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Adventure Travel Cities Outdoors

The 7 Most Beautiful Places on Earth

Need a little inspiration for your next vacation, either real or imagined? SmarterTravel’s editors have crisscrossed the planet, visiting dozens of countries on every continent—and these are the spots they’ve declared the most beautiful places in the world.

The Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

The Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

“Antarctica feels otherworldly. It’s devoid of human life, with an almost eerie emptiness in places—no manmade buildings, no power lines, no planes flying overhead, and no lights. Simultaneously, it teems with natural life, from penguins calling for their mates in a cacophony of sounds to fur seals lurking below the surface waiting to pounce on their next meal. All that against a backdrop of towering mountains, brilliantly blue glaciers, and an unpolluted sky—I’ve yet to find anywhere else on earth that can compare.” — Caroline Morse Teel, Principal Editor

Granada, Spain

sunset over the alhambra in Granada, SPain

“Like all the towns in Andalucia, Granada is something special. The architecture, the food, and the people all make for a memorable trip. But the real gem in Granada is the Alhambra. Climb up the steep, skinny streets of the Albayzin neighborhood to the Mirador de San Nicolás and watch the sun set over the Alhambra. It’s been (accurately) called ‘the most beautiful sunset in the world’ and is one of those magical experiences that will stay with you forever.” — Noemi de la Torre, Senior Photo Editor

South Island, New Zealand

landscape south island new zealand.

“My then-partner (now husband) and I were reduced almost to speechlessness during a road trip around New Zealand’s spectacular South Island. ‘Wow,’ I said as we rounded a curve and a crystalline lake spread out before us. ‘Wow,’ he echoed a few minutes later as the late-day sun cast a rosy glow across hulking mountains capped with snow. Glaciers, fjords, beaches—the South Island has it all, and it’s all stunning.” — Sarah Schlichter, Deputy Executive Editor

Krka National Park, Croatia

Krka National Park was supposed to be a small pit stop on my guided trip to Split, but it ended up being the highlight of the week. Rivers and streams crisscross the ground beneath you as you navigate the forest on elevated wooden pathways. The entire journey has a deep stillness to it, with only your own footsteps and the sounds of water and bird calls to interrupt. Finally, at the end of the walk, you’re greeted by a picnic ground surrounded by tiers of beautiful waterfalls. The views were stunning and, on the way out, I got to visit a family of wild kittens—so it was probably the best day ever.”  — Carol McPherson, Video Editor/Creator

Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

great bear rainforest section

“The Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia haunts my dreams in the best possible way. I only spent two days there, but even that short amount of time earns it a spot at the top of my list. This picture was taken after a short flight from Vancouver Island to the tiny wilderness lodge of Nimmo Bay. It was an intoxicating blur of dense temperate rainforest hikes, paddling bays so still that my kayak seemed to skim above the clouds, and rushing waterfalls that exhaled the rainforest into the sea.” — Christine Sarkis, Executive Editor

Haputale Tea Country, Sri Lanka

Haputale tea country Sri Lanka.

“The most beautiful places are always the ones that photos inevitably can’t do justice. And for me, that paradox always brings to mind Sri Lankan tea country. I took a rickety train ride to Haputale in monsoon-season rains, snaking through verdant slopes and misty gorges made even more dream-like by the drizzle. As if the postcard-esque viaducts and Nine Arch Bridge along the way weren’t enough, meeting Haputale’s local tea pickers in a cloud forest precariously perched at 7,000 feet above sea level certainly was. From the foothills of Agarapatana Plantation I was gobsmacked by the views, which only grew more dream-like as we ascended to the peak to enjoy many fresh cups of tea, served with roti and sweets, overlooking the cloud cover that would occasionally break to reveal miles of rolling greenery below. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to walking into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book and staying a while.” — Shannon McMahon, Editor of News and Features

Tayrona National Park, Colombia 

tayrona national park.

“Many of the world’s most beautiful places come with crowds of tourists and lines that you have to wait in; it’s rare to find that true sense of unspoiled beauty. And when you do, it’s often far, far away from the beaten path. But you’ll usually find that it’s the search that makes the final destination worth it, and that’s exactly the case with Tayrona National Park in Colombia. A trip here makes you feel like you’re on your own journey of youthful exploration in Lord of the Flies. Hours from the vibrant city of Cartagena sit miles and miles of coastline where the Sierra Nevada foothills kiss the Caribbean coast. Find relaxation in the secluded coves and lagoons, or trek in the rainforest to ancient Taryonan ruins. To get here, find the beach city of Santa Marta and then make your way via bus to the forest. There are plenty of hidden retreats and treehouses to stay at, where inviting hammocks swing in the wind waiting for you. There’s nothing quite like following a winding path in the rainforest that suddenly ends with golden sand and open ocean.” —Ashley Rossi, Senior Editor

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Fashion & Beauty Outdoors

Stylish Running Gear: Tracksmith Session Shorts and Harrier Long Sleeve Review

Tracksmith’s Session Shorts and Harrier Long Sleeve Shirt make up the perfect running outfit for spring.

Tracksmith Session Shorts and Harrier Long Sleeve Review

Price and Where to Buy: The Session Shorts are $68 and the Harrier Long Sleeve is $78 at Tracksmith’s website.

Tracksmith shirt

How the Tracksmith Session Shorts and Harrier Long Sleeve Rate

  • Comfort: 10/10. The Session Shorts are made out of an extra-soft Veloce knit fabric that’s lightweight, moisture-wicking, and breathable, and UV protective. The anti-microbial liner won’t chafe or retain odors, making these perfect for travel. The Harrier Long Sleeve is made out of a merino/nylon blend that will keep you sweat and smell free in the spring or fall.
  • Features: 9/10. The shorts have a perfectly-sized zipper pocket on the side that can hold keys or gels.
  • Design: 9/10. At 3.25″, the shorts hit the sweet spot for length (not too short and not too long).
  • Style: 10/10. With a discreet logo and a sleek silhouette, you can wear this outfit out on runs or to run errands.

Final Verdict: Tracksmith’s Harrier Long Sleeve and Session Shorts are the perfect outfit for shoulder season runs.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel is always on the hunt for the newest and best travel gear. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

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Adventure Travel Beach Cities Outdoors

The Safest Places in Central America for Travelers

Editor’s note: This story was researched and written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. While we look forward to traveling again soon, we recognize that the most important thing we can all do right now is to stay home. For the most current information about COVID-19, check the CDC website.

With active volcanoes, Maya ruins, and extensive coastlines in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, Central America is an idyllic destination that is often overlooked by travelers. Given the region’s history of political instability, many foreigners are wary of visiting, wondering if Central America is safe, and end up missing out on the cultural, historical, and culinary richness of the seven countries that comprise it.

But while these fears are justified in some cases, you shouldn’t judge an entire region by its news cover. Not every country in the area is experiencing conflict, and while caution is always advised no matter where you travel, you certainly won’t be stepping into the war zone Central America is often made out to be.

To help you have an amazing—and safe— trip, we have compiled a list of the four safest countries to visit in Central America.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica wins over the heart of every visitor with its “Pura vida” philosophy. The entire nation exudes a relaxed vibe that calls you to breathe in and enjoy life—something that’s not too difficult to do here. During your time in this mesmerizing country, you can watch sea turtles hatch on quiet beaches, climb the Arenal Volcano, or see monkeys and jaguars at the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Often considered a pioneer of eco-tourism, Costa Rica takes great pride in its natural resources and its status as a megadiverse country. In fact, 98 percent of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, and 26 percent of its territory is made up of protected natural lands. Because of this natural richness, the country attracts intrepid adventure travelers who come to surf tall waves, zipline through canopies, rappel down waterfalls, and white-water raft down swift rivers.

As for safety, foreigners usually don’t have much to worry about. The Global Peace Index ranks Costa Rica as the 33rd most peaceful country in the world. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked at 218. The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives it a level 1 warning, making it safer than Spain and Italy in the eyes of the U.S. Basically, you should exercise common sense precautions like avoiding dark streets at night and hiding your valuables.

