Partners in the Parks – Great Basin National Park

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Like many of my “adventures,” I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up to spend a week in a national park I’ve never even heard of in the Partners in the Parks program. Would I be spending all day with a group of strangers that didn’t know how to have fun, instructors that made us write an essay a day and tried to make this into an actual class, eating awful camp food and finding nothing of interest in this park to excite me?

I’m glad all my worries were proven to be as far as possible from the truth.

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Snake Valley.

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All around, the week I spent in Great Basin National Park, NV, was one of the most memorable weeks of my summer. The park itself was a beautiful oasis in the desert, with a huge diversity of wild life and terrain. It even had a glacier. In the middle of Nevada. Yeah, I didn’t expect that either. Over the course of the week, I discovered that Great Basin is truly a hidden gem in the National Park Service’s portfolio. Boasting some of the darkest night skies in the country, you can easily find the solitude in this park to truly gaze in uninterrupted wonder at the thousands of stars spilling across the sky in the Milky Way.

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Our campsite!

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Watermelon cooler.

Now, even set in an amazing and unique location, a program like this where you spend all your time with a very small group of people can easily be spoiled by a few bad eggs. Fortunately for all of us, there was none of that in the Great Basin! At only four students, we were a tiny group. I would like to thank the general obscurity of Great Basin for that blessing. Having such a small, intimate group really helped us get to know each other really well and move through all our plans relatively hassle-free. And the group leaders, two amazing professors from Southern Utah University, made learning anything and everything about this park and living outdoors into something to look forward to. There really is no better setting for learning biology and “leave no trace” than the natural habitat of the subjects of study.

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Rattlesnakes galore!

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If it was not for having such a cohesive and enjoyable group, I don’t know if it would have been possible to accomplish all that we did and stay in such great spirits. We would not have had the flexibility or drive to accidentally do a 6-7 mile alpine hike past two beautiful lakes, up past 5,000 year old bristlecone pine trees, and up to the glacier at over 11,000 feet in elevation in the rain. We probably would not have been able to go electrofishing in Lehman Creek to survey their fish population, which ended up being one of the coolest things ever. And don’t even get me started on how much better it is doing an overnight backpacking trip, ascending over 3,500 feet up steep mountainsides carrying a third of your body weight in essential supplies, when everyone is on the same page.

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Snake hunting!

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Electrofishing.

I would encourage everyone who has the opportunity to take part in a Partners in the Parks program. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to get out and explore the beautiful wonders we have in our own backyard that often get forgotten behind our busy daily lives, school, work, friends, and technology. I almost wish I wasn’t graduating this winter just to be able to participate in another Partners in the Parks program. Almost.

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The hikes we did:

Alpine Lakes Trail à Bristlecone Pine Tree Grove à Glacier

Approx. 7 miles, 1,100 feet, 6 hours

This was a gorgeous loop, passing by two alpine lakes (Stella and Theresa) before connecting to the Bristlecone Pine Trail. The Bristlecones Pines are spectacular half-dead, half-alive ancient trees, possibly the oldest living organisms on Earth. Some are 4,000-5,000 years old. From the Bristlecone grove you can connect to the trail to the rock glacier, rising up to 10,800 ft in elevation.

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Theresa Lake.

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Stella Lake. 

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Majestic Bristlecone Pine.

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The glacier…wayyy back there.

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Osceola Ditch Trail

0.3 miles, 100 feet, 1 hour

We walked out to the Osceola Ditch, an 18 mile long channel dug by gold miners for water, to get a primer on the history and purpose of the National Park Service in a natural setting. Much better than sitting in a classroom!   

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Lehman Cave Tour

0.5 miles, no significant change, 1.5 hours

The cave tour was a great treat to end the trip! The caves holds a huge variety of structures, including my favorite, the jellyfish.

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Jellyfish!

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What happens when you bring a UV light into a pitch black cave.

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Cave bacon.

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Johnson-Baker Loop

13.1 miles, 3,290 feet, overnight

This was probably the most physically challenging thing I have ever done in my life. We took the South Fork Baker Creek trail up past two beautiful meadows to the Johnson Lake mine site. The, we passed over the Pyramid Peak ridge rising up to our maximum altitude of 11,290 feet between Johnson Lake and Baker Lake. We camped by Baker Lake and had an early start the next morning to catch a stunning sunrise. The hike back down the Baker Lake trail was an easy change from the day before and we passed through many Aspen forests while we descended back down to the trailhead.

