to cooperate with us!
June and July – Northern California and Southern Oregon
For our summer road trip, we packed up the camper and headed west! We spent about three weeks making our way to the west coast. Along the way, we saw friends in Topeka, KS and stopped at several national park sites. As many times as we’ve traveled clear across the country, we still always seem to find even more sites to enjoy along the route!
Perhaps what we loved most about this trip was the wide variety of landscapes and activities. We went canoeing at Ozark National Scenic Riverways and tubing at Niobrara Scenic River. I (temporarily) overcame my fear of heights and took the tram to the top of the arch at Gateway Arch National Park.
In California, we were amazed at the contrast between the volcanic landscape and thermal features at Lassen Volcanic National Park and the lush redwood forests at Redwood National and State Park. In Oregon, the blue waters of Crater Lake National Park are a color that you must see to understand. Truly, pictures just don’t do it justice.
Of course, the trip had its surprises, too. We had to get major repairs done on the camper in Salt Lake City after the hanging bracket for the leaf spring suspension broke, yet again. Thankfully, we were able to find a repair shop that could get us in quickly and seemed to be the perfect place to fix this type of problem. We have discovered finding an RV shop with a welder on staff is one of the most difficult things to find on the road. To add to our repair woes, we had a large stone hit our truck windshield while staying in Cave Junction, OR over Fourth of July weekend. While getting a windshield replaced is normally a pretty easy task, the remoteness combined with the holiday weekend made for a little stress.
We also encountered smoke from nearby forest fires at Crater Lake NP, which prevented us from completing our visit as planned. Just a few weeks after our visit, wildfires had a tremendous effect on the region. In fact, the Dixie Fire tore through parts of Lassen Volcanic NP. And Lava Beds National Monument, which has been affected by several fires in recent years had even more fire damage this year.
August – We’re Writing a Book!
One good thing to happen this summer was that our social media connections led us to write a proposal for an RV travel guidebook. After several steps of interviewing and writing an in-depth pitch, we finally signed a contract!
The book will include routes for RV vacations with places to visit, things to do and campground suggestions along the way. This is a big undertaking for us and it has taken up quite a bit of our time. In fact, we’ve had to reduce how often we publish new articles to make time for both.
Originally, we had hoped for the book to be published in 2022 but that might get pushed back due to supply chain issues and general disruptions due to COVID-19. For now, we’re still writing away, trying to balance the book with our full-time jobs, this Web site, travel and time with family and friends. It’s all definitely keeping us very busy!
August – Key West, FL
In August, we combined airline vouchers from canceled 2020 trips and Hilton free night certificates to spend a weekend in the Florida Keys. We flew to Miami, rented a car and drove through the islands to Key West. This was our first flight since September 2019, and it felt good to be back in the air! We appreciated that masks are required in airports and on planes and felt very comfortable flying, especially compared to our classrooms over the past year.
We’ve been to the Keys before but it’s been several years, so we were excited to return, even if only for a few days. While you can fly directly into Key West, the drive through the islands is relaxing and scenic and more than worth the time.
When redeeming Hilton free night certificates, we always try to get as much value as possible and this trip was no exception! We stayed at the Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, which was right on the water and certainly nicer than anything we are typically willing to pay for out of pocket. The historic nature of the hotel, mixed with modern amenities, was perfect for us.
We only had one full day in Key West, which, honestly, is not nearly long enough to truly enjoy the city. It was good for a second visit, though, and still long to see the Hemingway House, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and the Harry S. Truman Little White House. Of course, we also found some fantastic restaurants and bars along the way too!
If you ever need a quick getaway, a visit to the Florida Keys is always a good option.
Labor Day Weekend – Natchez Trace Parkway
For Labor Day, we took another quick trip through the South, this time on the Natchez Trace Parkway. This 444-mile road connects Natchez, LA to Nashville, TN and mirrors the historic Natchez Trace, a travel corridor used by Native Americans, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers and others.
We had driven a portion of the parkway several years ago and have been eager to drive the entire road ever since. I have to say, this is easily one of the most relaxing, easy-to-drive roads out there. And we’ve driven a lot of roads!
I’ll admit, the views aren’t as great as driving the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys or driving through the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway. But you also don’t have to worry about steep drop-offs, sharp curves or too much traffic. It’s just nice and easy driving.
Along the road, there are numerous pullouts and points of interest. Some stops have historical markers and/or exhibits. Others have historic buildings, Indian mounds or natural features such as trails to waterfalls or through a cypress swamp.
