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After the snow has melted and the ski bums have all gone home for the season, a new kind of thrillseeker shows up in search of warm weather activities. They aren’t disappointed. Travel expert Jeanenne Tornatore shows us why adventure enthusiasts flock to Breckenridge, Colorado in spring, summer and fall and how you can join them—even if you aren’t exactly Evel Knievel.

RELATED: 10 fun things to do in Denver for under $20

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Tagged: Family, Types of Travel

Jeanenne Tornatore

Jeanenne Tornatore

Jeanenne Tornatore

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Camping may not be the most glamorous way to spend a night, but it does put you in place to experience some of the universe’s most astounding grandeur. It’s pretty cheap lodging, too, leaving just the flight and/or car rental to get you far enough away from civilization so that the stars light up the sky. Here are some of the best places to stargaze in the U.S., and a nearby campground where you can stake a claim for the night for under $20.

Courtesy of Kevin Galens.

Courtesy of Kevin Galens.

Mammoth Campground, Yellowstone National Park; near Gardiner, Wyoming

Perched on a sagebrush steppe near the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces, there’s little civilization nearby to pollute the night sky with light. Plus, at 6,200 feet, you’ve got fewer layers of atmosphere to deal with. Beware elk wandering through the campground at night. $20/night.

Courtesy of John Fowler.

Courtesy of John Fowler.

Goose Island Campground, Arches National Park; near Moab, Utah

The lack of moisture in the air in desert environments makes for a crisper view of the constellations. The beautiful red rock cliffs in the landscape of Arches National Park offer perfect framing. This campground is just outside the park near the Colorado River. $15/night

Courtesy of Shawn.

Courtesy of Shawn.

Wilderness State Park; Carp Lake, Michigan

This campsite on the tip of northern Michigan will yield spectacular views of the night sky, at times revealing glimpses of the Northern Lights. It’s also only six miles from the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, one of only 11 dark sky parks in the world devoted to minimizing light pollution for star observations. $20/night.

Courtesy of BevoStevo.

Courtesy of BevoStevo.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area; near Fredericksburg, Texas

The big Texas sky makes stargazing at Enchanted Rock easy, but its designation as an International Dark Sky Park makes it even better. It is dark enough at this central Texas park to see the Milky Way. The park service also offers stargazing parties if you are interested in learning about the constellations. $14/night for the hike-in campsites.

Courtesy of youngil_pyun.

Courtesy of youngil_pyun.

Sunset Campground, Death Valley National Park; Inyo County, California

One of the darkest night skies in the United States hangs over Death Valley. The country’s third and final International Dark Sky Park, Death Valley offers views of celestial happenings not visible by the naked eye hardly anywhere else in the world. Catch glimpses of stardust, shooting stars and other phenomena. $12/night.

Courtesy of Daveynin.

Courtesy of Daveynin.

Aspenglen Campground; Estes Park, Colorado

This park in the Colorado Rockies has very little light and ample opportunities to turn your eyes toward the skies. Some say stargazing here in winter is best, when the moisture in the air congeals to ice crystals and makes the air more transparent. $15/night.

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Tagged: Tips & advice, Uncategorized

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As we celebrate Earth Day, we should all be more cognizant of Mother Earth and how we treat her. There’s no better way to do that than reconnecting with nature. That becomes pretty easy while seeing the first rays of the sun from atop a mountain, or watching shooting stars dance between the silhouettes of Saguaro cacti. Here are five affordable eco-adventures to bring out your inner earth child and reconnect you with the beauty of the outdoors.

Red Rock Open Space

Red Rock Open Space. Photo: Thomas – Flickr

Scramble on red rocks

— Red Rock Canyon Open Space is a 789-acre park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s full of winding trails, jutting red rocks and even some streams. It’s free to park, free to enter, and doesn’t draw near the crowds as its picturesque neighbor, Garden of the Gods. It’s also fairly unique, as it’s not quite in the mountains and not quite on the vast prairie that stretches out before them. With so many different geological features, you can scramble on the rock, hike on a trail or just sit by a lake and take it all in.

Cadillac Mountain

A view from the top of Cadillac Mountain. Photo: Ally Marotti.

See a sunrise

— If you hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine, at sunrise, you can catch a glimpse of the first rays of sun to hit the United States. That technically only happens in the fall and winter, when the sun rises due east, but you could get pretty close any other time. Even if you go in broad daylight, the view is spectacular. It’s the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. If you’re feeling lazy, drive to the top. Acadia has a $25 fee per car, butthere are 16 days this year when national park fees are waived.