Costa Rica takes such pride in its commitment to peace that it doesn’t even have an army. As if that weren’t enough, it is considered one of the best countries in Latin America for LGBTQIA travelers, given locals’ open-minded attitudes towards sexual diversity and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ready to book your tickets yet?

Panama

panama city skyline at sunset panama.

If you judge Panama by its rankings on the Global Peace Index and the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory, you’ll soon be at ease. The former ranks Panama at 47th, and the latter suggests a level 1 advisory. Do keep in mind that certain areas should be avoided, including the Mosquito Coast, and the Darien region along the border with Colombia. Again, normal safety measures are recommended to avoid being pickpocketed or mugged, particularly in urban centers.

Now that you know Panama is much safer than most people believe, you should also know that it is much more interesting than most people imagine. In fact, many people simply know Panama for its famous canal, which continues to be a tourist attraction but which is not by any means the only thing the country has to offer.

Sure, take a scenic flight over the canal to see it for yourself, but also allow some space in your itinerary to swim with whale sharks in astonishing Bocas del Toro, or to soak up the metropolitan glitz of Panama City. Adventure travelers will also find plenty of thrilling activities, like hiking through cloud forests, watching the migration of humpback whales in the Pacific, and climbing the country’s highest point, Baru Volcano.

The best part about Panama? It seems like tourists have yet to wise up about it, so you can enjoy small village beaches and forest treks without hordes of Instagram-hungry tourists.

Belize

boat on great blue hole belize.

Yet another wonderful but often overlooked country in Central America, Belize is impressively diverse for its tiny size. The English-speaking country boasts jungles riddled with Mayan ruins, the second largest reefs in the world, and idyllic islands scattered along its coast.

Divers absolutely love Belize because of the diversity of its reef, but also because of its famous Great Blue Hole. This underground sinkhole is the largest of its kind, and is equally impressive from above and from underneath the water’s surface. In fact, the great conservationist, explorer, and diver Jacques Cousteau included the “hole” as one of his favorite diving spots on the planet.

Even if you’re not a big fan of diving in a dark, seemingly unending ocean abyss, the Belize coastline offers plenty of opportunities for swimming in warm waters, paddle boarding, and kayaking through mangroves. One of the best things to do is to simply lay in a hammock with a bottle of cool beer in your hand and enjoy the sun kissing your skin.

The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives Belize a level 2 warning, which is the same level as countries like France and the U.K. That said, increased precaution is recommended, since its proximity to Mexico inevitably makes it part of Central America’s drug route. The south—where many of the country’s Mayan ruins lay hidden by the jungle—is of particular concern, so we recommend researching before planning a trip, or going with a trusted tour company.

LGBTQIA travelers might want to rethink a trip to Belize, as locals tend to have a more conservative mentality and may even be hostile to non-heterosexual couples.

Guatemala

santa catalina arch in antigua guatemala

Like Belize, Guatemala has a level 2 warning from the Department of State. Certain areas present an increased level of risk, specifically the areas along the drug trade route. It is recommended that travelers do research before deciding their itineraries, particularly if they plan to go to remote regions that are not as frequented. Again, visitors looking to explore natural or rural areas might want to consider using a trusted tour company with local guides.

Once you have taken the necessary precautions, don’t even consider missing out on picturesque Antigua. The former capital of Guatemala, this well-preserved colonial town is one of the most beautiful towns in Latin America. Cobblestoned streets and colorful balconies are perfectly complemented by the volcanoes that surround the town, providing breathtaking views from almost any street.

Another must-see destination in Guatemala is Lake Atitlan, one of the most important in the region. If you want a simple thrill, you can hike around the lake and enjoy the invariably impressive views it provides. Those with a harder adrenaline addiction can opt for more extreme activities, like paragliding over or scuba diving.

No history or Indiana Jones lover can afford to skip out on the mighty Tikal National Park, the former capital of the Maya Empire. Surrounded by the jungle that once hid it, Tikal boasts the tallest existing pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, and is considered one of the most important archaeological treasures of the continent.

If this doesn’t seem like enough, you can also ride through the canyons of Rio Dulce, learn about Afro-Guatemalan culture at Livingston, explore the caves of Verpaces, and delight your taste buds with the country’s rich culinary tradition.

More from SmarterTravel:

10 Natural Wonders to See Before They’re Gone
The 13 Safest Places in Mexico for Travelers
The Best Caribbean Destinations for Gay and Lesbian Travelers

Categories
At Home Entertainment Health & Wellness Outdoors

Forest Bathing Audio Experience

Welcome to Virtual Vacations, our series of meditative audio travel tours of both popular and off-the-beaten-path destinations around the world.

Don’t have Spotify? Find Virtual Vacations on your preferred listening platform here.

Let’s head into nature for a guided virtual forest bathing experience. Traditional forest bathing strengthens your relationship to nature by connecting you via your five senses.

We’ve created these audio tours to transport you to inspiring destinations around the world, even when you can’t be there in person. So settle in and let’s imagine a peaceful walk through a beautiful forest. Along the way, we’ll practice some traditional forest-bathing techniques to help you relax and connect with the outdoors.

Note that each virtual vacation begins with a short breathing exercise to help you come into the moment and make the most of your virtual vacation.

Discover more Virtual Vacations.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Fashion & Beauty Outdoors

11 Warm, Lightweight Jackets and Coats for Travelers

Bulky jackets are the bane of cold-weather travelers. If your coat isn’t taking up precious space in your carry-on, you’ll have to lug it around the airport to avoid sweating profusely and looking like a nervous security risk. Here are 11 of the best packable, lightweight winter jackets for travelers that will keep you feeling warm and looking stylish on the road.

Patagonia Women’s Vosque 3-in-1 Parka

Looking for a packable jacket that works for every part of your trip, from the mountains to the city? Patagonia’s Vosque 3-in-1 Parka has it all. The outer shell looks like a stylish tweed jacket, and can be worn alone or paired with the insulated liner for really cold days. The liner can be worn alone and works well when you’re active.  The parka uses 100-g THERMOLITE eco insulation, an environmentally friendly material (it’s 92 percent recycled) that’s lightweight but still super warm.

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Arc’teryx Men’s Atom LT Hoody

The Arc’teryx Men’s Atom LT Hoody is a packable jacket that delivers the warmth needed in a whole host of situations and environments. Insulated with 60 grams of lightweight, water-resistant Coreloft™, this hoody maintains thermal performance if exposed to moisture, and compresses into the tiny nooks of your backpack when not in use.

L.L.Bean Quilted Riding Jacket

L.L.Bean quilted riding jacket

Most easy-to-pack winter jackets look like activewear and are tough to pull off on a city trip, but L.L.Bean’s Quilted Riding Jacket is the ultimate winter coat that can do both. Its classic design goes with any outfit and won’t make you look like a tourist who just wandered into town off a hike. Thanks to the insulated synthetic lining, it will keep you warm in -15 degrees F (with moderate activity). Want to layer this jacket? It has adjustable waist tabs that let you customize the fit based on what you’re wearing.

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The North Face ThermoBall Eco Hoodie

The north face thermoball eco hoodie

The ThermoBall Eco Hoodie, available for women and men, packs down incredibly small thanks to PrimaLoft technology that traps heat within small air pockets. This winter jacket is water-resistant and made of recycled polyester and nylon.

Columbia Women’s Mighty Lite Hooded Jacket

Omni-Heat lining and insulation give Columbia’s Mighty Lite Jacket plenty of warmth. It comes in a range of colors and can be found for a surprisingly low price when on sale. This lightweight coat won’t add much bulk to your bag and has a handy interior security pocket to stow valuables.

Uniqlo Men’s Ultra Light Down Parka

If you’re looking for an affordable and packable down jacket, try Uniqlo’s Ultra Light Down Parka, which folds up into its own handy carrying pouch so you can easily slip it into your suitcase. The hood and water-repellent fabric will protect you in rain or snow showers, and the range of colors will suit any style.

