Today I want to share one of the highlights of our year. We took a family trip to Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama over Spring Break in mid/late March 2021.
We drove from our home in Fayetteville, Arkansas to Gulf Shores. The drive takes approximately 11 hours, so we broke up the journey by spending the night in a hotel on the way down. After so many hours in the car, we were eager to get out of the car and explore the Lodge.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park is A Hilton Hotel. We booked the 1 King – 1 Bunk Bed Studio Suite. The girls loved the bunk beds and the view of Lake Shelby across the street. My husband and I also used the studio suite as a cozy office space.
Another feature of the room we liked was the private balcony. This was a relaxing spot to sip a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise over the ocean. The girls also used the balcony as an art space to do watercolor paintings.
The only challenge with the room was the small mini fridge. For families who need gallons of milk like ours does, I recommend bringing a good cooler. We also took advantage of the onsite restaurants including Roasted Oak coffee shop, Dragonside pool side, and Food Craft. My favorite meal was the Gulf Shrimp and Grits.
The average temperature in Gulf Shores, Alabama in March is between 58 and 70 degrees F according to weather-us.com. The beautiful outdoor pool was not heated, but our girls were brave and enjoyed splashing around in the pool almost as much as they liked playing in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.
This was our youngest daughter’s first time seeing the ocean. As a parent, I can’t imagine a better memory than watching my kids take in the vastness of the ocean for the first time.
We also had a blast searching for seashells on the long, white beaches that stretched for miles outside the Lodge.
We decided to leave a day early because of Red flag conditions and thunderstorm forecasts. This left us feeling like we had more to explore including the hiking and biking trails around Lake Shelby. Here is a map of the full park. Here is a link with more ideas about things to do in Gulf State Park.
Overall, I highly recommend the Lodge at Gulf Shores State Park. If you want to enjoy warmer temperatures, plan for later in the season. However, if you want lower prices, Spring Break was an awesome option for our family. Personally, I’d like to go back during Sea Turtle season which is May through October.
This year I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in teaching, and I also started working part-time as a preschool teacher. I love it, but I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write on this site. Now, as the school year is winding down, I’m excited to start planning our summer and begin writing again. The first thing on our list is our annual Memorial Day trip to the mountains. It is hard to believe that we will be heading to our cabin in Estes Park, Colorado in just a couple of weeks.
This Memorial Day, we are excited to host our friends who have never been to Colorado before. As we talked through the new timed-entry permit and the restrictions on hiking in areas of the park due to recent wild fires, I realized that planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park feels pretty complicated this year. I’ve attempted to summarize the new system below:
Rocky Mountain National Park Timed-Entry Permit
What: 2 hour reservation to enter the park. There isn’t a restriction on how long you can stay. Parking is not guaranteed. Reservations must be made in advance.
Some of our favorite early season hikes such as Hollowell Park, Cub Lake and Fern Lake are inaccessible right now (as of 5/16/21) because of damage caused by wildfires in 2020. Before planning hikes, make sure to check out the latest information on closures here.
The Wild Basin tops our wish list because it wasn’t impacted by the wildfires and the elevation is lower compared to other areas in the park, which means typically there is less snow in May/June. There are also several beautiful waterfalls, and the trail is pretty easy for young kids to hike (ages 4- 7).
Gem Lake also avoided fire damage. Even though it is a short hike, it gains a lot of elevation (1,000 ft.). I’m not sure if we will make it to the top, but there are great views along the way and unique rock formations that the kids will love. Even if we make it half way, the hike will be memorable.
Lily Lake is our go-to hike. No matter what time of year or time of day, it’s always a great choice. We enjoy adding the Lily Ridge trail to lengthen the otherwise short hike around the lake.
Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake are in the Bear Lake corridor. This means they are popular attractions and require the Bear Lake corridor pass. These start at decent elevations, so it’s possible to encounter slush or even significant snow in May. We’ve spotted elk and moose in this area, and the views of the continental divide are truly spectacular at both destinations.
I can’t wait to share our favorite places with our friends. Even though it’s a little complicated, I know our trip will be well-worth the extra effort. I’m also hopeful that the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park that have been overused will benefit from less traffic, and that those impacted by fire will be soon on the road to a beautiful recovery!
