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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Connemara National Park Trails in Letterfrack, Co. Galway in Ireland

More often than not when my husband and I travel, we hop from one great hiking trail to another (with a new breweries in-between) and our trip to Ireland was no exception. We honeymooned in Ireland in 2013 for over two weeks and one of the best decisions we made was to rent a car. This allowed us total freedom to drive and stop where ever we wanted for as long as we wanted. Anyway...this specific post is about one of our favorite short distance trail finds while we were exploring -  Connemara National Park, located on the western coast of Ireland just north of Galway. 

From Galway, if you take N59 from Clifden to Letterfrack the park is about 93 kms away and worth the drive! Entry into the park and the visitor center exhibits are free of charge and we spent an entire day there taking advantage of all the loop trails (all starting from the visitor center):
  1. Ellis Wood Nature Trail 0.5 km
  2. Sruffaunboy Walk 1.5 km
  3. Lower Diamond Hill Walk 3 km
  4. Upper Diamond Hill Walk 3.7 km
 Trail Map Overview

What we enjoyed so much about the trails is how they changed landscapes. From the visitor center you walk towards Diamond Hill (the highest point) through a stretch of bogland where you are actually on a wooden platform (Google Irish "peatland" for some interesting history of this area's use for fossil fuel). Then as you start up the hill you are surrounded by beautiful heather scrub land as the route gets rockier and steeper. The Upper Diamond Hill Walk is straight up and then back down, but the view from the top is absolutely beautiful (and quite windy). At 400 meters high you get a gorgeous 360 look over the Atlantic Ocean coastline on one side and the 12 Bens Mountain Range on the other. Finally, it was back to the Visitor Center Tea Room for hot soup and coffee - not too bad, huh?

Starting the Hike Towards Diamond Hill

Starting to Get Some Elevation Gain

 Through the Scrub Land

 Platform Walk Over the Bog (Don't Step Off!)

Why, Hello, Atlantic Ocean!
Important Notes:

  • The Visitor Center and Tea Room are open daily from 9am - 5:30pm March through October.

  • The Park Grounds are open all year round from 9am - 5:30pm.

Hiking Tips:

We hiked the Connemara National Park trails in March, so it was cold and windy and it even rained a little when we were hiking up Diamond Hill. What we would suggest is to check the weather and then choose your hiking clothing appropriately. If you are planning on walking up Diamond Hill you will need shoes that can handle rocks and steep terrain. We also brought our CamelBaks, so we had 5 liters of water between the two of us (this was a little overkill for a shorter hike).

Oh, and bring your camera - great views!

Trail Type:

5.6 Miles

Elev. Gain:
1640.4 Feet

Monday, January 1, 2018

Miserable Weather, but “Hey, it’s Ireland!” Part 2

We both decided the wind won after a few hours into the Rock of Cashel visit, so we retreated to the car and headed to our last destination for the day - Bunratty (about an hour west). At Bunratty there was another castle and an interactive folk park. However, we arrived after everything was closed for the day. As we were driving around looking for a place to stay, we found something we were not planning on - one of the few wineries in Ireland, the Bunratty Winery (now Bunratty Mead & Liqueur Co. Ltd.). This just solidified our motto of “don’t plan everything,” because we lucked into being the only people there.

Scott and I like wine, and we like talking to people, so this side-trip meant talking to the guy at the front doing the tastings for over an hour. (Scott: Wine people can be hit-or-miss when it comes to “personality” and this is one reason why I tend to prefer beer people... but this guy was definitely fun.) Apparently there is a small market in Ireland for wine, so the winery was only producing two things during the off season:
  1. honey mead (yum!) and 
  2. Irish moonshine, called potcheen

 It's a shame we could only bring back 2 liters of alcohol on the plane...
My hubby and I also antique, (Scott: she antiques) and do you know what you get when you talk to a local wine connoisseur for an hour? A really cool discontinued mead jug for only 5 Euros that was not even for sale...ha! We also made sure to buy a liter of mead for ourselves that we were not planning on bringing home. Darn.

Bunratty revolves around the tourism of the castle and folk park, and we were able to stay at a cute B&B, the Courtyard, which was within walking distance of food and drinks (1 km max). We decided the closer we stayed to restaurants and pubs, the less driving we had to do within town, which was a positive thing for both driver and passenger. (Scott: Since Sam “doesn’t drive in Ireland” that left me with the choices of drinking, driving, or drinking/driving/getting arrested in Ireland. Not a big fan of getting arrested in foreign countries.) I do have to say though at this point of the Honeymoon the side-seat driving on my part was definitely improving and Scott’s ability to not scare the crap out of me while driving was also getting better.