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Obermeyer Women’s Tuscany II Jacket

Based in the snow sports mecca of Aspen, Colorado, since 1947, Obermeyer knows a thing or two about cold and wet weather. It’s developed a patented HydroBlock Sport fabric tested to resist nearly 400 inches of rain (and roll stain-causing liquids right off). Find it in the Tuscany II Jacket, which also uses another unique Obermeyer material: Thermore Classic insulation, which is thin and light but still warm. The hood is removable and adjustable, as is the faux fur trim.

Patagonia PrimaLoft Nano Puff Coat

Patagonia’s PrimaLoft Nano Puff Hoody (available for men and women) is the lightest jacket I’ve ever owned. The women’s version weighs just 10 ounces (the men’s is 12.8 ounces), yet is ultra-warm and waterproof. Unlike some other methods of insulation, you can feel good about this jacket: Its 60-g PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco is more than 50 percent recycled material.

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The North Face Arrowood Triclimate Jacket

The north face arrowood triclimate jacket

The North Face’s versatile Arrowood Triclimate Jacket (available for women and men) is a three-in-one coat that’s perfect for travel: You can wear the waterproof, windproof shell or comfy inner fleece liner by themselves, or combine them to make a warm winter jacket. The hood, wrist cuffs, and hem cinch cord are all adjustable for a better fit. This breathable coat is designed for hiking and other outdoor activities.

Lululemon Pack It Down Jacket

The Pack It Down Jacket can be folded up into the right-hand pocket, making it one of the best packable down jackets for women. The fabric is weather-resistant, and the 700-fill-power goose down is certified to the Responsible Down Standard. You can remove the hood to further cut down on weight and space.

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Arc’teryx Men’s Cerium LT Hoody

The Cerium LT Hoody from Arcteryx is incredibly lightweight—just 10.8 ounces—yet it’s surprisingly warm thanks to its combination of goose down and synthetic insulation. (Note that on rainy or extremely cold days, it’s best combined with a weatherproof shell.) The Cerium LT Hoody compresses into its own stuff sack for easy packing.

For more options, see The Best Winter Coats on Amazon.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse always packs lightweight winter jackets for travel to cold destinations. Follow Caroline on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for style and travel photos from around the world.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

Categories
Active Travel At Home Outdoors Trip Ideas

Explore the Great Indoors: Virtual Hikes and Natural Wonders You Can See at Home

The world remains a big and beautiful place, even when we’re not out there enjoying it. Whether you have a treadmill at home or are just walking circles around your living room, grab your fitness tracker and start earning steps with these virtual hikes from around the world.

See the World with 360° Video

You could spend days exploring Air Pano’s hundreds of panoramic videos of landscapes as varied as Patagonia and the Sahara Desert. This is the perfect way to go couch-trekking in Bhutan and kitchen-table exploring in the Caribbean. Explore while running on a treadmill to take your own virtual hike. 

Transport Yourself with 4K Virtual Outdoor Hikes

The 4K Relaxation Channel on YouTube has become one of our favorites during this stay-at-home period, and the playlist for virtual hikes has over 45 videos. Transport yourself to Lithuania, Washington State, Hawaii, and more for your next virtual hike.

Stake Out to See the Aurora Borealis – Northern Lights

Add watching for the Northern Lights to your daily “quaran-tine.” Explore.org’s live cam is set up in Churchill, Manitoba, which is directly beneath the aurora oval. While the peak season ends in March, you might get lucky to see them in early April.

Walk the Camino de Santiago at Home

Hundreds of thousands walk “the Camino” in Spain each year, and while many are unable to this spring and summer, the tour operator Duperier’s Authentic Journeys is bringing the experience to your home with its Facebook group. Track your own walks as if you were going on the pilgrimage and share photos of the experience if you’ve done it before.

Cherry Blossoms Around the World with Google Earth

mt fuji in the spring

See spring cherry blossoms bloom from home with Google Earth’s imagery from 10 sites around the world. From Japan to Brazil, stream this on your TV and picture yourself reading on a park bench.

Costa Rica’s Volcanoes with Google Earth

Arenal volcano in clouds Costa Rica.

See five of the country’s volcanoes up close and personal with Google Earth footage: Arenal Volcano (don’t miss the nearby waterfalls), Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, Poas Volcano, Irazu Volcano, and Miravalles Volcano.

See the Faroe Islands with a Local Faroese

faroe islands remote experience video control

This virtual experience is more like a video game, and it’s pretty incredible. The Faroe Islands have outdone themselves with this online experience, which lets you control a live experience. The live tours are set at specific times and locally-based volunteers roam around with a live camera attached to them. Each trip is about an hour-long and viewers have one-minute each to control what they do.

Hike France’s Countryside

Explore France, and learn French while you’re at it, with this series on YouTube. There are three seasons that will take you from the Loire Valley to the Alps, and beyond, to tiny villages deep in the countryside. At seven minutes each, these are the perfect backdrop for a quick treadmill jog or language lesson.

Explore Machu Picchu

Experience what it’s like to view Machu Picchu from all its angles with this interactive, panoramic view of the famed ancient site. Learn more about Peru and other South American sites, with an online course with an archeologist and explorer.

South Africa National Parks with Google Street View

family destination winner south africa

Discover South Africa through its national parks and reserves on Google. There are over 170 trails to explore in all of the country’s 19 national parks and 17 nature reserves, including tourist attractions like Kruger National Park, Table Mountain, and Cape Point.

U.S. National Parks with Google Earth and Live Cams

acadia national park autumn.

With Google’s latest technology, you can explore over 32 national parks and DIY your own virtual hike. From the Grand Canyon to Acadia or the Badlands, virtually explore U.S. natural wonders without the crowds.

Yellowstone National park alone has nine different webcams for your viewing pleasure. Watch Old Faithful via a live stream with helpful predictions on timed eruptions and more. Read more about other national park webcams, here.

And don’t forget state parks! You can take an online course with a travel journalist and writer about 24 of the nation’s best state parks and help plan your next domestic vacation.

VR Hike

Started by two high schoolers, this website has external links of virtual hikes you can take across the U.S. with its partners: HikingGuy, Treadmill TV, and Nature Calls. Search hikes via the interactive map feature. (Don’t miss out on the Hawaii trails.)

Virtual Hikes for Treadmills

Transport yourself to Alberta, Oregon, or even a giant Redwood grove forest with Tall Sky Walker’s virtual hikes playlist on YouTube. Whether you want a 15-minute or hour-long hike, jog, or walk, you’ll find a relaxing virtual hike for you.

Pro Tip: Use the settings tool on YouTube to speed up or slow down the playback speed to go at your own pace.

Trek the Appalachian Trail with Walk the Distance

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park

This activity tracker app uses the steps recorded in your phone’s Health app and puts them towards walking a selected route. Virtually hike the Appalachian Trail, national parks, or cities; or run a virtual marathon. Currently, the app is free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World’s Oceans

Missing out on your beach vacation? Explore the world’s magical oceans with underwater Street View imagery through Google. See sea lions in the Galapagos, coral reefs in Bermuda, and shipwrecks in the Florida Keys.

Take your learning a bit further and take a journey to the polar regions with a National Geographic-led online course.

Share Your Virtual Vacation or Travel Inspiration with Us:

Are you itching to travel? So are we … that’s why we started the #GoLater campaign on social media. We want to see which destinations YOU are dreaming of. Head over to our Instagram channel (@smartertravel) to learn more. 

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Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Our Favorite National Park-Inspired Buys

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Experiential Travel Family Travel Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel Sustainable Travel Travel Trends

9 Whimsical Spring Flower Blooms We're Dreaming About

You don’t need to be a nature expert to appreciate the seas of colorful flowers that mark the end of winter each year, or to get lost in photos of them. Some of the world’s biggest and best spring flower blooms turn travel-worthy spots like national parks and famous cities into a sea of color.

The World’s Most Whimsical Spring Flower Blooms

Here’s where to look for a breathtaking dose of color in spring, and which ones offer livestreams.

Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Spring flower blooms

Every April and May, pink-hued flowers blanket the meadows at the base of Mount Fuji. The Shibazakura Festival marks the occasion, drawing crowds who stroll through the electric-pink fields and snack at the many local food stalls that set up to offer Japanese buns, ramen, soups, and more. During the peak spring flower bloom this is one of the most photogenic places in the world. You can livestream the blooms here.