“Every purchase we make from a local business is a vote for the survival of our economy” – Estes Park Chamber Executive Director, Donna Carlson
Boxes of steamed rice, spicy sauces, and fortune cookies make up my takeout dream team. On our most recent trip to Estes Park, we decided to go on another food adventure to discover the amazing Asian cuisine that our favorite mountain town offers. Bonus, I feel like each dollar we spent on mouth watering local food helped a local business owner, and that makes me extra happy!
COVID-19 Precautions – LEVEL UP PROGRAM
The state of Colorado has a multi-level response to COVID-19 called Colorado’s Dial. The dial is based on current metrics including new cases, percent positivity, and impact on the local hospitals. Estes Park is in Larimer County which is currently at a level orange (as of 1/9/2021), however restaurants can obtain a level up status through an in-depth certification and inspection process. You can learn more about the Level-Up program at visitestespark.com.
Thanks to the Level-Up program, some restaurants in Estes Park are able to offer onsite dining at limited capacity, however we felt it was easier for our family to order takeout food and enjoy it at our cabin.
After a long day of driving, we were thrilled to finally pull into Estes Park! We unloaded our mountain of luggage and checked online for Thai food options. We selected Thai Kitchen because it is close to our cabin. Online reviews on TripAdvisor rate this restaurant 4 out of 5. One review said, “Good food but plan ahead.” I agree that the food was good. I liked all of the fresh vegetables that they put into my dish. I also appreciate that you can chose the level of spice. Planning ahead is probably good advice too. The wait was longer than we expected, but the fresh food was worth the wait.
What’s a good way to fill a longer wait time? Consider picking up carry out cans from Lumpy Ridge Brewery which right down the street. Thai Kitchen is located at 401 S. Vrain Avenue.
If you are like me, and you aren’t familiar with Nepali food, I think it’s helpful to remember that the country of Nepal is between China and India in South Asia. Nepal is slightly larger than our home state of Arkansas (a fun fact from National Geographic Kids) and is home of the world’s largest peak. Mount Everest is 29,035 feet in elevation. The highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is Longs Peak at 14,259 feet.
Nepal’s Cafe serves Indian and traditional Nepali entrees. I ordered the Chicken Vindaloo. Slices of boneless chicken is served with potato, tomato, onion, garlic, ginger and hot sauces. My husband ordered Chicken Momo which is a steamed dumpling entree. We also ordered Chicken Thali off of the children’s menu. The entree came with steamed rice and a sweet rice pudding. To be honest, our kids only ate the rice, but we enjoyed sampling their dish. Everything we ate was delicious. It’s not surprising that this restaurant is so well rated on Tripadvisor.com. This was our first time eating at Nepal’s Cafe, but it won’t be our last.
Nepal’s Cafe is located at 184 E. Elkhorn Avenue in the heart of downtown Estes Park. If you go during the holiday season, make sure to check out the festive holiday lights in George Hix Riverside Plaza which is located directly behind the restaurant.
Cafe de Pho Thai
We ordered an appetizer of crab and cheese wontons. My husband order Beef Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup. The garnishes of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and lime on the side really added to the flavor of the soup. This a great dish for warming up during the winter months in Estes Park. This restaurant also serves a variety of curry dishes and traditional entrees like Cashew Nut Chicken and Pad Thai. The restaurant is located at 255 W Riverside Drive. Cafe de Pho Thai earns the top spot for favorite Asian Restaurant in town on TripAdvisor.com.
The first time we ate at China Garden (a few years ago), we were a little disappointed with the General Chicken dish. I’m glad we’ve given this restaurant another chance because we’ve ordered several delicious dishes including the Tropical Fried Rice, Penang Curry, and Drunken Noodles.
China Garden is located at 460 W Riverside Drive next door to Rock Cut Brewing Company. According to the brewery’s website, ‘China Garden shares our patio! Check out their menu, then call 970-586-2488 to place your order with Li, the owner. We love the Mongolian chicken, hot & sour soup, and veggie egg rolls.’
Himalayan Curry & Kebob
Our original plan was to go to Oppa Asian Bistro, but the restaurant wasn’t open on the day we planned to go. Oppa is a restaurant we’ve enjoyed several times before, so I’m glad it worked out that we ended up searching for a new spot in town. We decided to try Himalayan Curry & Kebob. They serve traditional Nepalese & Indian dishes. According to their restaurant, this food is ‘Typically meat and vegetables cooked in a sauce made from scratch full of strong, aromatic spices packed with health benefits and also delicious, served with rice.’