Mount Marcy

A view of a lake on the hike to Mount Marcy’s summit. Photo: Ally Marotti

Climb a mountain

— Mountains are plentiful in this country; we’re just lucky that way. Both sides of the nation are trimmed in them, with the Rocky Mountains slicing through the center. Eco-adventures don’t get any better than climbing a mountain. You’re using nothing but your own energy and taking in all that nature has to offer.National Parks are home to good hikes, but some of the best aren’t kept in boundaries. Try Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State with an elevation of 5,343 feet. For the most spectacular sights, go in the fall when the leaves are changing.

Arch Rock

Kayak near Arch Rock on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Photo: Eric W – Flickr

Kayak off Mackinac

— Arch Rock on the southeast coast of Mackinac Island in Michigan is pure bliss. So pure, in fact, that it makes an appearance in at least one of those Pure Michigan commercials. It’s just begging kayakers to visit. The key though, is bringing your own kayak. There’s only one rental place on the island, which is only accessible by ferry, and they charge $80 a person. So put on your life jacket and plop yourself down in Lake Huron’s waters.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Stargaze at Sonoran Desert National Monument outside of Phoenix. Photo: Bureau of Land Management – Flickr

Camp under the stars

— Sonoran Desert National Monument just outside of Phoenix is beautiful by day, playing host to a horde of cacti and other desert flora and fauna, but at night, it’ll take your breath away. It’s just far enough from Phoenix that the city glow doesn’t affect your view of the Milky Way arching across the cloudless sky. There’s no designated camping spots in the area, so campers are asked to keep their tents at least 200 feet from a water source and use biodegradable soap.

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It can be hard to feel pampered on vacation when you’re trying so hard to stick to your travel budget. Scoring a great hotel deal is a big key to your budgeting success, and luckily, you don’t have to pay a premium for an out-of-this world view. Our proof: These five budget hotels, complete with downright luxurious views.

The fine print: These average prices were pulled from a random weekend in April, and reflect the prices at the time of writing.

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America’s Best Value Inn Villa Motel — Manitou Springs, Colorado | $84 per night

This motel is far from glamorous, but no one’s spending that much time in the room anyway. The Villa Motel is nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just outside of Colorado Springs in the hippy town of Manitou Springs. The town is friendly and walkable, and moments away from some of the best hiking trails in the country.

club quarters

Club Quarters Hotel, Wacker at Michigan — Chicago, Illinois | $166 per night

Look right down onto the Chicago River and out across the high-rise expanse of Chicago’s River North neighborhood from rooms at theClub Quarters. This is one of two Club Quarters in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. Both are great values for the location (most hotels run upwards of $300 a night in this area), but this one has better views.

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Meadow Lake Resort, Glacier National ParkColumbia Falls, Montana | $76 per night

This resort has a spa, free airport transportation, restaurant and a bar, which can be a little hard to find in the wilderness of Glacier National Park, and necessary after a long day of hiking. The views are sweeping and beautiful, the price is affordable, and there’s a golf course, pool and hot tub here if too much nature isn’t your thing.Careful though, the prices may increase come summertime.

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Mountain View LodgePackwood, Washington | $85 per night

The name of this little lodge says it all. It sits in the shadow of Mount Rainier, and is close to High Rock Trailhead, among many other hikes. The lodgings are quaint but clean, and guests are likely to see some elk or deer wander into the lodge’s front yard. And if the weather turns sour, you won’t need to leave the room for beautiful views (unless the clouds cover the mountain, that is).

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Wyndham San Diego BaysideSan Diego, California | $159 per night

The beautiful bay will never escape your line of sight at this hotel. If you do manage to tear yourself away from that glorious view, the hotel offers plenty of amenities that will make it worth your while. There’s a gorgeous outdoor pool, a 24-hour fitness center and bikes to rent (though, arguably, two of these three will also lead to some spectacular ocean vistas). There’s also a Ruth’s Chris Steak House onsite, so you won’t have to walk too far in your heels or brogues for a nice meal. Just do yourself a favor and try to score a room with a patio.

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Tagged: California, Cheap Tips, City, Family, Last minute travel, Off-season, Seasonal

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All is calm, all is bright. In some cases, really bright.