Death Valley, Southern California

spring flower blooms

Southern California’s parks are home to many different types of spring flower blooms, and they come to life earlier than most thanks to the region’s warm climate. Death Valley National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are popular for yellow and purple desert flowers that peek through the cracked desert floor as early as March. The Antelope Valley’s California Poppy Reserve becomes a sea of yellow, orange, and red poppies around April—and can look like a scene straight out of the Wizard of Oz. The small orange variation of poppy happens to be the state flower of California.

The California Parks Department offers a poppy live-stream here.

Keukenhof, Netherlands

spring flower blooms

If rainbow palettes of tulips don’t come to mind when you think of the Netherlands, it’s time to venture beyond Amsterdam. Spring is a great time to head into the countryside to discover windmill-dotted fields of bright tulips, which often bloom as late as May. The Flower Bulb Region is home to vast tulip farms as well as public gardens like Keukenhof—one of the largest botanical gardens in the world, and home to seven million flowers. You can virtually tour the gardens here.

Western Australia (September)

spring flower blooms

Take your pick of Western Australia’s incredible array of wildflower trails in September—the southern hemisphere’s spring. Guided or self-driven spring flower bloom tours are available in wildflower-blanketed Perth, along the Coral Coast, and as far north as Pilbara. Options include the Esperance Wildflower Trail, wild orchids south of Perth, and rainbow desert blooms in Broome to the north.

Valley of Flowers National Park, India

spring flower blooms

India’s Valley of Flowers is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its six miles of alpine flowers and rare, protected wildlife. Nestled between the Himalayas and the sacred Ganges River in Uttarakhand, the valley has 1,000 different species of flowers, including daisies, poppies, rhododendrons, lavender, and more. Hike along its waterways and through pastures blanketed in spring flower blooms—just keep an eye out for Himalayan black bears.

Monet’s House and Gardens, France

spring flower blooms

Claude Monet’s mesmerizing flowers don’t only exist in paintings. See the lavender and lily pad-filled settings that inspired his works in Giverny, France, where you can visit the Impressionist artist’s house and gardens. The grounds are separated into two main gardens: one around the house that includes an orchard and bulb flowers like daffodils, and an enchanting Japanese water garden across the street.

Texas Hill Country, U.S.

spring flower blooms

Combine wildflowers with wineries in Texas Hill Country, west of bustling Houston. Spring flower blooms come early to the Lone Star State, so you can get a jump start on summer by heading to Fredericksburg or Brenham to see the region’s famed bluebonnets—which the nearby Bluebonnet Wine Trail is named for. Stop at wineries and spot classic Texan ranches along the way.

Kew Gardens, London, England

Spring flower blooms

Spring flower blooms don’t have to require a trek from the city, especially if you’re in London. The U.K. capital has an abundance of gardens that come to life every spring, and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its 300 acres house 27,000 colorful plants, and are thick with tulips, poppies, peonies, and cherry blossoms each spring. The gardens even offer online educational horticulture courses so you can learn to identify species of plants.

Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.

washington monument with cherry blossoms tidal basin.

Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin is famously popular in spring for the thousands of cherry trees gifted to the park by the mayor of Tokyo, Japan, over a century ago. The pink and white buds explode into peak bloom all at once in a matter of just a few days, typically in March or April. The National Mall’s live webcam is here.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Fashion & Beauty Health & Wellness Outdoors Packing Travel Technology Travel Trends Women's Travel

10 Best Workout Clothes and Tools for Travel and Home

Finding the motivation to work out while on vacation is no easy feat. I try and stick to my normal exercise routine as much as I can while I travel, and this list of the 10 best workout clothes and tools helps me stay in shape on the road—and at home between trips.

Vi Headphones and Fitness Tracker

Say goodbye to tangled headphones, wearing a Fitbit, and paying for expensive fitness-tracking apps—the Vi headphones and corresponding app are the ultimate travel workout companion. With a variety of earbud sizes and clips, these wireless headphones are comfortable and won’t fall out once you get the right size.

If you run outdoors at home and on the road, the Vi Fitness app is a great way to track your runs and mileage. Hikers and cyclers can also benefit from the activity tracker. Dubbed a “personal trainer,” the activity monitor tracks things like speed, heart rate, and distance. It also adapts to your fitness level and personalizes workouts. Plus, the app links to your favorite music streaming service.

Takeya Water Bottle

A reusable water bottle is an essential workout item for travelers, and I especially love Takeya’s insulated stainless water bottles. The handle is great for travel, since you can hook it onto the outside of any bag, and it’s easy to carry around the gym. The double-wall vacuum insulation keeps water cold for hours, and the narrow mouth is great for grabbing a quick sip mid-workout.

Zella Live In High Waisted Leggings

Built from moisture-wicking fabric and fitted with a no-slip waistband, these stretchy, figure-sculpting leggings keep you cool as your workout warms up. They’re comfy enough to wear in other situations as well, including on the plane or while working from home.

Burt’s Bees Facial Cleansing Wipes

Don’t forget one of the most important things to do after working out, even on vacation: taking care of your skin. I am obsessed with these facial cleansing wipes from Burt’s Bees for a post-workout refresh. Whether you don’t have time to hit the shower or you need some immediate rejuvenation, these wipes, made from white tea extract, cucumber, and aloe, are a must. I even use them over my whole body sometimes if I need to skip a shower.

Adidas by Stella McCartney Sports Bra

This mesh-backed sports bra is one of the best workout clothes you can travel with because it doubles as a bathing suit top. The full coverage bra is quick-drying and moisture-wicking, so it won’t stink or stay wet for long after sweating or swimming.

 

Nike Dri Fit Head Tie

Nike makes a great moisture-wicking headband that fits any head size. I typically find myself shifting any sort of headband during a workout because it sits too far forward or back—but you won’t have that problem with this one because it ties.

L.L.Bean Coolmax Nano Glide Multisport Socks

I swear by L.L.Bean socks (with styles for both men and women) for working out. The quick-drying, breathable fabric and thoughtful cushioning on these moisture-wicking socks will keep your feet cool and dry during any activity. These socks are also designed to reduce friction inside your shoe to prevent blisters.

Hoka Bondi 6 Running Shoes

I always travel with my Hoka Bondi 6’s, because I can wear them to the airport with a travel outfit or put them into my carry-on, where they don’t take up too much room. These shoes (available for men and women) are extremely flexible and comfortable for workouts and provide incredible sole support; that’s actually part of Hoka’s mission as a shoe company.

Salomon Agile 250 Running Belt Pack

I cannot say enough how much I love this running belt pack from Salomon. It miraculously fits a phone, keys, and some cash or cards. It doesn’t move while running, and I’ve worn it for stationary workouts as well to hold my phone. It takes up zero room in your suitcase and helps make your workouts annoying armband-free.

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Lululemon Break a Trail Jacket

This Trail Jacket from Lululemon is an ideal choice for hikers and others who love to exercise outdoors. The fabric is both water-repellent and wind-resistant, so the jacket will hold up in any climate. The hood is designed not to bounce when you move, and there are vents in the fabric so you don’t overheat. There’s even a hidden pocket for your phone.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Codey Albers contributed to this story.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

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The 9 Best Travel Hoodies

There’s nothing cozier than a hooded sweatshirt, especially on a long flight (or even just on the couch at home) when all you want to do is curl up and get comfortable.

What’s the Best Travel Hoodie for You?

My favorite travel hoodies have nifty features such as extra pockets, sun protection, or built-in pillows. Discover the best travel hoodie for your next trip.

Ugg Nancy Zip Fleece Hoodie

Ugg Nancy Hoodie

Lined with a stretchy cotton fleece, this easy-going hoodie will keep you warm and cozy. Available in neutral colors, the Ugg Nancy Zip Fleece Hoodie will go with any outfit.

The North Face Take Along Pullover Hoodie

The North Face Hoodie

Always cold? Try The North Face Take Along Pullover Hoodie, a sweatshirt with plenty of extra length to keep you warm below the waist. This thick hoodie was designed for camping adventures, but works just as well inside a chilly house.