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Johnson Lake. 

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It was so steep! I died.

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The trees are watching you. 

This hike in particular really emphasized one of the greatest aspects of GBNP. In 13.1 miles, we only saw two other people hiking and saw two other people camping across Baker Lake. Solitude and peace is something you will find more than enough of in this beautiful oasis. An opportunity to connect to nature, yourself, and your companions in a very genuine way.

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Sunrise at Baker Lake. 

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Baker Lake. 

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Trailing Along

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After the rain fiasco at Grand Staircase and a couple hours of driving through quite uninteresting landscape, I was hoping for a good turn at the Red Canyon. I heard about it in passing and figured since it was on the way to Bryce, on the famous Scenic Byway 12, it was worth a quick stop. The wonderful volunteer at the Visitor Center gave me some great suggestions for a beautiful but easy hike to take around sunset that gave me a stunning overlook of the deeply colored sandstone canyons and formations that gives Red Canyon its name.

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I almost suffered from a heart attack when I finished the trail and couldn’t find my keys, thinking I would have to retrace my steps while the night was quickly falling. Thankfully I found them in the depths of the wrong pocket in my backpack, but not after emptying every item I had in there.

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Besides giving me tips on a great walk, the volunteer at the Visitor Center also pointed me in the direction of an excellent dispersed camping area. These sites, along the well-maintained dirt road heading to the Tropic Reservoir, are primitive and free to use. There are both single sites and group sites, which were massive, and they all came on a first-come first-serve basis.

Pink Ledges Trail - Hoodoo Trail - Birdseye Trail - Photo Trail

2.5 miles, light elevation change, 1 hour

The next morning, I headed over to Bryce Point for what I heard was an incredible sunrise spot. I overslept a bit and missed the sunrise itself, but I made it in the park in time to catch some great colors, fresh air, and peace before the crowds showed up. Another perk to getting to the park really early is that if you get there before the entry gates are staffed you don’t have to pay the entrance fee. The gates are simply not staffed. I didn’t feel bad for this just because I was only in the park for a couple hours.

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Best sign. 

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I really do wish I could have spent more time in Bryce, but I was feeling so tired after the strenuous pace I had been pushing myself that I just wanted to escape the crowds and do a little reading and relaxing. The hike I did in Bryce, the Queen’s Garden –Navajo loop was excellent though. Apparently it’s the most popular hike because it’s pretty short and you really get a nice overview of the main attractions Bryce has to over when you hike down into the canyon and back out again, the only tough part up a massive set of switchbacks. I would recommend it to anyone without a lot of time or just if they want a pleasant overview. I think Bryce was just really unique and vibrant place, more stunning than Zion in a way because of all the crazy rock formations, and I would definitely go back there again and spend more time in the backcountry seeing what else it has to offer.

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Entering the Queen’s Garden. 

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Queen’s Garden.

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Wall Street.

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Heading up the switchbacks to finish the Navajo Loop.

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Thor’s Hammer, in the middle framed against the trees. 

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Queen’s Garden - Navajo Loop

3.5 miles, 850 feet, 1.5 hours
That night, I camped at the Cedar Breaks National Monument, which was only $14 for a beautiful and spacious campsite in the middle of a wildflower meadow. Rain all afternoon and evening prevented me from exploring the muddy trails but I wasn’t too broken up about it. I had some resting up to do before joining the Partners in the Parks program early the next morning!

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Ripples and Waves

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By the time I got to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, my excitement at seeing these amazing dunes by the Utah-Arizona border were only overshadowed by my excitement to take a shower. After I got that out of the way, I did the nature walk and knew immediately that I made the right decision in coming here! It was beautiful, intimate and quiet. It was the exact opposite type of environment as the hustle and bustle of Zion.

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There is beautiful life in the desert!

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“One researcher summed up years of research by stating ripples are ‘mathematically mysterious’.”

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So mysterious.

The air was the perfect temperature and climbing around the dunes, feeling the silky orange sand on my bare feet was heavenly. I really fell in love with Coral Pink Sand Dunes (which weren’t even pink, but orange) sitting on the observation deck watching the sunset spread out over from the west to the east, burning the sky with fire and smoke.