Here are seven of some of America’s most over-the-top holiday light displays.

CheapTickets-St-Augustine-Florida-Christmas-lights

St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights. Photo courtesy of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

St. Augustine, Florida: During Nights of Lights, the 450-year-old city illuminates its landmarks with white lights in a display that’s been called one of the world’s 10 best. The festivities include a bunch of special events, such as carriage and boat tours, outdoor concerts and more.

Blossoms of Light in Denver, Colorado

Blossoms of Light in Denver, Colorado | Flickr Creative Commons: Amy Aletheia Cahill

Denver, Colorado: Denver Botanic Gardens sets the scene for a classy holiday with Blossoms of Light. The flora becomes even more inviting when it’s illuminated with thousands of lights, including a spot named the Romantic Gardensfull of aromatic plants and plum trees. (Can you say marriage proposal spot?) There’s also live entertainment on select nights, and visitors can purchase 3-D HoloSpex glasses to enhance their view of the lights.

Tacky Lights Tour in Richmond, Virginia

Tacky Lights Tour in Richmond, Virginia | Flickr Creative Commons: Taber Andrew Bain

Richmond, Virginia: On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s annual list lovingly named the Tacky Lights Tour. Houses must have at least 40,000 lights to make the list; some are tasteful, some downright tacky. The newspaper alerts homeowners that they’ll be included, so when you embark on a self-guided tour of the eyesores, you’ll be laughing with them—not at them.

Glittering Lights | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Glittering Lights | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Las Vegas, Nevada: There are drive-through light shows… and then there’s Glittering Lights at Sin City’s Motor Speedway. Roll down your windows, turn up your windows and cruise around the 2.5-mile track that proves the Vegas Strip isn’t the only part of town that glistens.

Christmas in Los Angeles

Christmas in Los Angeles, California | Flickr Creative Commons: Loren Javier

Los Angeles, California: Come to see the stars, but stay to see the lights. Downtown L.A. Walking Tours offers a nightly Holiday Lights Tour showcasing how the City of Angeles celebrates the season. Stops include the Broad Museum, Grant Park with its illuminated fountain, Nutcracker Village at California Plaza and more.

CheapTickets-Clifton Mill-Ohio-Christmas-lights

The lights of Ohio’s Clifton Mill combine old-school technology with new-school glitz. Photo by Tina Lawson/Flickr Creative Commons.

Clifton Mill, Ohio: Millions of lights brighten up this 19th-century the mill, gorge, riverbanks, trees and bridges. The decor includes a Santa Claus Museum, light show synchronized to music on the old covered bridge, 100-foot “waterfall” of twinkling lights and more. Legendary Lights is located about 40 miles southwest of Columbus.

CheapTickets-Austin-Christmas-lights

Everything’s bigger in Texas, even the holiday lights. Photo of Austin’s Trail of Lights by Mark Scott/Flickr Creative Commons.

Austin, Texas: The city’s Trail of Lights gets more elaborate every year. Zilker Park’s display now includes a 155-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree, ferris wheel and carousel. It’s one of the largest holiday events in Austin, with live performances, a lighted tunnel and more.

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Tagged: City, Family, Festivals, Florida, Holidays, L.A., Las Vegas, Seasonal

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It’s fall in the Rockies. The aspen groves have turned yellow and are beginning to lose their leaves, the air is growing even brisker and the mountain peaks are becoming snow-capped again. But the days remain just as bright and full of sunshine as ever, and the mountains are beckoning. So head to Colorado Springs for your fall getaway and immerse yourself in autumn’s beauty.

This distinctive architecture has one awards for Denver International Airport. Courtesy of Timothy Vollmer.

This distinctive architecture has one awards for Denver International Airport. Courtesy of Timothy Vollmer.

Plane, train or automobile — Although Colorado Springs does have its own airport through which you may be able to find some dirt cheap fares, your best bet is probably coming in through Denver International Airport. It’s a major hub and has won awards for its design, so make sure to check that out as you pass through. The Springs (as the locals call it) is about an hour drive south on Interstate 25.

Downtown Colorado Springs. Courtesy of Phillip Stewart.

Downtown Colorado Springs. Courtesy of Phillip Stewart.