SCOTTeVEST Chloe Glow Hoodie

From the outside, SCOTTeVEST’s Chloe Glow Hoodie looks like an ordinary, if attractive, microfleece sweatshirt for women. It’s not until you put it on that you realize just how much you can fit into its 14 pockets, cleverly designed to hold phones, tablets, glasses, passports, and other small items. Many of the pockets are on the inside of the hoodie, making them less accessible to potential thieves. Bonus: The main zipper goes all the way up to the hood, so you can protect all or part of your face in windy conditions.

SCOTTeVEST Hoodie Cotton

Men looking for a similar travel hoodie can try this sweatshirt from SCOTTeVEST, which has a whopping 21 pockets. Besides all the storage space, the best feature for travelers is the “Do Not Disturb” eye mask that flips down from the hood to block out the world—perfect for a long flight or train ride.

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BOMBAX Zip Up Travel Hoodie

Do you have trouble sleeping on planes? If so, the Zip Up Travel Hoodie just might help. The hoodie comes with an inflatable neck pillow you can pack into one of the pockets. With 10 pockets for your passport, tablet, and other travel accessories, getting through airport security will be a breeze. If you’re traveling in a colder climate, you’ll appreciate the built-in gloves and eye mask.

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Aros Inflatable Hoodies

Another intriguing option for sleep-challenged travelers is the Aros line of unisex hoodies, which includes both pullover and zip-up models. Instead of lugging a bulky travel pillow onto the plane, wear one of these travel sweatshirts; inside the hood is an insert that you can inflate and turn into an instant pillow. (Don’t forget to remove the insert before washing the sweatshirt.)

Woolly Clothing Merino Wool Hoodies

woolly clothing men's merino wool hoodie.

On planes, the only person less popular than a screaming kid is a passenger with bad body odor. Don’t be that guy. Instead, give the Woolly Clothing Men’s Merino Wool Henley Hoodie a try. This travel hoodie for men is made of fabric that wicks away moisture, fights odors, and dries quickly, making it ideal for stressful sprints through the airport or for active excursions during your trip. Find a similar option for women here.

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Coolibar Sun-Protective Travel Hoodies

If your vacations typically involve lots of time outdoors, shield your skin with a travel hoodie that includes sun protection. Coolibar offers a full line of sun-protective clothing, including the Seaside Hoodie for women and the Packable Jacket for men. Both feature an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50+ and are made with soft, lightweight fabrics.

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ORORO Unisex Heated Hoodie

This multi-purpose heated hoodie has a battery pack that can both warm you up and charge your phone. Core-warming zones on the front and back of this unisex travel sweatshirt keep you nice and toasty no matter how low the temperature falls. The battery lasts anywhere from two to eight hours, depending on how high you turn up the warming zones. Supply your own USB cable and you can plug your phone or other device into the battery pack for an emergency charge.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Fashion & Beauty Outdoors

The Best Walking and Running Gear

We’ve rounded up the best walking and running gear for people who are finding themselves working out outside more than in the gym these days. Read on for our top brand picks in running gear and walking gear, including everything from leggings to water bottles.

The Best Leggings for Workouts: Outdoor Voices TechSweat Leggings

Outdoor Voices TechSweat Leggings.

Cult-favorite workout brand Outdoor Voices takes the cake for the best leggings for walking and running gear with its TechSweat leggings line. Available in two different waistband styles—Core Band and Flex Band—you choose among different comfort options. Both have pockets to hold phones and things like snacks, dog treats, or keys.

The Best Sneakers/Trainers for Workouts: On Running Cloud

On Running Cloud sneaker.

Use On Running’s shoe finder to find the perfect sneaker or trainer for your walking and running needs. The signature lightweight styles are also available in waterproof materials, which is ideal for temperamental spring weather. I trained for the Boston Marathon in these and can attest to their superior comfort and support.

The Best Hiking Shoe: Vasque Clarion ’88 GTX

For those hitting the trails, look no further than Vasque’s heavy-duty Clarion ’88 GTX styles for men and women. The shoe is waterproof, provides fantastic support, and has superior traction. For those looking for lowcut styles, check out the Breeze III (for women’s sizes) and the Juxt (for men’s sizes).

The Best Hiking Pants: Coalatree Trailhead Pants

Coalatree Trailhead Pants.

Eco-conscious brand Coalatree makes an ultra-useful pair of water-repelling, unisex hiking pants, called the Trailhead pants. Also available in Slim Fit, the pants have plenty of pockets but are lightweight and comfortable enough for everyday wear.

The Best Water-Repelling Gear: Marmot PreCip Lightweight Waterproof Rain Jacket

Marmot PreCip Lightweight Waterproof Rain Jacket.

This lightweight running jacket is ideal for inclement springtime weather. The jacket protects against everything from mist to downpours. The NanoPro technology keeps water out but still allows sweat to escape. The waterproof jacket is available in men’s and women’s sizes.

The Best Day Pack: Osprey Trail Running Packs

Osprey Trail Running Packs.

If you’re headed out for longer runs or walks, we love Osprey’s trail running packs for their functionality, security, and hydration capabilities. For those day hiking or camping, the brand’s line of hiking packs are just as tactical.

The Best Running Accessories: Lululemon

lululemon headband.

Whether it’s a headband, water-repelling hat, foam roller, microfiber towel, or running gloves, Lululemon’s line of accessories is my go-to for running and walking extras.

The Best Layering Tops for Running and Walking: Smartwool

The most important items for walking and running gear are your layering pieces and fabrics. Smartwool is one of our favorite brands for both, as the merino wool fabric is naturally moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating. Any of the 150 base layer tops are ideal walking and running gear.

The Best Socks for Outdoor Workouts: Bombas

bombas athletic socks.

Bombas’ high-performance athletic socks are breathable and moisture-wicking, plus they come in tons of fun colors and patterns to brighten up your exercise routine. Our favorite feature, though, is that the brand donates one pair of socks to homeless shelters for every pair purchased. Shop women’s athletic styles and men’s athletic styles.

The Best Water Bottle for Running and Walking: Bottled Joy

bottled joy water bottle.

The one necessary feature in a water bottle for running or walking? An easy way to hold it. Bottled Joy’s line of water bottles offer handles, wrist straps, or a carabiner hook. All water bottles are BPA-free and affordable.

The Best Sports Bras for Running and Walking: SHEFIT

shefit sports bra.

No matter your size or activity level, you’ll fall in love with SHEFIT’s sports bras. The auto-locking zippers and adjustable straps allow for maximum comfort and styles range from high to medium impact. My favorite part is the zippered front, so you can easily remove the sports bra after your sweat-inducing workout.

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Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

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Adventure Travel Outdoors

The World's 11 Best Hot Air Balloon Rides

There’s no other experience like a hot air balloon ride: waking before first light, watching the sun rise as you drift over the hills and towns below, and then touching down to a Champagne breakfast. Exploring a new place from the basket of a hot air balloon offers a perspective you can’t get any other way.

Hot air balloon rides don’t come cheap, but in these 11 places they’re well worth the money, from the vineyards of Napa to the temples of Myanmar. Read on to discover the world’s best hot air balloon rides.

Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel abroad, and many of the destinations below have been affected by the pandemic to various degrees. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.

Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

Hot air balloons fly over Bagan, that always recognised as amazing buddhism landmark.

Scattered across the plains of the Bagan region in Myanmar are thousands of historic temples, pagodas, and monasteries, mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries. You can explore them by bike, taxi, or horse-drawn cart, but to get a true sense of their scope, hop into a hot air balloon. The temple ruins look particularly beautiful by the golden light of sunrise. Recommended operators include Oriental Ballooning and Balloons Over Bagan.

Cappadocia, Turkey

view of hot air balloons flying over the Valley of Love in Cappadocia

Dotted with cave hotels and otherworldly rock formations (called “fairy chimneys” by the locals), Cappadocia’s landscape is best appreciated from the air. Dozens of companies offer hot air balloon rides over the Goreme Open-Air Museum, filling the early-morning sky with brightly colored globes that only enhance the incredible view. Recommended operators include Royal Balloon and Kapadokya Balloons.