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My campsite, only $14 including the hot shower and entry into the park, had the perfect tree arrangement to set up my hammock. Needless to say, that night I had the most comfortable night’s sleep since I left my wonderful bed at home. The next morning, I time for had another jaunt out on the dunes to climb the biggest one before heading out.

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While I tried to visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for a promising hike along a creek and through slot canyons, a gut feeling made me turn around halfway down the dirt road leading to the trailhead and skip it. It’s a good thing I listened to my gut feeling too, because minutes after I turned around a massive storm rolled in out of nowhere and pelted down heavy rain and hail. I almost didn’t make it off the dirt road, fishtailing often the last couple miles and fearing for the worst before finding solid road again. My little borrowed sedan was not meant for those treacherous waters. Instead, I decided to take it easy and head up to the Red Canyon in the Dixie Forest on my way to Bryce Canyon National Park.

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Insane storm approaching from behind.

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The main town in the area, Kanab, has this huge “K” attached to the side of a mountain overlooking the town. 

Coral Pink Sand Dunes Nature Walk

0.5 miles, no elevation change, 30 mins

In the Shadow of the Great White Throne

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The morning, I intended to wake up early to catch the sunrise. I didn’t realize how tired I was from all the hiking I did the day before until I slept through my alarm and woke to dawn breaking. I hurried over to Kolob Canyon and made the quick walk down the Timber Creek Trail to a great overlook where I could watch the rest of the sun peaking out over distant horizons.  From this overlooks, not only could I see the main body of the Kolob Canyons but the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was also right out there.

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After some relaxation I headed back to Zion in full light to tackle the one thing everyone recommended to me, Angel’s Landing. After Observation Point, where you can actually look down on Angel’s Landing, I wondering if it would be worth it. But then I just did it because it’s not just the destination, but the hike itself it supposed to be great.

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I found an ostrich farm!

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The Court of the Patriarchs.

And it was. Great and brutal. Insane switchbacks to start, literally crawling up the side of a canyon wall, then level ground for less than a mile before another crazy set of switchbacks called “Walter’s wiggles.” Those were tough; I could finally feel the elevation change getting to me, having come here to hike above 5,000 feet when only two days before I was breathing so much more oxygen at sea level. My tired muscles from the day before were crying and my heart was pumping, but I finally made it to the last half mile, the infamous sandstone ridge where mere feet, sometimes inches, of rock lie on either side of the trail before a thousand foot drop. I loved this part!  Though a chain was installed for the whole half mile, I only used it a couple times to hold onto while letting people pass in the opposite direction. I just scrambled the whole way. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much easier it is if you use your hands and feet! You have to get close to the ground, lower your center of gravity, and climb along and it is so much more fun! There were a lot of people who seemed very scared or stressed and were only continuing along because their friends or family wanted to continue. There were also just a lot of people in general, so many more than I saw on the Observation Point Trail. This is where all the tourists must go! I must have passed by or seen around one or two hundred people in only a few hours. There was no such thing as privacy.

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Angel’s Landing rock seen from the beginning of the trail.

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After the first set of switchbacks.

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Walter’s wiggles. AKA death. 

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But the end destination was worth it! Unlike the day before, Wednesday was sunny and bright! The canyon below was lit up in beautiful hues and you could look up and truly feel like you’re in the shadow of the Great White Throne, the canyon formation that contributed to Angel’s Landing’s name. A minister who came up to this rock imagined this is the place where angels visiting from heaven would come to land on Earth, in this shadow.

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Made it to the top!

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And the other side!

When I finally descended back to level ground, I was beyond exhausted. I decided to walk down the Riverside Walk just to stretch my legs out on level ground before jumping back into the car to head over to my next stop, Coral Pink Sand Dunes. On my way out of Zion, I stopped by the biggest of many rock and mineral shops on the main road in Springdale. They had some awesome stuff! I got a couple gifts for people, agate slices and geodes you can break open yourself, and then a little stone dinosaur for myself. Such a success! The drive out of Zion too, through the Mt. Carmel/Route 9 tunnel, was great. The other side of the tunnel, while still part of Zion National Park, has such a different landscape. It was all beautiful.