Travel Tip #1: 
Communication with humor and a calm voice = good vibes in the car.

Our evening consisted of the following and we would recommend this itinerary to anyone:
  • Walked 8 minutes from the B&B to dinner at The Creamery Bar where we had another amazing hake dish! 
  • Walked dessert and drinks were down the road at J.P. Clarke's Country Pub. It was the perfect pub atmosphere - dark, real fire going, and the drinks were extremely reasonably priced! 
 Our walking map of Bunratty.

Travel Tip #2: 

Scott and I made a good move with lunches and dinners, we decided to only order a single dish and then split it. That way we (1) did not have to deal with leftovers or gorging ourselves and (2) always had room for drinks and dessert! If we could not decide on one dish together, he picked one meal and then I picked the next. (Out of the whole trip I think we had two sub-par meals and they were both bar food - the Irish really cannot fry food. Two bad meals over two-weeks was not too bad though.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Miserable Weather, but “Hey, it’s Ireland!” Part 1

When we decided to go to Ireland for our honeymoon in March we knew the elements would be...interesting. This is a warning that it was pretty miserable weather-wise that time of year, HOWEVER, it's Ireland, so you can't complain too much.

We suggest packing layers that cover the following:
  • rain
  • freezing rain
  • wind
  • cold 
  • did we say wind?
Scott and I are outdoorsy people, so we’re use to dealing with the elements, but it was definitely something else to plan a day of outside touristy activities/sites when you’re freezing and did not plan on it. There was no way we were pouting around and missing anything though, and that was one thing I thought Scott and I did really well. Even though it was crazy weather and neither one of us wanted to be out, we were both determined to make the best of it. So, we bundled up and hit our first site of the day - Cahir Castle.

Cahir Castle is one of the largest and best preserved castles in Ireland and dates basically from the 12th century. This was what I had in mind as a castle, and we were definitely the ONLY people there which made the tour that much more awesome. See, crappy weather is good for one thing - nobody else wants to be out in it either, so you get an entire castle all to yourself!

Cahir Castle
(It was so much fun to have this entire thing to explore all on our own!)

We left Cahir and went north west to site #2 - the Rock of Cashel (pronounced like “castle” with an “sh” instead of “st,” not “ca-shell”). We arrived around lunch time and when we got out of the car the wind just hit us. Note to anyone going to the Rock of Cashel, it is on its own hill, meaning it is extremely exposed. We made it half-way up the hill to the entrance and we both turned to each other and said, “scratch this for a while, let’s go get food and beer.” We walked a way into town to get out of the wind and found the coolest little family owned restaurant, Ryan’s Daughters, where we split the best meal I think I had of the trip - chicken and mushroom pie with mashed potatoes and pureed squash. And again, we were the only people there - we were so spoiled!  (Scott: I don’t even like mushrooms and it was REALLY good.) Unfortunately, we cannot figure out if the restaurant is still open which is a bummer. If anyone knows anything please comment below.

It was a little windy! 
Yes, that's a piece that fell off and it was taller than Scott.

Bellies warm, we made the walk (Scott: leaning trek) up to the Rock of Cashel again and it was amazing! Despite the cold and wind, I was so glad we decided to make the stop. The entire complex is going through a restoration process, so parts were closed off, but you could still go inside the cathedral and you just looked up: 30ft high vaulted arches with complete view of the naive, facade, and choir sections. There were multiple intact relief sculptures as well (yes, art history nerd right here). And what made it even better was that my husband appreciated the art aspect too and I really think that is what makes trips together so nice - I obviously found one with similar interests, huh?

 The entire complex was massive and, as you can see, quite impressive.

 Close up of some of the sculptures inside. 

 Another close up of some of the sculptures inside.