Masai Mara, Kenya

Low flying hot-air balloon in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Game drives are one way to check the Big Five off your safari must-see list; hot air balloon rides are another. From your bird’s-eye perspective, you might spot wildebeest running across the savannah, a herd of elephants gathering at a watering hole, or hippos lurking in the Mara River. Recommended operators include Governors’ Balloon Safaris and Hot Air Safaris.

Melbourne, Australia

Hot air balloons passing by Melbourne, Australia.

While most hot air balloon flights travel over scenic countryside, in Melbourne you can enjoy a unique opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of skyscrapers and streets. You’ll drift over the city’s landmarks, including the cricket stadium, the Shrine of Remembrance, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Yarra River. It’s a great way to get an overview of the city before or after exploring on land. Recommended operators include Picture This Ballooning and Global Ballooning Australia.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Hot Air Ballooning Costa Rica with Free Spirit

From a hot air balloon, your view of Costa Rica might include lush rainforests, remote mountain villages, and the cloud-shrouded Arenal Volcano. In the quiet of early morning you’ll likely even hear monkeys and birds calling from the treetops. Costa Rica’s hot air balloon rides are operated by Free Spirit.

Luxor, Egypt

Orange hot air balloon riding over the desert and ruins in Luxor Egypt

Drift peacefully over ancient temples, the Nile River, and the tombs at the Valley of the Kings on a spectacular hot air balloon ride above Luxor, Egypt. After landing, you’ll have the rest of the day to visit a few of the sites you glimpsed from the air. Recommended operators include Sindbad Hot Air Balloons and Hod Hod Soliman Hot Air Balloons.

Tuscany, Italy

Vineyards with hot air balloon near a winery before harvest in the tuscany wine growing area, Italy Europe

Walking around Tuscany’s historic hill towns is one travel pleasure; seeing them from the air in the soft morning light is another. Keep your camera ready as you sail over vineyards, stone farmhouses, quaint villages, and fields of sunflowers. Recommended operators include Ballooning in Tuscany and Tuscany Ballooning.

Queenstown, New Zealand

hot air balloon over lake in queenstown new zealand

There are plenty of adventurous ways to see Queenstown from the air, including hang gliding, paragliding, bungee jumping, and skydiving. But if you’re looking for a less hair-raising way to take in the area’s spectacular vistas, a hot air balloon ride might be just the ticket. Sunrise Balloons offers panoramic views over the Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, and other natural attractions in the Queenstown/Arrowtown area.

Sedona, Arizona, U.S.A.

hot air balloon in sedona, arizona

The famous red rocks of Sedona, Arizona make for a stunning landscape unfolding beneath the basket of your hot air balloon. Keep your eye out for wildlife on the ground such as mule deer and coyotes. Recommended operators include Red Rock Balloon Adventures and Northern Light Balloon Expeditions.

Napa Valley, California, U.S.A.

hot air balloon over napa valley Up & Away Ballooning

While you’re in Napa enjoying a wine tour, why not book yourself a balloon ride and experience stunning views of the vineyards from up in the air? Try Up & Away Ballooning, which offers a post-flight brunch with mimosas to toast the start to your day.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.

Balloons over the Rio Grande

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air balloon event in the world. The event takes place in October each year; the highlight event is the mass ascension, when hundreds of balloons fill the sky in two waves. You can hop aboard a hot air balloon in Albuquerque any time of the year and experience stunning views of the Rio Grande. Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon and World Balloon are two recommended operators.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Noemi de la Torre contributed to this story.

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Active Travel Health & Wellness Outdoors

Some National Parks Are Free Right Now—But Should You Visit?

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, an increasing number of state and national parks have closed to the public. Be sure to check the individual park’s website for the most up-to-date information before you visit.

A visit to a national park seems like a great idea right about now. Getting out of your house, fresh air, and plenty of room to social distance—what could be bad about that?

After Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived fees for national parks visitors earlier this week, many people may be wondering: Is it okay to visit national parks during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Unfortunately, like much about this pandemic, the answer isn’t simple. Yes, the majority of national parks are remaining open (for now), but many things will be modified.

Essential services (such as visitor centers, restrooms, campground, and shuttles) will be closed as a health precaution. If you do visit a park, you’ll need to be prepared to be totally self-reliant—so come ready with maps, plenty of food and drink, and emergency supplies.

Other parks are experiencing a flood of visitors right now that makes it impossible to follow social distancing guidelines, and that’s sparking concern in residents over an influx of people increasing the risk of contagion. The Mayor of Moab, Emily Niehaus, told the Salt Lake Tribune, “Moab is asking people to please stay in their home community. This is an urgent message to people considering travel to Moab.”

It’s also important to consider if you would be putting park rangers in danger by visiting a park. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks released a statement saying, “National parks welcome visitors from around the world. Many National Park Service (NPS) employees interact with members of the public daily. These employees should not be exempt from recommendations made by the CDC. Further, to suggest to the public that gathering at national park sites is acceptable when gathering at restaurants, theaters, libraries, and other public spaces is no longer safe is irresponsible to the visiting public and employees.”

If you are considering a trip to a national park, think about whether or not you can do it responsibly.

Before departing, ask yourself: Will you have to travel a long distance to get there, resulting in stops at rest areas, restaurants, and hotels? Or can you travel there and back in your car, from your home, without much public exposure?

Are you visiting a crowded trailhead, where it may be tough to stay six feet away from other groups of hikers, or can you park your car and hike without interacting with anyone else?

If you do decide to go, The NPS is urging park visitors to follow all current CDC guidelines, especially washing hands frequently and most importantly—staying home if you feel sick.

Be sure to check the individual park’s NPS page before visiting, as some parks (especially those in urban environments, such as the National Mall) have closed.

The same advice applies for visiting state parks, some of which may be waiving fees at this time. Check the website for the state park you wish to visit before you go, to confirm it is open and to see what restrictions apply to visitors.

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Principal Editor for SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline for travel photos and advice.

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Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time will take your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset, as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. But planning a trip to the Grand Canyon requires more than just booking a hotel and packing your camera.

Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

When should you travel to avoid the heaviest crowds and the most intense heat? Should you visit the North Rim or the South Rim? Where’s the best place to stay? For answers to these questions and more, read the following tips for planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Editor’s note: Many Grand Canyon facilities and tour operators have temporarily closed or made other modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check each provider’s website for full details before making plans.

South Rim vs. North Rim vs. Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon National Park is split into two sections: the South Rim and the North Rim, located more than four hours apart by car. Then there’s Grand Canyon West, located on the Hualapai Native American Reservation, four hours from the South Rim and nearly seven hours from the North Rim. If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and your time is limited, where should you go?

The South Rim is the most visited part of the Grand Canyon for a reason. It has more viewpoints than the North Rim, with more expansive views of the canyon’s depth, as well as a wider range of lodging options and other visitor services. It also has plenty of hiking trails and activities like river rafting and mule rides. If you’re looking for classic Grand Canyon views, this is the place to go.

Popular with hikers and photographers, the North Rim is the South Rim’s quieter, more heavily forested cousin. While the views may be less spectacular, many travelers prefer the North Rim for its undisturbed wildlife and pristine trails.

The key draw at Grand Canyon West is the Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet over the canyon for dizzying views on all sides—including right under your feet. (Important note: The Skywalk does not permit cameras or phones. Professional photos are available for sale.) This isn’t the best bet for avid hikers, as there are only two (relatively easy) trails here, but other activities include zip-lining, pontoon boat rides, and touring a Native American village. Grand Canyon West is the closest part of the canyon to Las Vegas, making it a convenient, though long, day trip.

Note that because Grand Canyon West is located on Native American land, it requires a separate entry fee than the North and South Rims, which are administered by the National Park Service.

When to Visit the Grand Canyon

planning a trip to the grand canyon

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, consider visiting the South Rim any time other than summer—especially if you’re hoping to hike all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Summer is also the busiest time of year; lodging in the park is expensive and sells out quickly, and viewpoints along the rim can be jammed with crowds.

The South Rim is open all year round, and you’ll find pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). Even a winter visit can be rewarding; bundle up and enjoy the sight of the canyon dusted with snow.