I ordered a Chai Tea and Chicken Tikka Masala. My husband ordered a Chicken Kebob. All the dishes are spiced according to your preference ranging from mild to extra hot. Everything was amazing – the flavors were unique and memorable. I can’t wait to go back. Himalayan Curry and Kebob is located at 101 W Elkhorn Avenue. Check out their menu online.
Standing under the evergreens on our snowy hike up to Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park filled my heart with gratitude and relief. Just a few months ago, we were anxiously watching the news and hoping that the wildfires would be contained. Although the damage was substantial, thanks to the incredible effort by firefighters (and perhaps some good luck and answered prayers), Rocky Mountain National Park is open and beautiful.
We bought our annual America the Beautiful Park Pass which covers entrance into national parks and federal recreation lands for the entire family. For us, this is a great deal because we go to the park frequently, plus we feel good about financially supporting the national parks. You can learn more about the pass here.
Details about day passes entrance fees for Rocky Mountain National Park as well as upcoming free days can be found on the nps website.
The hike to Nymph Lake begins at the Bear Lake trail head. The journey to Nymph Lake is only .5 miles. Our girls were eager to play in the snow and thrilled that the lake was frozen solid.
Cozy cabin in estes park
I spent a lot of time during our trip sitting next to the fire in our cabin, reading books, and drinking coffee. I read 37 books in 2020 which beat my previous year by 11 books. My 2020 favorites include Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. If you enjoy reading on vacation, check out my Book Lovers Guide to Estes Park, Colorado.
In 2020, COVID-19 made us weary of airport travel. We were also navigating the school calendar for the first time as our oldest started kindergarten. This meant fewer trips to the mountains last year. The positive side is that we were able to rent our cabin to many families who wanted a safe and relaxing vacation spot. We are reinvesting the rental income we earned into a couple of upgrades including new flooring throughout the first level. Learn more about renting our cabin here.
Hike around lily Lake
I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve written about Lily Lake on our site. Lily Lake is our favorite destination because it is easy, fun, and family friendly. A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park without a stroll around Lily Lake feels incomplete.
Sledding in rocky mountain national park
Hidden Valley is the only place where sledding is allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park. We have been taking our girls to this spot every year. It is a blast! You can rent sleds and other winter gear at Estes Park Mountain Shop.
Sprague Lake is a half mile loop. We enjoyed this hike on New Year’s Day. This felt like a good start to the year even though life remains a little uncertain. Typically, I’m very goal-oriented, but this year (for now at least) I’m not writing a list of goals. I love to hear what other people do to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, so please feel free to share your reflections in the comments below.
Our 5 Most Popular Colorado posts in 2020
I always think it’s fun to see what our readers are finding on our site.
The Estes Park Winter Bucket List was the fourth most popular post this year. Although it was written in 2019, the list remains a good one! On our New Year’s Eve trip we checked off several bucket list items including sledding, winter hikes, shopping for a Christmas ornament, sitting by the fireplace with a good book, and swimming at the Estes Valley Community Center.
The Homer Rouse Trail – a Dog Friendly Trail in Estes Park, Colorado and the updated version Homer Rouse Trail – Revisited (written in 2019) continue to be among the most popular posts on our site.
The second most popular post was A Trail Less Traveled: Hollowell Park to Mill Creek Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park which was written in 2019. We returned to Hollowell Park this summer and wrote about it here. The wildflowers were beautiful! If this is a hiking destination you want to try, make sure to check in with the national park service. According to their website, ‘Trails that remain closed in the Bear Lake area include the Fern Lake Trail, Cub Lake Trail, the Mill Creek Basin, and Hollowell Park.’ (as of 1/4/2021).
If you are on pinterest, I’d love for you to check out our profile. I typically add videos on pinterest that aren’t included in the blog posts.
I’m going to ask my husband Eric to post his favorite moments from our recent trip too. Some of his pictures are AMAZING. I can’t wait to share them here soon. I’m also excited to share about our latest Estes Park food adventure. A post about our Asian Takeout Extravaganza is coming soon.