So, if you find yourself in County Tipperary in March, here's our list one more time:
  1. Cahir Castle
  2. Rock of Cashel
  3. And bring layers of clothes!
If anyone has any information on Ryan's Daughters or recommends another great restaurant to recommend near the Rock of Cashel let us know!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Virginia Appalachian Trail: Backpack Reeds Gap to Rockfish Gap

If you have someone who is willing to drop you off and pick you up, the Appalachian Trail in Virginia between Reeds Gap and Rockfish Gap is a great three day, no-rush hike. Reeds Gap and Rockfish Gap trailheads are right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, so they are easy to find and this section of the AT has great views, but it is no easy stroll - pack lite and get ready for some serious hills!

Note: We usually get a chance to take this trip in the summer, so please pay attention to the weather and pack accordingly. This description is for a July/August hike and the temperatures were in the 80s during the day and 60s at night. During this time of year, rain showers are always a possibility and during our most recent trip it rained off and on every day, so this will also affect your packing list. But remember, embrace the weather and love the rain - you're on the AT, everyone smells. 

Reeds Gap trail head is located where HWY 664 intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway and that area of Virginia is in Nelson County. Nelson County has some fantastic craft breweries and wineries - there is a cider house and a meadery down there too, so before you start hiking, you might want to think about spending some time on Route 151, or Nelson 151. My husband and I always meander our way down to the trail head and get a solid meal and a local beer in preparation for three days of trail food, extra carbs, right?!

This section of the AT is less than 20-miles, so we totally realize that thru-hikers knock it out in a day, but for us, this hike is about getting outside, so we do not rush it and we take every side trail. On day #1 we usually get on the trail late afternoon and put in about 4 miles of hiking. This trek has almost NO flat section, so we're going about 2 miles an hour. The ups are pretty brutal and you take the downs slow. During these first 4 miles you'll get to experience the Three Ridges Overlook and Cedar Cliffs where you get some of the best views of the Virginia hills (and the exposed rock outcroppings in this section are a stark contrast to all the green). Note: if you cannot get someone to pick you up/drop you off, there is a Three Ridges Loop that might interest you because you can leave your car.

Camp day #1 is just off the trail because that's the only option. We prefer hammocks on the AT vs. a tent because:
  1. they are light,
  2. they are quick to put up/pack up, 
  3. they are more comfy, and 
  4. they dry faster. 
Plus, you are not lacking in trees and there are plenty of areas right off the trail to stop for the night. Remember you are in bear country (black bears), so we always pack rope to hang our packs. Here is is a great site for some extra AT safety tips.
Day #2 is when we put in the most hiking and our goal is the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter, about 10 more miles. On this section you get a fantastic side trail to Humpback Rocks that overlooks the whole valley and you can even see the Wintergreen Ski Resort. Bear Spring is a nice spot for a breather and a water refill. Note: this section of the trail does not have much water, so we usually bring 3 liters each in CamelBaks. And don't forget your water filter + purification system (we have a Katadyn Hiker microfilter, but there are many to choose from). The Paul C. Wolfe Shelter is located on a beautiful, rushing (and cold!) stream and has plenty of room to spread out and relax. The Shelter is also at a lower elevation, so you're going relatively downhill and it is a nice spot to meet and talk to other hikers - it just says "stop here and rest a while." Because we sleep in hammocks we do not set up camp in the shelter, but if you have a tent or a sleeping pad there are top and bottom bunking sections.

** Warning about shelters: there are mice! You would be amazed how much a little mouse can destroy your pack or clothes. **

Day #3 is a five mile trek to Rockfish Gap where we finish up our trip. You gain back some elevation on this section and this is where we usually see (or hear) bears. You are in pretty thick forest and past the rock outcrops by this point. On one trip, my husband counted NINE bears between the Shelter and Rockfish Gap, but we have never had any issues.

North or southbound, this section of the AT is definitely worth checking out - have fun!

Pack List

  • hiking shoes/boots (my hubby is a minimalist and wears Vibrams and I prefer trail running shoes to boots, but it's your choice)
  • sandals for camp (I just strap my Tevas to my pack)
  • 1 set breathable clothes for the day (we usually hike in athletic shorts and synthetic shirts and wear the same stuff every day, NO cotton)
  • extra pair of clothes for camp/night 
  • pack (I LOVE my Deuter) + rain cover
  • water (we each set up 3 liter CamelBaks in our packs)
  • purification system + filter
  • food (for three days we do not bring anything hot, so no stove = less weight)
  • rain jacket/gear (we usually do not even bother, but this is a personal preference as well)
  • hammock + fly/rope (because it will rain and you want to stay dry while sleeping)
  • extra rope to hang our packs
  • first aid kit
  • pocket knife/tool
  • flint/matches
  • sewing repair kit
  • minimal toiletries + trowel
  • head lamp

Trail Type:

20 Miles (+ as many side trails as you want to take)

 You really cannot beat the views on this part of the AT!

