Travel: the best birthday gift

Last year, I turned 30–and that number seemed so daunting when I thought about it. Actually, it still does. It felt like the end of my true youth, like somehow turning 30 meant that I was officially old. Or at least officially an adult. And I didn’t feel ready to turn 30. I was supposed to have been married with kids already–or at least that had been my plan. Of course, plans don’t always work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s not always a bad thing.

Despite feeling overwhelmed by turning 30, I knew I wanted to do something special to celebrate the new decade I was heading into. I knew I wanted to take a trip to somewhere I’d never been. So in the midst of brainstorming and planning, two trips came to fruition: one to Catalina Island just a few days after my birthday, and a second to Denver in May.

I thought a trip to Catalina would be perfect for just a couple days–it’s close enough to be able to drive and take a ferry there, it’s somewhere I’d never been, yet it seems remote enough since it’s an island and you can’t see the mainland from there.

Pulling up to Avalon, Catalina
Avalon, Catalina 

My aunt and my cousin really came through for me on this trip. My aunt helped to plan it and got us the beautiful hotel on the water. My cousin planned out the hiking and took off work to join us on the trip.

The hotel that we stayed at 
The “beach” in front of our hotel

The ferry ride from Long Beach to Avalon took about 45 minutes. When we reached the port, the weather was sunny and warm. We checked into our hotel, changed into our hiking gear, and set out to hike to the Lone Tree Viewpoint. The total hike was about 6 miles and was a lot more strenuous than I was expecting. We went from sea level to about 1,600 ft and back. The views were beautiful and we even got to see a Catalina Island fox run across the trail. And on the way back down to Avalon, we walked through the Wrigley botanical garden and got to see a bunch of unique plants, as well as the Wrigley memorial. We didn’t see any bison, which are one of the stars of the island. Originally brought to Catalina by movie producers in 1924, they remain on the island and have become part of the landscape.

This photo does not do justice to how steep this hike was. We got a good workout.
A neat grasshopper we found. We also saw a Catalina Island fox run past us, but he was too quick to get a photo
Views of Avalon from the hike
Catalina is home to lot of desert plants
Views of the other side of the island

We enjoyed lunch at a hole in the wall Mexican restaurant, priced pretty cheap for Catalina. Fresh tacos and margaritas were a welcome addition to this vacation. On both of the days that we were in Catalina, we enjoyed the free wine and cheese happy hour that our hotel offered. We also ventured down to the casino. The casino isn’t what we think of as a casino–it gets its name from the Italian word casino, meaning gathering place. We got a special tour of the theater, which was built in 1929. The acoustics in the room are impressive, and there are still original paintings on the walls. Movies are still shown weekly.

Wine & cheese happy hour
Walking around Avalon



By the end of the day, we found ourselves in a beachy dive bar, enjoying the Catalina Island drink–Buffalo Milk. It’s got vodka, coffee liqueur, banana liqueur and crème de cacao, all blended with ice for a milkshake like drink. It was barely 9 pm and we were exhausted–foreshadowing my 30’s?

The bar we went to–Luau Larry’s

Day two started out with a cold snorkeling trip. I had this idea in my head that I really wanted to go snorkeling on the island and the cloudy, cool weather and cold water wasn’t about to stop me. My cousin and I rented masks, snorkels, and fins and jumped in. We paddled around for about 30 minutes before calling it quits. But during that time we saw all kinds of pretty fish–garabaldi, opaleye, zebra perch, surfperch, and rockfish.

Dreading getting into the very cold water (I believe it was about 50 degrees)
It was cold but worth it!

We contemplated going on a jeep tour to see bison, but those tours are super expensive and we were running out of time. So instead, we explored around Avalon and relaxed until we had to get on the ferry back to Long Beach.

Leaving Catalina on the ferry

The trip to Denver was my best friend Jo’s idea. We both turned 30 last year and it was a good halfway point where we could meet. Besides that, Denver had a good mix of city sights and amazing mountain scenery and outdoor adventure to offer. We had three whole days and we packed in as much as we could.


First up was Red Rocks Amphitheater. There are some pretty hikes around the theater.

When we got there, they were gearing up for a high school graduation. But we had time to check it out first!



Then we drove up to Idaho Springs, then through Berthoud Pass. We got to see snow, and some elk grazing.

At Idaho Springs


Still in our outfits from hiking at Red Rocks where it was hot outside, we had a quick snowball fight in the cold before running back in the car



Finally, we stopped at Hot Sulphur Springs. When we got into town, we went up to the hot springs to relax. My only complaint is that you can’t drink alcohol while sitting in the pools. That would have really put the cherry on top. Ha. Still, there’s something so relaxing about sitting in a pool of hot water when it’s cold outside. Getting out was brutal–we tried not to fall on our faces as we ran down the trails to get inside from the cold air.

Sunset at the hot springs
View from sitting in the spring
Our favorite pool with a tiny waterfall

The next day, we had an excursion planned to go horseback riding in the morning, then white water rafting in the afternoon. It was a full day that wore us out, but man was it worth it. The horseback riding was guided but they let us wander to where we wanted. We had full control of our horses and there were lots of little side paths we could take. We took trails through aspen forests, through open grass fields, and on top of hills with breathtaking views of the rockies. This was the best trail riding I had ever done.

About to go through an aspen forest
A lot of the ride was in wide open spaces, as well
It was beautiful!


The rafting ended up being pretty mellow. I preferred that over a crazy ride, anyway. It was chilly out, but again, the views were gorgeous. We didn’t get photos since we didn’t want to risk our phones getting lost or damaged. At one point along the river, I spotted a snake moving up the side of a boulder and the guide got really excited about it. And we stopped by a hot spring to take a dip. I kind of regretted getting in though, because then I was wet and got really cold on the way back.

Out of some sort of miracle, we had enough energy to go out that night. We went out to eat, then to a dueling piano bar. It was a blast! I’d been to a dueling piano bar once before in St. Louis, so I knew it would be a good time. Both times I was super impressed with how well the musicians played such a wide variety of songs (from Disney to 90s rap to country and rock). We were surrounded by bachelorette parties and creepers trying to prey on vulnerable girls, and I told one of them off (he got mad and immediately turned mean upon rejection, big surprise). Besides that, we were all smiles (and belting out our favorite songs).


On our last day, we checked out downtown Denver. We started at Union Station, then made our way down to Larimer Street. We took a historic walking tour, which included a trip up to the clock tower. We also splurged on a massage, which I was so grateful for after all the walking, hiking, rafting, and horseback riding we had been doing.

Inside Union Station


Cold, windy, rainy day at the Millennium Bridge
Larimer Street


The clock tower (The Daniels and Fisher Tower). We went all the way up to the top, just below the flag
The clock from inside


View from the top
It was actually pretty scary being up there. The railings were low, the walkway was short and old, and the trap door to get up there was hard to open and close

Well, that’s all I’ve got for these trips. I’m so lucky to have amazing friends and family that make great travel buddies. I’m hoping to keep this thing going–next up I’ve got my trip to Durango, Mexico, and in March I’m heading to Guatemala and Belize.

Never stop traveling! ✌

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mara Mack says:

    You’ve got a great photos! And agree, travel is the best gift, not only for birthday 🙂


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