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Timer Creek Overlook Trail

0.8 miles, slight elevation gain, 1 hour

Angel’s Landing

5 miles, 1,488 feet elevation gain, 3 hours

Riverside Walk

2 miles, very slight elevation change, 1 hour

The Great Southwest USA Roadtrip 2013!

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And thus, the great Southwest USA Roadtrip 2013 begins.

I fly into San Diego on a beautiful Monday morning to pick up the car that will be my home and way for the next two weeks. The guy who I’m picking it up from picks me up from the airport and lets me play with his two kittens for a little while before heading out on the road. I got a way later start than anticipated (I blame the kittens), but the moment I sit down in that car and take a look at the coolest, most welcoming dashboard ever I knew it was a good sign. Seriously, this dashboard is something else.

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My zen ride. 

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KITTENS.

The drive from San Diego to Springdale, the entry town to Zion National Park, is somewhere around eight hours. I was only right past Vegas around 10:30pm when a cop pulled me over… Turns out, I was driving 5-10 miles under the speed limit so therefore I was an immediate suspect for drug trafficking. At least, that’s what I gathered from his litany of questions about who I am, where I’m going, do I have my boarding pass from earlier today, etc. Also, “Do you have anything illegal in the car? Marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, guns, knives.” “Um…I have a kitchen knife?” Needless to say, he let me go, but since I was clearly tired told me to pull over at the rest area ahead to catch some ZZs.

Sleeping in your car in a well-lit rest area surround by massive trucks is awkward, to say the least.

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Since I was still a couple hours away from Zion, where I meant to be starting early in the morning, I woke up at 5am to continue driving. Within a couple hours, I was parked, fed, packed, and ready to start my first day in Zion National Park. The hike I chose went up to Observation Point, along the side of the canyon off the East Rim where a 4 mile one-way hike up steep switchbacks and through the mysterious  Echo Canyon leads you up off 2,100ft above the canyon floor with a sweeping view of Zion. This was a stunning and impressive introduction to Zion, strenuous but very manageable thanks to some good cloud cover with the occasional drizzle to keep me cool. By the time I started heading back down, the clouds were clearing up and I could see why rangers don’t recommend this hike on a sunny summer day. It was hot and exposed. I was also surprised by how few people I encountered on this awesome hike when the rest of Zion was teeming with tourists and hikers everywhere. Zion receives around 3 million visitors every year, a huge bulk of that being in the summer, yet once I got up to the main trail to Observation Point I saw no more than 10-15 people for the rest of the hike. The solitude was welcome.

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After the first set up switchbacks up to Observation Point.

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Echo Canyon.

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Interesting rock color and form. 

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Almost to Observation Point! The views along the path are spectacular.

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Made it!!

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Looking at the famous Angel’s Landing from the top of Observation Point. 

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What did they find so interesting??

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On the way down I met a family who just got out of the Hidden Canyon, who recommended a side-trip up into its shady and cool territory. I was ahead of schedule and decided if I was up there I might as well. The route up was fun, besides another set of switchbacks. One part of the trail was along a narrow canyon ridge where you don’t have any choice but to use the chain attached to the side of the wall to pull yourself along. Where the trail ends, you can continue walking down through silky sand to an impressive free-standing arch. There, the park is trying to restore some vegetation so there’s a sign indicating you may go no further.

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Observation Point

8 miles, 2,1000 ft elevation gain, 4.5 hours

Hidden Canyon

3+ miles, 1,000+ ft elevation gain, 1.5 hours

 

After eating my lunch is the Great Lawn at the Zion Lodge and resting my weary muscles, I drove over to Kolob Canyons to try to do a hike there before sunset. Unfortunately, my little detour in Hidden Canyon cost me some time and I couldn’t do the hike I wanted to before sunset and a last minute thunderstorm blocked a nice sunset from even happening. There was some pretty intense lightning though.

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The Great Lawn. 

Because of my tight budget, I was trying to save money whenever possible. This included sleeping in the car off the side of the highway a lot. Fortunately, there are quite a few exits around Zion that lead to nothing and let me get away without detection.

After day of some wins and some fails, excited for what tomorrow holds, I fell into a deep sleep with the soothing sound of the storm lulling me to sleep.

