Ever since I started writing about retirement 8 years ago, I’ve stressed the importance of being active while you can, to minimize regret. Don’t defer your dreams.
Case in point: I had hoped to spend this past summer trekking in the western mountains. But, an injury forced me to cancel my plans. June, July, and most of August slipped away with me laid up at home.
So my traditional “summer travels” post almost didn’t happen this year. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that having friends in the health care business, and access to great physical therapy, are lifesavers as you age.
In the end, all was not lost. In late August as I began to recover, we hit the road and enjoyed a few weeks of fun travel. Here are some highlights from the season….
Late spring, before my injury, found us driving to Kanab, Utah for a few days of hiking with an old friend and blog reader. This part of Utah was a revelation to me. Yes, the mountains and hills are the state’s trademark rocky reds and browns. But the valleys are lush green, spotted with farms and well-kept small towns. It reminded me of many a drive down country roads in my once-native Virginia and Tennessee.
Kanab is strategically located for exploring three iconic national parks: Zion, Bryce, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We did the latter two on this trip. If you’re a fan of old-school park accommodations and smaller crowds, I highly recommend the North Rim. On our way to Utah, we stayed in a comfortable 1920’s-era log cabin on the outskirts of the Grand Canyon Lodge. The cabins have been updated with running water and heat, which we put to the test. We were just in time to experience a freak May snowstorm that shut down the park for 12 hours!
Once in Kanab, we had a wonderful time exploring the attractive town and its surrounding trails. Our first morning we strolled through the neighborhood where we stayed to the beginning of the spectacular Squaw Trail, which switchbacked us high above town for stellar views of the surroundings. The second day we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park, my first visit. The iconic hoodoos and undulating colors were astounding in person, though I’ve seen them in pictures many times.
If you make it to Kanab, be sure to stop by Willow Canyon Outdoor for copies of the free one-page trail maps the town makes available. And order a coffee drink while you’re at it. In the evening visit the eclectic Rocking V Café a few blocks away for good eats and conversation.
Arkansas River Valley, Colorado
This area of southern Colorado is within easy striking distance, and is a favorite when we have a few days to spend in the mountains. The region is defined by the Arkansas River — home to the range of paddle sports. It’s bounded on the west by the Continental Divide and on the east by the Mosquito Range. There are three significant towns running south to north: Salida, Buena Vista, and Leadville. This summer I stayed in both Buena Vista and Leadville for a few nights.
Buena Vista is the most upscale of the three towns. I love the tree-lined streets of old homes, and the scenic location at the foot of the soaring Collegiate Peaks. It’s hard to find a more comfortable or central location for adventuring in this part of Colorado. Just be sure to book your accommodations in advance, because the town is popular with festival-goers in the summer and leaf-watchers in the fall. For sustenance, check out House Rock Kitchen, Simple Eatery, or The Blend. Once you’re fueled, make the short drive out Cottonwood or Chalk Creeks for a host of resort, lake, campground, and trailhead options.
Further up at the head of the valley lies Leadville, at 10,152 ft. the highest incorporated city in the country. Leadville may be an acquired taste. With no major ski areas nearby and an ongoing mining history, the rough-hewn town is an anomaly in Colorado. Accommodations may not be as refined as other spots in the mountain state. But if you’re just passing through, you can stop in at City on a Hill Coffee for good coffee and baked treats, and High Mountain Pies for great pizza. And the town’s location within sight of Colorado’s first and second highest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, along with many other 14’ers, won’t disappoint fans of mountain scenery.
In between Buena Vista and Leadville lies the turnoff for State Highway 82, which twists past Twin Lakes to Independence Pass. Twin Lakes is a delightful small town with a few inns and pubs at the northwestern edge of the namesake lakes. If you love water and mountains it’s hard to find a more scenic spot than these lakes ringed by 14’ers. And if you have an extra hour, don’t miss the spectacular and sometimes hair-raising drive up to Independence Pass. At 12,095 feet, it’s the second highest crossing of the Continental Divide in the U.S. The above-treeline environment of alpine tundra is remarkable to see here, reminiscent of ecosystems much farther north.
Late August or early September is the perfect time to visit the High Sierra. The crowds and the mosquitos are gone and the weather is stable, but not too cold yet. This year, at the last moment, I headed west on my annual pilgrimage.
I approached the Sierra through Death Valley, which is most direct for me, but involves several long climbs and descents on narrow roads, so isn’t necessarily the quickest. I’ve been through Death Valley four times now, and each time is different. It’s like no place on earth, morphing according to the season and time of day. It can be a stark wasteland, or a stunning mosaic of mountains, rocks, and sand, or something in between.