Thanks to its higher altitude, the North Rim has a cooler climate and is closed between mid-October and mid-May. Fortunately, this part of the park sees fewer visitors and isn’t usually crowded even during the summer high season. Consider visiting in the fall, when the Kaibab National Forest erupts in vibrant colors.

Grand Canyon West, open year-round, is less crowded outside the summer months.

Getting to the Grand Canyon

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon fly into Las Vegas or Phoenix. There’s also a small airport in Flagstaff, just an hour from the South Rim, and some North Rim travelers fly into Salt Lake City. No matter where you land you’ll need to rent a car, as public transit is extremely limited in this part of the U.S.

Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you might need to park your car and take a shuttle bus to get around. Grand Canyon West is closed to private vehicles and operates a hop-on, hop-off shuttle around the park, while certain parts of the South Rim are only accessible by bus. A shuttle service makes the 4.5-hour trip between the North and South Rims; it’s particularly handy for rim-to-rim hikers. The North Rim is fully open to private vehicles.

One fun alternative way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs from the town of Williams, Arizona, into the heart of the park, allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon Lodging

The most convenient Grand Canyon lodging options are within the national park or Grand Canyon West rather than in nearby towns, but these options tend to book up quickly—sometimes months in advance. When planning a trip to the Canyon, reserve your accommodations first.

The South Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park is home to half a dozen lodges, including the venerable El Tovar, which dates back to 1905 and has hosted former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Another option is the Bright Angel Lodge, situated at the top of the park’s most popular trail. There’s also an RV park near the main visitor center, as well as two campgrounds.

If you can’t find lodging within the South Rim section of the park, there’s a handful of options in nearby Tusayan, as well as dozens of hotels (mostly chain motels) in Williams and Flagstaff, each a little more than an hour from the park entrance gates.

The North Rim has just two places to stay inside the park: the Grand Canyon Lodge, which offers motel rooms and cabins, and the North Rim Campground. If these are booked, consider the Jacob Lake Inn, 45 miles away, or head farther afield to Kanab, Utah, or Page, Arizona.

The most unique place to stay at Grand Canyon National Park is Phantom Ranch, located on the canyon floor. The only ways to get there are to hike or ride a mule down.

If you want to stay overnight within Grand Canyon West, you can book a cabin at Hualapai Ranch; each one features a front porch where you can relax and enjoy the desert views.

Grand Canyon Hikes

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, leave time for a hike or two.

The simplest walk at Grand Canyon National Park is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible, and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top.

The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail, which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade, but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom, you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

The North Rim offers a variety of day hikes ranging from less than a mile to about 10 miles round-trip. It’s possible to hike into the canyon from the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail and back out of the canyon via one of the trails on the South Rim (or vice versa); this is recommended only for fit, experienced hikers.

For information on all the trails listed above, see the day hiking information page on NPS.gov.

The National Park Service strongly recommends against hiking down to the river and back in a single day, even if you’re a veteran hiker. Instead, plan to overnight at Phantom Ranch or one of several backcountry campgrounds within the canyon.

Keep in mind that it usually takes twice as long to come back up the trail as it does to go down, and that temperatures at the bottom of the canyon can be up to 20 degrees higher than those at the top. Hundreds of hikers are rescued each year from the canyon due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, or injury.

Grand Canyon West offers just two hiking trails, one easy and one moderate, and neither one goes into the canyon.

One intriguing Grand Canyon hike to consider is the 10-mile (each way) track to Havasu Falls, the famous turquoise cascade you’ve probably seen on your Instagram feed. It’s located on Native American land between the South Rim and Grand Canyon West. Reservations are required (and limited). To learn more, see the NPS website.

Mule Rides, Rafting Trips, and Helicopter Tours

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, don’t forget about other activities besides hiking, like riding a mule into the canyon. (Why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses.)

From the South Rim you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch, or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. (See GrandCanyonLodges.com.) From the North Rim you can take one- or three-hour rides along the rim or part of the way into the canyon. (See CanyonRides.com.) Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Dreaming of rafting the Colorado River? You can take a guided trip in the national park with options from a half-day to more than two weeks, or plan your own trip with a permit from the National Park Service. To plan a one- or two-day rafting trip at Grand Canyon West, visit GrandCanyonWest.com.

Finally, one of the most incredible ways to view the Grand Canyon is from the air. Numerous companies operate helicopter tours over the canyon, including Grand Canyon Helicopters and Papillon.

General Grand Canyon Travel Tips

As soon as you arrive, stop by the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunrise and/or sunset.

The desert heat can be deadly, so hikers should pack plenty of water as well as salty snacks. Bring a reusable bottle that you can fill up at water stations located throughout the national park. Start hiking early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. If you get a headache or start to feel dizzy or sick to your stomach, stop to rest and rehydrate.

The South Rim is located at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the North Rim is at nearly 8,300 feet. Some travelers may experience fatigue, headaches, or other symptoms of altitude sickness.

Stick to the trail. Not only does this protect the landscape, but it also protects you. Numerous tourists have died after falling from the rim of the canyon.

The most crowded viewpoints at the South Rim are those nearest the parking lots and bus stops. To avoid getting a hundred other people in every photo, walk along the Rim Trail in either direction. Often you can snap great shots along the trail or find your way to a less congested viewpoint.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Healthcare Abroad: How to Find an English-Speaking Doctor or Clinic

Sweaty, squinting, and red-eyed, I exited the cool waiting room’s automatic sliding glass doors. I got in the DiDi rideshare car outside the international clinic, preemptively thanked the driver, and opened my heavy paper bag of new medications: antibiotic eye drops to use every five hours, saline solution to use every six, antibiotic tablets and painkillers to take every 12, and cough medicine for whenever I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A receipt listed the out-of-pocket prices of my bloodwork appointment plus the medicines: $3,000—which I luckily didn’t have to pay thanks to the travel insurance that covered my unexpected need for healthcare abroad.

Pulling away from the small storefront of the Nanjing international clinic, we idled in traffic about a block away. I stared up at a behemoth building, a black glass skyscraper marked by red neon Chinese symbols that flashed and changed on its glass every several seconds. The parking lot was jam-packed with both cars and people.

“What’s this building?” I asked my local guide, who was accompanying me in the back seat. “A movie theater?”

She looked at me and smiled slightly: “That’s the hospital.” I felt my swollen eyes widen, and redirected them to my bag of medicinal loot.

I don’t recommend getting sick in China (as I did in mid-2019). But if you’re going to come down with bronchitis and a bacterial infection on vacation, somewhere with ample tea and warm hospitality is not a bad place for you to be. I unequivocally do recommend, however, having travel medical insurance—preferably from a company with a user-friendly app you can pre-download on your phone. It’ll afford you the luxury of entering and exiting a clinic to see an English-speaking doctor abroad in a fraction of the time that a 3,000-bed hospital would ever be able to see you.

How to Find the Right Healthcare Abroad

Because I have a medication allergy, I felt it was crucial I saw an English-speaking doctor so I could be confident in the prescription I received. While navigating the many international clinics in the college city of Nanjing, I learned a lot about how to responsibly find covered healthcare abroad. Here’s how to purchase and navigate medical travel insurance, find a good doctor or clinic, and ensure you won’t be stuck with the bill.

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Plan Ahead

Researching your insurance options and purchasing medical travel insurance coverage for your specific needs is the first step to being able to find healthcare abroad, and there are a number of things to consider. If you’re going to be participating in adventure activities like kayaking, scuba diving, or hiking, make sure you purchase a policy that doesn’t exclude “dangerous activities.” Travel insurance policies with good medical coverage will also include worst-case scenario expenses up to and including emergency medical flights home and repatriation of a body, which would otherwise cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

You’ll also want to know the general state of medical services in your destination so you can make an informed decision in an emergency. For example, I knew public hospitals in China often have hours-long wait times, so instead I pounced on an available appointment at a private international clinic that my insurance covered.

If you aren’t familiar with the country you’re visiting, the U.S. State Department’s Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start to see what type of medical services will be available to you once you’re there. Select your country and look for the “Health” section. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has destination-specific health information, and the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides free destination-specific health information as well.