Cheap local transit — Colorado Springs does have a bus system, and a daily pass on the Mountain Metropolitan Transit is $4 a day. The frequency, however, is a little sporadic, and you’ll want a car to get you up into the mountains at some point during your stay, so you may have to splurge a little on a rental. You can justify the spending by all the free activities you’ll be doing (like hiking). Biking is certainly an option, but be realistic about adjusting to the altitude. You’ll want to save energy for the hikes.

Courtesy of Tucker Hammerstrom.

Courtesy of Tucker Hammerstrom.

Admire the aspens — Aspens becomedownright beautiful in the fall. The leaves extending from their white branches turn golden and illuminate the entire area with their glow. Aspens grow in groups, and many trees can spring up from the same roots. It contributes to that overwhelming quality of Aspen forests. Catamount Trail, which is about a 25-minute drive from the Springs off of Highway 24 near a tiny town called Green Mountain Falls, is a great hike for taking them in.

Manitou Springs. Courtesy of John Lloyd.

Manitou Springs. Courtesy of John Lloyd.

Meander in Manitou — Nestled right up against the mountains is Manitou Springs, a little hippy town that draws travelers in with its one-of-a-kind souvenir shops and adorable cafes. Oh, and it’s breathtaking scenery. Wander through the streets and enjoy a beer in the shadow of Pikes Peak. Drink from the fountains along the sidewalks flowing with water from mountain springs. If you are feeling adventurous, you can board the Cog Railway and it’ll take you right up to the top of Pikes Peak. (If you do decide to do this, note that Pikes Peak is more than 14,000 feet tall, so make sure you’re dressed for it. The Cog Rail cost $37 for adults.)

 

Beer. Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

Beer. Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

Release your inner school girl — As the birthplace of craft beer, Colorado doesn’t disappoint in its libations. Bristol Brewing Company is a prime example. They’ve turned the old Ivywild School into a brewpub. The beer is good and reasonably priced and the food options aren’t too shabby either. Try a flight for only $7 and sit out on the patio if weather allows.

 

Courtesy of Thomas's Pics.

Courtesy of Thomas’s Pics.

Be scared silly — Is that the chill of fall in the air, or was it an apparition passing by? Blue Moon Haunted History Tours offer haunted walking and cemetery tours of Manitou Springs for $15. They will incite fear with tales of the the spirits of tuberculosis patients that flocked to Manitou for a cure and died outside the gates of the sanitorium. They’ll wile you with legends of the curses Native Americans put on the town after Victorians arrived and began bottling the sacred waters.

Go off roadin’ — But not really, since you don’t want to damage that rental. Old Stagecoach Road is made of dirt and is totally dusty, but that is all part of the allure. You’ll drive into the mountains on the one-lane road and feel that thrill of excitement when you go around a bend and can’t tell if someone else is coming from the other direction. Dozens of hikes branch off of Old Stagecoach, and you’ll likely find some that are pretty secluded.

 

Apples. Courtesy of Vijay Chennupati.

Apples. Courtesy of Vijay Chennupati.

Play among the pumpkins — Pumpkins and apples are the quintessence of fall, and you can pick your own at Third Street Apples. The farm is in Penrose, which is about a 40-minute drive from Colorado Springs, but it’s a beautiful drive with a mountain backdrop. Apples are $1.39 per pound and pumpkins are 55 cents per pound.

The Garden of Eden on the Catamount Trail. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

The Garden of Eden on the Catamount Trail. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Hit the trails — The best part about Colorado is all the room there is to play. And it’s all free. Explore and hike and enjoy nature. There’s nowhere else like Colorado in the world, and there’s nothing as liberating as hiking through its trails. Just avoid the state parks, because they charge entry fees.

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At some airports, time in the terminal is a little more burdensome than at others. Maybe it’s because the nearby food options suck, or because the weather around that airport is always bad, so hope of ever making it home begins to slip slowly away. One thing is for sure: a good view always makes time in the terminal go a little quicker, whether your flight is delayed or not.  And some airports boast views that are downright breathtaking. When debating layover options, make sure to route through one of these airports.

View of the Front Range from Denver International Airport. Courtesy of Ken Lund.

View of the Front Range from Denver International Airport. Courtesy of Ken Lund.

Denver International Airport — Colorado

DIA has won awards for its design, but the view of nature surrounding it is much more breathtaking. Althoughit is positioned more than a half hour’s drive outside of Denver, the airport still features fantastic views of the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, you will likely only see the views if you’re in Terminal West. Terminal East faces toward flat, desolate eastern Colorado.