Follow the white markings...

Friday, August 11, 2017

First Castle Experience and a Lesson About Small Town Ireland in the Off Season

In 2013 my husband and I went to Ireland on our Honeymoon and if you've been following our travels, you know we had a wonderful trip, but we definitely learned some lessons about off season logistics...

By day five of our twelve-day trip we were getting into the part of our vacation that was less planned. Because of that, we had to be more aware of:
  1. how much time we wanted to spend at each place, 
  2. how late in the day it was getting as we came to new places, 
  3. and where we were planning on staying the night. 
We went in March and our original plan was to rely on hostels and bed and breakfasts, but what we did not realize was that during the off season this was not always such a good idea. (Scott: Note to anyone traveling in the off season: its the off season... which means not so good business for hostel/B&B owners and they often take months off. This was interesting to learn the hard way.)
We rented a car, so day #5 took us from Glendalough west to Kilkenny where I got to experience my first castle! Over eight centuries old, Kilkenny Castle started as a stronghold fort on the river, and then became a residence. In the mid-1900s the Office of Public Works took over the building and it has gone through a huge restoration project (part of which is still going on). I won’t lie when I say I was a little disappointed in this being my first “castle” because it was more like a mansion. I am a dork and really wanted to see things like a dungeon and not a gilded ceiling. I think Scott knew the type of castle I wanted to see, so we left Kilkenny and went a little off the route to the town of Cahir (pronounced “care”). (Scott: Note to husbands - if your baby wants a dungeon give her a dungeon. Once she has checked a few things off her list then you can negotiate from a much better position for random things like “the highest pub in Ireland” if that is not her thing. Which I would like to point out is my baby’s thing, so I double lucked out!)

 Kilkenny Castle

Sam's a sucker for a cool, old door.

Cahir was about an hour and a half from Kilkenny which put us in the town around 5:30pm. (Scott: We decided to take the detour so she could get her dungeon. This is another reason to plan a significant amount of wiggle room into your itinerary. DO NOT PLAN EVERY MINUTE. Your love life will thank you.) The castle was closed for the evening, so our first priority was to check into the hostel on the square to give us the rest of the evening to relax. The problem was, however, that we could not find the hostel, so after we walked around for about 30 minutes we ended up at a pub and started talking to people about where to stay. One guy suggested a bed and breakfast right down the street from the pub, so we left to check it out, (Scott: walking, mind you) just to find out that ALL the bed and breakfasts in town were closed for the season.

Cahir Castle Entrance

Back of Cahir Castle (it was a beautiful walk in general too)

By this point we had spent over an hour trying to find someplace to stay and both of us decided that this was not how we wanted to spend our evening. Instead, we sucked it up and stayed at the Cahir House Hotel in the middle of the square - it cost us more than we thought it should in the off season, but we were able to spend the evening relaxing at a pub instead of stressing over where to stay.  

So, just to make sure the lessons sink in here is our list so you do not make the same mistakes:
  1. leave wiggle room in your travel plans
  2. don’t stress the little things and be forgiving because mistakes happen, it's nobody's fault
  3. March is off season in Ireland
  4. check your definition of a castle
  5. hostels and bed and breakfasts in smaller towns close during the off season
  6. check and make sure hostels and bed and breakfasts actually exist first 
  7. if you want to experience Sam's kind of castle (aka the type with a dungeon and built in the 12th century), she preferred Cahir Castle to Kilkenny Castle
More Ireland itineraries and tips coming soon...

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dinosaur National Monument: Hiking the Desert Voices and Sound of Silence Trails

Beautiful desert views, lots of geological diversity, 100+ lizard sightings, and the most philosophical trail plaques I've ever seen await you at Dinosaur National Monument...

These two trails can be done separately, but the Sound of Silence Trail links up with the Desert Voices Nature Trail in Dinosaur National Monument for a beautiful morning or evening desert hike. For its length you get to really enjoy the topography of the area as the hike takes you through a wash bed and up into the red hills and you even end with some slick rock scrambling. The trails also include informational and education plaques and, personally, I have never seen more reflective and intentional trail narration - kudos to Dinosaur for actually making people think.