Finally, after two days of driving, the Sierra rose in the distance, aloof guardians of evergreen forests, alpine lakes, and rocky passes. There is nowhere in the U.S., to my knowledge, with the vertical relief of the eastern Sierra. The dusty towns of Lone Pine and Independence are at less than 4,000 feet, while Mount Whitney, the crest of the Sierra and the highest point in the continental U.S., towers over 14,000 feet. That’s 10,000 feet of elevation gain in just a few miles of horizontal distance! From points in the White Mountains east of Bishop you can see the entire Sierra from top to bottom and north to south. Is there a more breathtaking view in the continental U.S.?
Outside of Bishop I spent a night and day camping and hiking around South Lake, surely one of the most beautiful trailheads in the Sierra. The lake, though man made, nestles beautifully among the surrounding peaks, and provides boating opportunities as well as a portal for trails leading into the John Muir Wilderness, the heart of the Sierra.
Further north I stayed over in Mammoth Lakes, one of my favorite small mountain towns. I’ve been to Mammoth for its trademark winter skiing only once, but it’s a favorite destination in the summertime. There are no crowds and yet most of the town stays open for business. I’ve enjoyed riding the lift to the top of Mammoth Mountain for an amazing view across the Sierra. Or, if you’re pressed for time, especially if it’s near sunset, drive up to Minaret Vista and watch the sun set over the iconic Minarets, Banner Peak, and Mount Ritter. If it’s earlier in the day, catch the bus into Devil’s Postpile National Monument and see the startling rock formation.
Mammoth also has an excellent bike path system that will take you around the downtown area and then up into the mountains all the way to Horseshoe Lake. From there you can pick up extensive trail systems and hike anywhere in the Sierra. If your objectives are shorter and you need inspiration, stop in at Mammoth Mountaineering and pick up a copy of 50 Classic Day Hikes Of The Eastern Sierra. If you’ve worked up an appetite after all that activity, Mammoth has a full suite of conventional and alternative food offerings. One of my favorite, for those who prefer a healthier menu, is the homey Lynne’s Garden of Eat’N.
Pacific Coast Highway
I’d never driven State Route 1 south of Monterey or north of Morro Bay. I’m not really a beach person, but the coast of California is in a different league. Picture following a narrow ribbon of two-lane road winding among coastal mountains, sometimes 1,000 feet above the sparkling waves, and stopping to watch whales cavorting in the swells through binoculars. I was hooked.
We began the drive in the trendy oceanside towns of Monterey and Pacific Grove. If you’re looking for seaside lodging, shopping, eating, and more shopping, these locales have you covered. If you love the outdoors, be sure to stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for more iconic coastline, beaches, and tidal pools. We were also moved by the magical Cyprus groves, one of the few places you can see these hauntingly beautiful trees in large numbers.
Next we drove down to Big Sur State Park and camped just a few miles from the coast in deep, dark forest of the southern-most California Redwoods. A mile hike on steep trail gets you out of the trees into grassy foothills with views of the Pacific Ocean glittering to the west.
The following morning we drove south past stunning McWay Falls plunging into a pristine bay. California looks more like Hawaii here. Later in the day we passed elephant seals sprawled out on the beach at sunset. They were turning in for the night near San Simeon. We turned in as well at the charming seaside town of Cambria.
We checked in at the lovingly restored Cambria Beach Lodge, recommended to us by Kristen over at Bearfoot Theory. The Lodge is located across the street from the ocean and we were lulled to sleep in our brightly decorated room by the sound of crashing waves. The food in California is usually notable, and this area was no exception. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Robin’s. After a morning of exploring Fiscalini Ranch Preserve on foot and mountain bike, we picked up one of the best fresh sandwiches we’ve had in a long time at The Café on Bridge Street, before heading south again.
All in all it was a good summer. Not a great one, compared to many past. But the adventures I’ve already had make getting older and dealing with health issues easier to take.
I learned a lot this summer:
It’s unwise to put all your happiness eggs in one basket as you age. It’s smarter to have, not only multiple sports and exercises, but also multiple activities, some non-physical, that lend purpose to your retirement. You will be in better shape to weather a spell of injury or poor health.
While being outdoors is essential to my quality of life, boundary-pushing adventure probably isn’t. I’ve been there/done that. I can honestly say I wasn’t that unhappy just sitting on my porch watching the mountains, or hobbling around the neighborhood park on crutches.
I’d prefer to have done more, sure. But the alternative wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I spent a lot of time outdoors anyway, and, ultimately, we got on the road for some travels too.
How was your summer? Have you been anyplace new and interesting lately?
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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]
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