The view from Honolulu International Airport. Courtesy of Robert Linsdell.

The view from Honolulu International Airport. Courtesy of Robert Linsdell.

Honolulu International Airport — Hawaii

If touching down in paradise doesn’t leave you in enough state of bliss, check out the view out the airport window. The airport is sandwiched between Mãmala Bay and Oahu’s iconic Diamond Head Crater, just beyond Waikiki Beach. If you can peel your eyes away from that glory, check out the Honolulu skyline and nearby Pearl Harbor.

 

Courtesy of Hideyuki Kamon.

Courtesy of Hideyuki Kamon.

Vancouver International Airport — British Columbia, Canada

Another view dominated by mountains and sea. The airport is positioned just on the coast of the Salish Sea, and the snowcapped North Shore Mountain range overlooks it all. It is probably safe to assume all the Winter Olympic athletes that converged in the city in 2010 drew most of their inspiration from this view.

 

A look at Bora Bora's main island from the airport. Courtesy of Michael Stout.

A look at Bora Bora’s main island from the airport. Courtesy of Michael Stout.

Bora Bora Airport — French Polynesia

Flying into any island of tropical paradise is going to be, well, paradise, and Bora Bora is no exception. The lack of land available for runways forces airports to be built in beautiful locations on the islands. This one, also called the Motu Mute Airport, was built on an islet in a lagoon, and a boat transport is necessary to get to the main island.

 

The Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau airport. Courtesy of Sam Beebe.

The Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau airport. Courtesy of Sam Beebe.

Juneau International Airport — Alaska

More people have their pilots license than drivers license in Alaska, a state in which it is impossible to escape nature’s beauty. So one might just assume that all of Alaska’s airports are beautiful. They probably are, but let’s focus on Juneau’s airport. The Mendenhall Glacier seems to decend on it, with Mount Juneau rising stoically above.

 

Courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew.

Courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew.

Boston Logan International Airport — Massachusetts

Although the view from Boston’s airport might not be quite as striking as the mountain and paradisiacal scenes some of our other airports have offered, this one offers a nice blend of urban vistas and nature. It is in East Boston and surrounded by water on three sides, so travelers can see the sailboats on Boston Harbour and the downtown skyline.

 

A view of São Paulo from the air. Courtesy of Roger W.

A view of São Paulo from the air. Courtesy of Roger W.

São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport — Brazil

São Paulo is a city that seems to go on forever, especially if you are taking it in by air. On the ground at the airport, travelers can see that huge city sprawling in front of them. Although they may not be experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life quite yet, it looms before them.

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Tagged: Beach, City, Flights, Hawaii

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If the open water draws you, buying a kayak may be one of the best investments of your life. That initial price you pay for your vessel will return the favor 10-fold, giving you the freedom to travel with your kayak nearly anywhere. Renting kayaks aren’t always cheap, but you can save a pretty penny if you bring your own. Here are 10 places to plop down your kayak. Note: Make sure to double check open water laws while planning your trip.

Related: Cheapest places to ‘go jump in a lake’

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Great Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine

Kayak through the crystal waters of Great Long Pond, with the backdrop of beautiful mountain scapes. Go in October for some gorgeous foliage that reflects perfectly on the lake. Rental option: National Park Canoe and Kayak Rental, Mount Desert, Maine. $34/3 hours.

 

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Lake Estes, Estes Park, Colorado 

The Rocky Mountains jut up around this lake near the entrance to Estes Park, the gateway to RockY Mountain National Park. Go in early summer to avoid monsoon season and the threat of mudslides. Rental option: Lake Estes Marina, Estes Park, Colorado. $11/half-hour.

 

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Colorado River, Austin, Texas

Urban meets natural surroundings on this kayak trip. Make sure to slow down and listen for the millions of bats that live in the Congress Avenue bridge when you paddle under. Rental option: Congress Avenue Kayaks, Austin. $10/hour.

 

Courtesy of Jan Berry.

Courtesy of Jan Berry.

Licking River, Pendleton County, Kentucky

For a river adventure in Northern Kentucky, plop down in the Licking River. It’s big enough to be enjoyable but not as daunting and dangerous as paddling the nearby Ohio River. Go in late summer to see the quickly disappearing tobacco crop by the barn full, recently harvested and hung out to dry. Rental option: Thaxton’s Canoe and Paddler’s Inn, Kentucky. $24/3-hour trip.