To get to the Sound of Silence trail head from the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, UT stay on US 149 past the visitor center and you will see parking parallel to the road in about 2 miles on your left. The views are amazing as soon as you get on 149 driving into the park as you follow the Green River and get closer to the beautifully colored desert sandstone cliffs and hills. The vegetation is mostly sagebrush and cotton wood trees, so you really get the stark desert contrasts of green, grey, and red.

The Trails:
We hiked the Sound of Silence Trail clockwise and the first section follows a wash bed through low-lying scrubs. As the trail cuts west, you find yourself at the bottom of a twisty-turning little canyon where the wash has really cut away and you get to look up at all the rock formations including the largest, Split Mountain. This section has some pretty tight sections where two people definitely cannot hike side-by-side. As the trail turns east you come out of the wash and gain some elevation and great views of the geological features. As I mentioned in the overview section up top, the trail is marked with numerous informational and educational plaques so our rock-geek-selves really enjoyed learning about the different layers exposed and how much the landscape has changed (this whole area is sedimentary).

About 2-miles into the hike a 1/4-mile connector links the Sound of Silence Trail to the Desert Voices Trail which adds another 1.5 miles and loops back to the connector so you can finish Sound of Silence. The Desert Voices Trail takes you up the side of the canyon to the east and gives you some more height (you continue looping south and then west back to Sound of Silence). The trail markers on this section are the ones I really want to highlight. They not only include interesting information on the flora, fauna, and natural formations, but they took it to a whole new level and included on-going questioning about local economical and ecological issues, water use, land rights, ranching, and invasive species. My husband and I usually get into philosophical conversations when we hike, but we have never had the trail markers start prompting discussions. It was quite the unexpected treat and we kept talking about things long after the hike was over.

When you connect back to the Sound of Silence Trail the last section takes you to the south and you get a taste of what they mean by "slick rock." We hike with poles (I have Leki trekking poles) so we did not have to scramble much, but there were some steep sections. You leave the sandstone and drop down back into the wash area from the beginning and into the sagebrush to end out your hike.

The elevation gains on this hike were not very extreme for us, but this is desert hiking, so bring plenty of water. We did this hike in the summer, so we would recommend an early start or wait until the evening as the majority of the trail is exposed. The trail is open year-round though. While the rocks and colors were enough for us, I did want to note that we did not see much wildlife (unless you count lizards).

Pack List

  • CamelBak w/ water (I have a 2-liter pack and my husband has a 3-liter pack and we were both almost out by the end)
  • hiking shoes or boots (I prefer to hike in my trail running shoes, but this hike involves uneven rocky surfaces and slick sections, so wear what you need to be comfortable and safe)
  • breathable clothing (it was hot in the summer even though we started early)
  • trekking poles (I never hike without mine)
  • hat (it's a very exposed trail)
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
Skill Level:
Moderate+ (due to terrain and exposure)

Year Round

Trail Type:

4.7 Miles

Elev. Gain:
340 Feet

The different colors really made this hike interesting.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Make Some Damn Good Pies #3: Apple Butter Pumpkin Pie Recipe Inside!

It's already been established that I love pie, so here are some fun pie facts before my next recipe:
  1. Pies have (apparently) been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians.
  2. Traditionally, pies were made predominately of meat. 
  3. Queen Elizabeth I (apparently) loved cherry pies.
  4. Pumpkin pie made it's appearance at the second Thanksgiving.
  5. In the 1800s fruit pies were actually a popular BREAKFAST.
You're welcome. So, as a thank you for bearing with my pie trivia, below is the recipe for my Apple Butter Pumpkin Pie - enjoy!

3 eggs
1 C canned pumpkin
1 C apple butter
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp nutmeg
3/4 half and half

pie crust of your choice

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Prepare your pie crust in a pie pan and set aside
  3. In a large bowl whisk eggs, pumpkin, apple butter, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and then stir in half and half until smooth
  4. Pour mixture into pie shell and place in oven
  5. After 10 minutes reduce temperature to 350 degrees
  6. Bake until the center of the pie is set, about 35 to 40 minutes
  7. Serve hot or cold with whipped cream!

I decided to top this beauty with pecan halves!

PS - If you are in Virginia in May, you should definitely check out the Gordonsville Fried Chicken Festival and try my award-winning pies!