Stockholm Syndrome

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Only about 11 months late finally came my honeymoon! And it could not have possibly been better. My husband Freddy met up with me in Stockholm for a long, 4-day weekend right before the end of my trip to Spain. We came right in the middle of a snowstorm and stayed in a cozy apartment in Älvsjö in the suburbs, just a quick commuter rail ride away from downtown. The apartment was charming and our host was very helpful and kind, giving us handy tips for getting around and even leaving some milk, sandwich supplies, and pasta supplies in the fridge for us! Though I always have known I like the snow, not until I arrived in this enchanted wonderland called Sweden did I realize I absolutely loved it! Especially when it does not turn to slush and mud hours after it finished snowing, as it has a tendency to do in Boston.

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We did a lot of things in our days in Stockholm, making up for months spent apart again and really falling in love with the city. Though it is a pretty expensive city, we managed to keep our costs low by cooking in the apartment and taking advantage of some free activities around the city, such as ice skating in Kungsträdgården Park and exploring the many Christmas markets scattered around the city. The old town Gamla Stan had a really lovely one with plenty of sightseeing and strolling to be had around it. There was also one in front of Kulturehuset that had the best glögg and pepparkakor in the world! We went back a couple times just for that. The Kulturehuset itself was also a worthwhile activity as a cultural hub open to the public with museums, a library, cafés, restaurants, shops, and more inside.

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Ice skating at Kungsträdgården Park.

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Gamla Stan.

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The Christmas market on Gamla Stan.

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The best glogg ever is in the cluster of tents in the middle.

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One of our excursions included a visit to the photography museum Fotografiska on Södermalm Island in Stockholm. At this time they were dedicating the entire museum to a single exhibit of David LaChapelle’s work, which they have never done before. I have seen LaChapelle’s work before but always just in passing. I loved this opportunity to get to know him as a photographer and see what his work was all about, the colors, the use of well-known celebrities to hold a social commentary on major issues or showcase the past in a different light, it was all so fascinating. The view of Stockholm from the café up on the top floor was fantastic as well!

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Another was a trip to the Royal Opera House of Sweden, Kungliga Operan. The gorgeous façade was only a precursor to the decadence of the interior. I have never been in an opera house before, so this was a real treat. Though we did not understand the words of the opera we say since it was in another language, we could understand the storyline a bit just because of how dramatic everything was.

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Last of all, my favorite destination was a quick trolley ride from downtown Stockholm on Djurgården island. Skansen is the world’s oldest open-air museum that has everything from a massive Christmas market, a recreated village of the native Sami culture with music and other cultural artifacts, and an amazing farmstead! They had some of my favorite animals, such as otters and foxes, and a lot of unexpected ones like reindeer. In the markets I got some Christmas shopping out of the way, buying some homemade glögg and charming handmade ornaments. Skansen was a captivating place and we spent all afternoon exploring the grounds before heading out with a gorgeous sunset to send us off.

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The entrance to Skansen.

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The Christmas market at Skansen.

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One of the recreated Sami houses.

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This post would not be complete without a photo of a cat. 

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Rudolf.

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The zoom on my new camera is amazing!

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The Swedish flag.

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Beautiful felines. 

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A lone wolf.

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OTTERS! The best animal.

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I really enjoyed coming here in December despite the 3pm sunset and heavy snow. The Swedish people love their Christmas season, which I can completely understand as you need some cheer to deal with a long, hard winter ahead. Also, I can’t get over how great it is being greeted by Swedes. Hello in Swedish is “hej,” which sounds like the English “hey.” It’s just so casual!

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Our sad snowman :( this is what laziness makes!

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Sad to be leaving…

Barcelona, I Belong to You

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I finally found it! My favorite city in the world (of all those I’ve been to at least). It’s perfect: diverse, colorful, exciting, a wonderful landscape with mountains looming behind the beaches, green spaces throughout the city, an artistic vibe and friendly people. Plus, there’s so much weird stuff!

Take Gaudi for example. Pretty much everything he made was really weird, which made it so awesome! Unfortunately, my camera was stolen while I was in Barcelona (first time ever) but even that couldn’t put a damper on all the amazing things Barcelona has to offer. From free walking tours to wax museums, there was no lack of cool places to explore. Two of my favorite places were the Labyrinth Park and Gaudi’s massive Parc Guell.

All I can say, without the wonderful pictures to show you, is to go there and do it. All of it. Or as much as you can. I can’t wait for my next chance to go back!