 

Courtesy of Arctic Warrior.

Courtesy of Arctic Warrior.

Prince William Sound, Alaska

Kayaking in Alaska calls for a bit of a heartier vessel than a lake in the lower 48. Traversing Prince William Sound will take you up close and personal with glaciers and possibly humpback whales. Rental option: Anadyr Adventures, Valdez, Alaska. $45/day. Note: They only rent to experienced sea kayakers. Some areas require permits to kayak.

 

Courtesy of rayb777.

Courtesy of rayb777.

Hocking River, Athens County, Ohio

Hocking Hills State Park forms the perfect scenery for a kayak trip in the hills of southern Ohio. Don’t be afraid to venture out of your vessel—Hocking Hills has some of the best hiking in the state, and is ripe with rock formations such as natural bridges that are often just a five-minute walk from the river. Rental option: Hocking Hills Canoe Livery, Logan, Ohio. $15/hour.

Courtesy of Robert Engberg.

Courtesy of Robert Engberg.

 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Grand Marais, Minnesota

There are at least 10,000 places to plop down a kayak in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but the Boundary Waters in the northern part of the state are solely traversable by canoe or kayak. This adventure is best undertaken on a multi-day trip. Rental option: Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, Tofte, Minnesota. $32/day (note: Sawbill does not have kayaks available for rent, and most of their canoes and other equipment are rented as part of an excursion package).

Courtesy of Jude Freeman.

Courtesy of Jude Freeman.

Portage Bay, Seattle, Washington

There are a plethora of waterways to kayak around Seattle, but Portage Bay offers a slew of restaurants that you can paddle up to. Plus you don’t necessarily need a sea kayak on this bay. Watch out for other boaters. Rental option: Agua Verde Cafe Paddle Club, Seattle, Washington. $17/hour.

Courtesy of charleschandler.

Courtesy of charleschandler.

 Kealakekua Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

A mile-long paddle across the bay will take you to the Captain Cook Monument. Take your time getting there though, and watch the water—the bay is a marine life conservation district, and dolphins areoften seen frolicking among the kayakers. Rental option: Adventures in Paradise Kayak and Snorkel, Captain Cook, Hawaii. Only offers kayak tours for $89.95, no individual kayak rentals.

 

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sleeping Bear Bay near Traverse City, Michigan

Crest the marvelous Sleeping Bear Dunes with kayak in tow and hike down to the bay off Lake Michigan. Go in late summer, when the weather is perfect in northern Michigan. Sea kayaks are recommended, as the waters can get a little rough. Rental option: Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak, Empire, Michigan. Sea kayaks for $60/day.

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The Big Easy might be “it” when it comes to Mardi Gras. But it definitely isn’t the only. Colorful celebrations happen across the U.S. — and they come with a lot of the same bells and whistles you get in the French Quarter. We’re talking Zydeco bands, great Cajun food and parades that seem to go on for days. Oh, yes, and beads. Lots of ’em. If you can’t hop a flight to New Orleans, save some cash and hit a party near you. Here are six of our top picks.

mobile alabama mardi gras

MOBILE, ALABAMA
NOLA’s southern neighbor hosts a dizzying 39 parades over 19 days. Standing idly byisn’t an option; onlookers clamor for beads or go for the ultimate catch: moon pies (chocolate-coated graham cracker cookies with marshmallow in the center). Apart from parade mania, touring the local Carnival Museum is a must and puts the partying in perspective by showcasing the history of Mardi Gras and how it originated in Mobile. For a real insider feel, grab a ticket to a Mardi Gras ball. It’s not uncommon for Mobillians to have a closet full of ball gowns and for men to own a set of tails. Most balls are invite-only, but some bigger groups, like Mystics of Time and Stripers, may open ticket sales to the general public. Mardi Gras celebrations are held through Feb. 17.

universal orlando mardi gras

UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT – ORLANDO, FLORIDA
If you’re traveling with kids, this tamer celebration is the one to hit. After all, it takes place on Universal Studios property — home to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The spirit of N’awlins sweeps in from February 7-April 18, when days in the theme parks are capped off with Cajun food, a parade and live concerts. Every week there’s a major headliner, and this year’s lineup includes Jessie J, Kelly Clarkson and Trey Songz. On a smaller stage, New Orleans bands bring Bayou sound to the scene.

st louis mardi gras

SOULARD – ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
On any given day, jazz and blues music steams from the many nightclubs in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood. It gets especially happening during Mardi Gras, which the historic French district actually turns into a month-long affair (January 6-February 17). Parades wend past the Anhauser Busch Brewery, Cajun cook-offs add sizzle, and even dogs get involved; on the second Sunday before Mardi Gras there is a pet parade (yep, the pups get dressed up, sparkly boas and all). Anyone is free to have a float in the parade, as long as you register your “krewe” (organizations, clubs or groups of friends). That said, it’s just as fun standing on the sidelines, cheering on the drag racers, musicians and costumed merry-makers.

