When I packed up my belongings at the end of March to begin my second season as a tour leader I wasn’t imagining I’d work such a long season. Evidence of that would come in June, when I dropped off all of my winter clothes back at home in San Diego, retiring them for the year.
Little did I know I’d later be scheduled to head east and spend most of September and October in New England.
Most tour leaders will hope for four, maybe five solid months of work on the road each spring and summer. Luckily for me, I continued on for six and a half. I started my season waking up to snow on tents during the start of spring in the Grand Canyon. I ended it hiking in New Hampshire among snowflakes and frosted evergreens during the middle of fall.
Over the course of those 6.5 months I led 10 different trips with 6 distinct itineraries. Seven were for Trek America, one was for an Australian student group and the last two were for Grand American Adventures. Most were done in the typical 15 passenger van and trailer, but some were unique. One was led on a coach bus working alongside a driver. The last two of my season were hiking themed, which I got to lead alongside my boyfriend, also a fellow tour leader.
Here are my highlights:
Wildlife of the Northwest
I’ve never been a wildlife expert by any stretch. When it came to providing wildlife sightings on tours, anxiety would flood my mind. I hated the feeling that I was be responsible for providing my passengers with something so unpredictable.
Well, I guess I got really lucky. I ended up spotting more wildlife than most tour leaders combined. Sometimes we saw animals from just knowing when and where to look, but most times it was just chance.
Getting to Know the Black Hills
When I saw I would be driving through South Dakota, only Mount Rushmore came to mind. Ironically, now after visiting, the presidential monument itself was probably the least memorable for me.
We first stayed at a quirky campground outside of Deadwood. Although the rustic bar with $2 beers was enough to keep us around, I knew we couldn’t miss seeing the town itself. Famous for being a lawless mining town in the late 1800s and home to Calamity Jane, it is also the setting for the recent series of the same name. With the old hotels and flat facade buildings, I loved Deadwood. Also, the green mountainous surroundings were a fun change from the typical dry-desert Western towns I’m accustomed to.
Nearby Deadwood is the more well-known biker friendly city of Sturgis. Every year, the city hosts one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world, attracting bikers from all corners of the states to make the pilgrimage. In a fortunate coincidence, we happened to be staying in Deadwood at the same time. For that entire week, we saw groups of bikers on every road and highway we drove in the region. Eventually, I didn’t even notice the loud rumbling of the engines anymore. That’s how often we encountered it.
Driving through Sturgis during the rally was an afternoon to remember. Three words describe a lot of the participants: leather and assless chaps.
Apart from Deadwood and Sturgis, the Black Hills are also home to two large mountain-carved monuments. Turns out, the less famous of the two made a much more lasting impression on me.
Crazy Horse Monument, just 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore, was began by local Native Americans in response to Mount Rushmore. Wanting their own idol carved into rock, they commissioned the project to create the largest sculpture in the world.
50 years later it is still not finished, not even close. Still, just seeing the finished head of Crazy Horse is astounding. That, along with learning the story behind the monument, left me feeling more inspired than ever.
I could go on and on about Crazy Horse, but it one place that you must see and learn about yourself.
Summer days in the Canadian Rockies
I had never been to Alberta, and I was extremely lucky to be sent there during a perfect week of sunny weather. Starting in Vancouver and stopping in both Golden and Banff, we drove over beautiful mountain passes, went rafting in clear glacial water and hiked around perfect turquoise alpine lakes.
Of course this entire region warrants so much more time than I had. Still, just the taste of the Rocky Mountains in the summer time was enough for me to want to go back. It’s pretty hard to get sick of those glacial views and mountain peaks while basking in the warm sun.
Random and hidden roadside America
Driving such long distances around the United States makes for some restless passengers. As a way to stretch the legs and see glimpses of the areas we are zipping though, it’s pretty important to include fun and entertaining stops.
Sometimes this was easy, other times….not so much. And although we are given loads of materials to help us plan our routes, some drives take a bit of creativity when it comes to entertainment. A constant experiment, some places my passengers loved, other times they couldn’t care less. Still, this part of my job constantly helped me find so many off the beaten path spots and hidden gems around the country that I otherwise wouldn’t.
National parks during shoulder seasons
While it’s never hard to re-visit national parks, there’s nothing more exciting to a tour leader than being able to see a place with fresh eyes.
This happens to me every time I get to visit a park during a totally different weather system. Just some fog, snow or different leaves on trees can change a place completely. Interestingly enough, I find that it’s during these times that I appreciate the location even more than first time visitors.
Yosemite and the coast of Olympic National Park on foggy rainy days.
The ancient tall trees of California
It took 27 years for me to visit the ‘tall tree parks’ in my own backyard. While I visited Yosemite numerous times last year, this year I got the chance to visit both Redwoods and Sequoia.
While redwood trees are typically taller, the giant sequoia grows older and larger in volume. Interestingly, both trees only inhabit a very small area of the U.S., and California itself. Exploring both parks and being among the trees make you feel like you’re in a fairy tale. It’s hard to wrap your mind around these ancient living things when they are towering above you, their thick branches obscuring the top.
Appreciating Wide Open America
Sometimes, it’s difficult for us east and west coasters to appreciate the vastness that the middle of our country provides. Also, many of the states I grew up thinking were nothing more than small towns and boring scenery are actually full of incredible natural wonders.
This year crossing the country and few times and exploring new states lead to me to discover so many new beautiful places. For example, Maine is vast and full of expansive wilderness. Parts of Idaho are beautifully mountainous and highly underrated. Montana is beautiful, expansive and…actually pretty cool.
You notice a lot when you’re looking out your window as the world is going by all day long. Sometimes I’m shocked by how far I drive without seeing any large towns. Most of this country really is that, the country.
There is so much to see and just this small summary can’t express that enough. Even with doing this job, I know I’ll never be able to see it all.
The view from our camp on a ranch outside of Bozeman, Montana. The sky that night was one of the brightest I’d ever seen.
Fall in New England’s wilderness
Many people might think of New England’s towns and cities when it comes to fall. After my last few trips in the region I think otherwise. Driving around the countryside of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the wilderness of Maine offered the most impressive palate of fall colors I’ve ever seen. Every day I woke up with fresh eyes to the trees, and it never got old.
If you want to appreciate autumn foliage, you have to leave the city.
Looking over rolling hills which are all painted in oranges, yellows and reds is a true sight to be seen. Walking through isolated trails covered in leaves was insanely beautiful. Sometimes I felt as if I was walking over trails covered in rose petals, as the red maple leaves make for such a beautiful light pink when turned over. So many times I stumbled on rocks and roots because I was too busy admiring the trees.
It was 30,000 miles of ups, downs, mistakes and growth. Seeing one of nature’s greatest shows just before flying back west was such a sweet way to close another season on the road.
Interested in being a tour leader in the U.S. or Canada? During winter and spring you can apply here…and don’t forget to mention my name in your application!