Aside from the sites right along the parkway, you’ll also find tons of things to do in Nashville, Natchez, and other cities along the way, including Tupelo, MS.
Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article on driving the Natchez Trace Parkway.
September – Kentucky National Parks
One thing we love most about our school schedule is that we get a week off in both February and September. These tend to be “shoulder seasons” when popular destinations and attractions are not too crowded. Thankfully, that was our experience as we explored Mammoth Cave National Park and the other park sites in Eastern Kentucky.
We have been to many other cave parks, but this was our first visit to Mammoth Cave. All I can say is, Wow… this is a HUGE cave! It’s also quite different in that it generally is not as “ornate” as many other caves.
The park offers many different tours of the cave, and we chose one of the longest ones so that we could see as much of the cave as possible. While we enjoyed our tour, the biggest frustration was that it didn’t stop all that much.
Mammoth Cave is the only designated National Park in Kentucky, but there are several other parks that we spent another couple of days visiting. Our trip included stops at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, National Historical Park, Camp Nelson National Monument, Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument and the Kentucky portion of Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. While these smaller parks don’t have as much “wow factor” as the big parks, we love the history that we learn with every visit.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles with more details on visiting Mammoth Cave and the other Kentucky national parks.
Thanksgiving – Caribbean Cruise
In November, we joined some of our best friends on a Caribbean cruise with Princess. When we booked the cruise, it was a 3-night cruise to the Bahamas. A couple of months out, Princess changed the itinerary to 5-nights with two stops in Mexico.
The itinerary change meant taking a day off work, but it also meant more cruise for the same amount of money. We certainly couldn’t complain about that!
If you’re still not sure about cruising with the ongoing COVID-19 complications, I have to say that Princess did things right. All passengers had to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 2 days of boarding. In addition, guests had to wear masks when moving throughout the ship and in congested areas such as the theater. Finally, the Princess Ocean Medallions make contact tracing a breeze if anyone does test positive for COVID during or immediately after the cruise.
Also, our cruise only had about 20% of the passenger capacity on board, which made social distancing a breeze. It also meant no crowds at the bars, restaurants or other onboard events. I’ll admit that the low number of passengers did bring down the energy of the cruise a bit, but we still absolutely loved it!
I’m sure that over time the number of passengers will increase. If you’re thinking about a cruise anytime soon, though, I’d encourage you to just go. The cruise lines are doing everything they can to keep passengers and crew healthy.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles on the Regal Princess and our ports of call in Mexico.
December – Hawaii
To end the year, we FINALLY made it to Hawaii! After 1.5 years, our summer 2020 trip for our 10th anniversary finally came through, though in an abbreviated form. The original trip was roughly five weeks, visiting all four major islands of Hawaii. This trip is only about 10 days and two islands. Still, we made it to our 50th state!
We will be spending about a week on Oahu, where we plan to visit Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and the North Shore. We’ll then spend nearly three full days on Maui. There, we are prioritizing driving the Road to Hana and just relaxing. We will make a point to visit the remote Kīpahulu District of Haleakala National Park on this trip but will have to save the rest of the park, including the summit, for a future trip.
After a long a stressful semester of teaching, writing a book and keeping up with this website, we are excited about this getaway!
Looking Ahead to 2022
So, what’s next for us? For the first couple of months of 2022, we’ll be laser-focused on finishing our book. I doubt we will do any big travels until Spring Break at the beginning of April. I’m sure we’ll find a weekend to get away here or there, though. We don’t yet have a plan for Spring Break, but we still have some airline credits and hotel vouchers to use, so anything is possible.
For next summer, we are scheduled to travel to Greece for a school trip. With the ever-evolving COVID-19 restrictions we are trying not to get too excited about that trip just yet. But we are cautiously optimistic that we will make it to the Mediterranean!
After that, we plan to spend the rest of the summer in Yellowstone National Park. We’ve already got reservations at Fishing Bridge RV Park and are really looking forward to several weeks of hiking and wildlife watching. There’s just something about Yellowstone that we can’t get enough of! And, Grant’s sister and her family will join us for a few days so we are really looking forward to exploring with them.
That’s about all we have on the calendar for now. But we know that anything could happen, good or bad. And that’s ok. We love the adventure, even when it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.
What do you use to find a flight?
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.
What do you use to find a hotel?
We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.
We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.
What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?
We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.
Who do you use for rental cars?
How about booking a cruise?
What if I want to rent an RV?
We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.
What do you use for booking tours?
Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?
We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.