MAGIC HAT – BURLINGTON, VERMONT
For 20 years, local brewery Magic Hat has thrown a Mardi Gras shindig, which is known for its parade down Main Street. Trumpets blare, jugglers wow, floats roll by and drums keep the beat as hundreds of people look (and drink) on. The parade is followed by after-parties on Church Street and throughout downtown Burlington. For true local flavor, venture a few minutes from downtown to Magic Hat’s Brewery and Artifactory, where tours are led and revelry is at a peak. Not only is this Mardi Gras a fantastic party, but it’s one with a purpose: This year’s proceeds benefit the Vermont Foodbank. Held Feb. 27-Mar. 1.

gaslamp district mardi gras

THE GASLAMP QUARTER – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
The second largest Fat Tuesday celebration in the U.S. is more street party than cultural immersion — but it’s alluring all the same. The GasLamp Quarter, with blocks of bars, clubs and restaurants, is San Diego’s major entertainment district. On February 17, it kicks into overdrive with five outdoor stages, DJs and a night parade with bands, floats, classic cars, belly dancers and Brazilian entertainment that could rival that of Carnival. Snoopadelic headlines the event, so crowds are expected to be thicker than a bowl of gumbo.

breckenridge mardi gras

BRECKENRIDGE MOUNTAIN  – BRECKENRIDGE, COLORADO
More than 15 years ago, a group ofNew Orleanians moved to this mountain paradise and brought a little bit of NOLA with them. Their modest celebration has expanded to the whole town of Breckenridge and includes live music, fire dancers and snow play. On Fat Tuesday, several blocks of Main Street shut down for a street party featuring Chris Daniels & the Kings, a jazz and swing act that’s performed with B.B. King. Larger-than-life puppets and harlequin-masked bon vivants light up the night as the sun sets behind the peaks of Breckenridge Ski Resort. New Orleans-themed food and drink specials are available at restaurants throughout town. Held Feb. 17.

Story by Kelly Aiglon

CTIXblog CTA _ cheap of the week

Tagged: California, Cheap Tips, City, Events, Festivals, Florida, FREE!, Holidays, Last minute travel, Music, Off-season, Seasonal

Kelly Aiglon

Kelly Aiglon

Kelly Aiglon

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Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

With barely 1,000 miles of highway to Alaska’s more than 570,000 square miles, dog sledding is not only a popular sport, but a convenient means of transportation throughout the state.

It is a tradition for most and a lifestyle for some, namely those who take part in the treacherous 1,150 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome (which is basically the Olympics of dogsled racing). There are companies in Alaska that offer a taste of that brutality year-round, allowing tourists to take dog sleds out for a spin.

But lucky for those of us that live in the lower 48, you don’t have to traverse the Great White North to try your hand at mushing. Here’s a look at the best places to ride a dog sled this winter that are a little closer to home.

Wintergreen Dogsled LodgeEly, Minnesota

The folks at Wintergreen invite people of all ages and fitness levels to participate in their dogsled experiences, which take customers through the boundary waters in northern Minnesota. The tours are crafted according to the customer’s skill levels, but no experience is necessary. Wintergreen’s website says its been operating for more than 25 years and had customers as young as 6 and old as 85 riding across the frozen wilderness.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

You can go full Balto and do multiple-night trips where customers dog sled from lodge to lodge, or opt for a simple day trip. There are dozens of trips to choose from that vary in length, skill level, and route. There are parent-child trips, where the pair gets their own dogsled on which to explore. There are even trips aimed at improving customers’ photography skills.

Each of those categories has options for different skill levels, of course, and offers training – not just in dog sledding, but in dog care and harnessing, snowshoeing, camping, outdoor cooking, winter ecology, backcountry skiing, cold weather comfort and more.