Know Your Medications

Knowing the generic/medical names of common medications can be helpful when you’re talking to a doctor about your prescriptions or hunting for over-the-counter remedies in a foreign country. Many doctors abroad speak English, but they might not know what the brand-name medication you take contains since it’s not available to their patients. Keep in mind the following generic medication names in case you need to purchase them from a pharmacy:

  • Advil/Motrin= ibuprofen
  • Aleve= naproxen
  • Tylenol/Excedrin= acetaminophen
  • Bayer, others= aspirin
  • Benadryl= diphenhydramine
  • Dramamine= dimenhydrinate
  • Bonine= meclizine
  • Pepto-Bismol= bismuth subsalicylate
  • Robitussin= dextromethorphan
  • Antacids= calcium carbonate, aluminum hydroxide, or magnesium hydroxide
  • Imodium= loperamide

Choose a High-Tech (and 24-Hour) Medical Insurance Provider

Keep your standards high when it comes to purchasing travel medical insurance—you are paying for it, after all. Straightforward insurance that gets you healthcare abroad doesn’t need to be pricey to come with a high-tech app and 24/7 support: It’s easy to weigh options and seek out one that has both thanks to search-and-compare options like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip.com. (Also note that, like most private insurance companies in the U.S., Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover healthcare abroad.)

The specific insurance provider you choose will probably depend on your preferences and possibly your home location, but there should be options available that have high-tech features like an app no matter where you are. My coverage for healthcare abroad was with GeoBlue, which offers an app with covered doctor listings by country and fast 24/7 phone support. If you have a credit card that offers travel insurance, read the fine print to make sure it offers the medical support you could need; if it doesn’t, buy your own separately.

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Locating the Right Doctor Abroad

The CDC lists some resources that can help you locate a doctor abroad, and states that the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination should also have doctor recommendations. But the only way to see a list of providers in your destination that are covered by your insurance is typically via the medical insurance company’s app or customer service line—which should offer 24/7 contact, in case you’re visiting somewhere with a tricky time difference. International travel clinics are usually named as such, and when in doubt you can call the office to confirm; those with bilingual doctors typically have an automated recording that will prompt you to select a language.

Payment Approval and Proof of Insurance

Approval of funds from your insurance company can be referred to as “direct payment approval” or “direct deposit approval,” and you might need this authorization sent before you even set foot in a doctor’s office. It guarantees that the insurance company will pay the provider directly so you don’t have to. Whether or not you’ll need one varies depending on the destination and type of doctor/clinic you’re visiting, but it was necessary for me in China—so I was happy to have an insurance provider that was readily available to confirm coverage to the clinic I was visiting, especially because it was 2:00 a.m. at home at the time of my appointment.

You’ll probably also need proof of insurance. Keep your insurance card, or at least a digital copy of it, handy in case you need to provide a policy number or contact info to the office you’re visiting. Many clinics require both proof of insurance and an accompanying payment approval before letting you see a doctor. And if direct payment isn’t required or doesn’t occur via your insurance provider for the healthcare you received abroad, you’ll likely need to file a claim with your insurance company as soon as you can—don’t wait too long to file one and risk finding out you’ll be billed.

Know It’s Worth It

Travel insurance can feel like a waste of money if you don’t end up using it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it in the future. The slight chance that you might need emergency or even routine healthcare abroad makes travel medical insurance a necessity for every international trip. No one can anticipate if and when they’ll have a medical emergency, and not having coverage when you need it can be the difference between going on vacation and letting a doctor’s visit put you into debt.

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Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Greater Zion: The Side of Zion That Most People Miss

Unbeknownst to many travelers, Zion National Park is part of a much larger group of communities that makes up the 2,400 square miles often referred to as the Greater Zion region. Springdale, the town closest to the national park, is just one of many areas worth a visit if you’re headed to Southern Utah.

There’s so much to discover in Greater Zion—from the national park’s hidden corners to nearby towns such as St. George and beyond, to nearby state parks, hidden artist communities, and beautiful golf courses—that a trip to the area can easily fill a week.

The Distinctive Areas of Greater Zion

During my stay in the Greater Zion area, I spent a few nights in Springdale and was able to experience a spectacular day in the national park. But it really was exploring the surrounding communities that left me wanting to return.

The region is best known by avid IRONMAN athletes and mountain bikers for its exceptional trails, competitions, and training environment. But there’s plenty to  appeal less extreme outdoor enthusiasts and adventure tourists as well.

Four main towns and areas make up the Greater Zion communities:

The town of St. George is 37 miles from the park’s entrance, and is an idea hub for exploring Greater Zion. The joke here is that everything is “20 minutes” away, and during my exploration of the region, that proved pretty much true (although the drive to the national park takes just under an hour).

St. George is home to the region’s most convenient airport, which offers nonstop flights from Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Shops, an old-time theater, and mom-and-pop restaurants dot the streets of St. George’s downtown area. You’ll also find the second outpost of the region’s first microbrewery, Zion Brewery, which is set in an old firehouse with a patio area ideal for basking in the sun.

Veyo Pies
Zion Brewery, Station II

It’s no surprise that artists and galleries have found inspiration here, and there are plenty of places to explore local art. Make time for a visit to the local artist community of Kayenta, where you’ll find dozens of galleries, a day spa, a labyrinth garden, and a garden cafe. The area is also home to a red-rock amphitheater, Tuacahn, which hosts family-friendly musicals and bands, including well-known Disney productions. 

National and State Parks

When you’re at Zion National Park, you’ll likely encounter lines of tourists waiting to board the park’s shuttle busses along the main canyon road, and you’ll be lucky to get a parking spot. As the fourth-most-visited national park in the country, Zion sees more than its fair share of tourists.  But there’s a lot more to see: I recommend also exploring the Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace areas (note that some permits are required for Wilderness-designated land). Check out the Timber Creek Overlook Trail and the North Fork or South Fork of Taylor Creek trails in the canyon area. In the Kolob plateaus, you’ll find fewer tourists at Hop Valley Trail, Grapevine Trail, and Northgate Peaks Trail.

Furthermore, don’t discount the region’s four state parks: Snow Canyon (which really could be a national park), Quail Creek (home to a massive reservoir for boating), Gunlock (if you get lucky, you’ll experience rare waterfall features – they only happen about once every 10 years), and Sand Hollow (one of the best spots for ATVing).

Getting Outside the National Park

When you’re ready to leave St. George, most attractions are just, you guessed it, a 20-minute drive away. Whether it’s playing a round at one of the area’s 13 golf courses, tasting a Mountain Berry pie from Veyo Pies (trust me on this one, and send me an email if you go), mountain biking on Gooseberry Mesa, hiking through other-worldly Snow Canyon State Park, or canyoneering relatively unexplored BLM land (hit up Paragon Adventures for a unique experience), there’s plenty to do in the area beyond the boundaries of the national park.

Where to Stay in Greater Zion

The newly opened The Advenire, an Autograph Collection Hotel, has impeccably decorated rooms, a rooftop hot tub and lounge, as well as a fantastic on-site restaurant and bar, Wood. Ash. Rye. It’s centrally located right in downtown St. George.

If you’re looking for a boutique-like experience in Springdale, the Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton, is just steps away from the Zion’s entrance as well as the Virgin River. It’s newly renovated and has plenty of outdoor hangout areas along the riverbank perfect for families and groups of friends to enjoy.

For a health and wellness experience in the Greater Zion area, book a package at Red Mountain Resort in the community of Ivins, just outside of St. George. Located next to Snow Canyon, you’ll get plenty of time to hike, and lounge by the pool or at the spa.

If you’re after a more immersive experience, the area has two glamping sites in addition to the national and state park’s camping areas. The first is Under Canvas Zion, which is located close to the Kolob entrance of the park. The second nearby site, Wildflower, is currently under development and set to open soon. 

There are plenty of budget-friendly and hotel chain options scattered throughout the region if you’re looking for affordable accommodations outside of camping.

Welcome to Virtual Vacations, our series of meditative audio travel tours of both popular and off-the-beaten-path destinations around the world.

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Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.