The prices vary among experiences, age of participant and time of year, but an 8-hour day trip costs about $250 and the multiple night trips can cost more than $1,000. Prices for children are discounted. Book in advance, as some experiences are already full.

Nature’s KennelMcMillan, Michigan (Upper Peninsula)

One owner of this dogsled business has raced in at least seven Iditarods, which means the place is legit.

If you are looking for a small taste of dog sledding and don’t want to spend more than $100, Nature’s Kennel in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may be your best bet. They offer a slew of sledding experiences, but the best deal is the half-hour trip.

Photo courtesy of Nature's Kennel

Photo courtesy of Nature’s Kennel

During the half-hour trip, which cost $75, guests are given a ride around Boyne Highlands Resort near Harbor Springs, Michigan. This option is available on all winter weekends and holidays. Pay double the price for the full hour.

Nature’s Kennel is owned by a husband-wife duo (and their two toddlers). They spend most of the summer getting ready for the winter, when they bring in a couple people to help guide the tours. This year, the helpers are a woman from Newark, Ohio, who owns her own kennel of Alaskan huskies, and a woman from New Zealand, who names the Himalayas as one of the most beautiful places she’s ever been.

Adirondacks region – New York

Home to the first Olympic dog sled demonstration and its own popular dog sled race, theAdirondacks can be the perfect place to take to the sled. Several resorts throughout the mountain towns offer sled rides to their guests, and some year-round residents still use dog sleds as a reliable form of transportation.

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

And the sleds they ride on are often made near home. Local craftsmen fashion sleds out of strong and lightweight ash trees native to the Adirondacks, ranging in size from children’s sleds to those meant to carry heavy loads.

Winter in the Adirondacks is a thing of beauty. There are cozy towns and inlets around nearly every remote turn. It’s hard to pick one little town in which to stay (they all have their allure at any time of the year, really), but Lake Placid is by far one of the most visited cities in the mountains.

The quaint town, populated with outdoor gear shops, snug breweries and inviting coffee shops, envelops Mirror Lake, which freezes over in the winter. When the snow falls and the lake freezes, dog sled drivers line Main Street and offer passers-by a ride across the lake. Prices vary, and mushers always check the safety of the frozen lake before taking out passengers. Notable places to dog sled: Golden Arrow Dogsled Rides and Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours.

Yellowstone Dog Sled AdventuresBig Sky, Montana

In Yellowstone National Park, winter is a nine-month experience, making the terrain excellent for mushing. In the high altitude and cold, the Alaskan Huskies thrive. Even during the three blissful months of “summer,” when most of the snow melts, Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures is operational and the dogs are running.

Photo courtesy of  Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

This company offers two options – a one-hour trip and a half-day trip (cost is $95 and $195, respectively, for adults. Kids rates are $45 and $150.) The half-day trip seems the more desirable of the two. It takes riders through the mountains of Montana and offers scenic views and photo opportunities. There are different options within the half-day trip, in which patrons can choose to ride with a guide (cuddled up in a sleeping bag on the back), tandem (you drive while another person in your group rides), or drive your own sled.

The owners warn that these trips are not for the faint of heart or lung. Even at the lowest altitude in Yellowstone, you are still at an elevation about a mile high. Although the sledding trips probably won’t take you from the highest to lowest point in the park, the high altitude and thin air make the trips inhospitable to inactive folks.

Mountain Musher Dog Sled RidesVail Valley, Colorado

The Mountain Musher tour runs a private trail through Aspen groves and pine forests in the Rocky Mountains. The trails aren’t shared with snowmobiles or cross-country skiers, although they may be shared with wildlife such as elk, fox, coyote and deer.

There are several sledding businesses operating throughout the Rockies, at least one of which recently underwent animal abuse accusations. Mountain Musher has been in business since 1989 and often receives positive reviews.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Two trips leave daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – and last about two hours. Two people (or one adult and two small kids, or three small kids) are allowed per sled, and a musher stands behind the passengers and controls the dogs. The ride is about six miles and costs $175 a person. But you get a snack of homemade pumpkin bread and hot cocoa midway through the trip, plus a nice photo opp. If you want the sled to yourself, it’ll cost you the price of two people ($350). Holiday prices are also elevated, so if you’re looking to get the experience on a budget, avoid the end of December, MLK Day weekend and Valentine’s Day weekend.

Reservations are required, but make sure you’re committed – you’ll be charged if you cancel your trip.

Tagged: Family, Sports, Tips & advice