Norway’s Pristine Fjords, Waterfalls and Mountains

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

While the city of Bergen is a significant draw with its rich history, beautiful architecture and delicious seafood the real reason people head to the region is the fjords.  The western coast of Norway is an incredible mix of breathtaking valleys, lush forests, awe inspiring waterfalls and astounding fjords which have rightly earned their reputation as some of the most spectacular countryside in the world.

Transferring to the Flam Railway - Myrdal, Norway

From Bergen the most popular destination is the Flam Railway which is an old narrow track railway which cuts its way through a series of tunnels and winds through a stunning valley while inching past awe inspiring waterfalls before connecting with a ferry and the Aurlandsfjorde.  From there travelers have the option of a long cruise through the fjords back to Bergen or a shorter but far more impressive ferry ride to the Nærøyfjord (UNESCO World Heritage Site) where they transfer to a bus.  The bus ride offers an incredibly scenic view of the fjord, which strongly resembles the world famous views of Yosemite, before connecting with a train back to Bergen.

Kjosfoss Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

If you research the Flam railway and surrounding fjords you will inevitably be directed back to one of the Norway in a Nutshell tours.  Though I was initially fairly resistant to the tour, I eventually realized that it’s almost impossible to avoid utilizing it and that it’s less “tour” and more “ticket package”.  There are no guides or set time lines.  Rather, it gives you a ticket bundle and suggested route which unifies the mixture of trains, ferries and buses necessary to properly explore the region. While somewhat pricey, the ticket is truly worth it. For those of you traveling with a Eurail pass, keep in mind that the Flam Railway is a private rail line and thus not covered. Your pass does, however, provide a significant discount on your Norway in a Nutshell ticket – so make sure to use it!

Small Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

My introduction to the northern fjords began on a slightly intimidating note. The sky was overcast and threatened periodic mists and light rain showers.  I opened the door, looked out and shrugged. My window of opportunity was limited and cloudy weather in the morning is common place in coastal regions. There was nothing to be done about it.

Waterfall & Flam Valley - Flam Railway, Norway

The day before I’d befriended one of my hostel mates – Anna – a Russian-Israeli-American who was traveling along a similar route. We met up, looked over our maps of Bergen and then set off.  After a bit of playful teasing and a wrong turn or two we eventually found the central train station.  Before long we’d picked up our Nutshell tickets, a scone for the road, and boarded our train.  The directions informed us that we’d catch the train for some 2-2.5 hours to the rail transfer station at Myrdal. A tiny city which is more waystation than anything and summons visions of the Lord of the Rings.

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

From Myrdal we transferred to the Flåmsbana Railway. A privately owned railway which is world renowned for its scenery and steep incline.  Though relatively short at 20km the single track line took a long time to build. Started in 1923 it wasn’t opened until 1947.  The line has 11 stations and offers a series of incredible views.  One of the most significant stops is a 5 minute break at the Kjosfoss waterfall where ethereal music plays over the roar of the falls and a  lone dancer can be seen among the mists overlooking the falls.  The railway drops some 664 meters or 2,178 feet from the Myrdal transfer station down to the city of Flam.

View from the Ferry - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The trip down to Flåm was gorgeous.  As we dodged in and out of small tunnels we were greeted with views of a variety of stunning waterfalls, amazing valleys, and picturesque rivers with crystal clear emerald green water winding through small hamlets and lush green fields.

A Classic Nordic Roof - Flam, Norway

The city of Flam is a small way-station, largely designed to service tourists and the support staff that live in the nearby valley.  Home to the rail/port station, a small market, several cafes, a traditional pub and mini-theater the 45 minutes we had was about perfect to explore, pick up a snack for the ferry, grab a coffee and hide out from the light rain.  As our 45 minutes in Flam came to an end, the weather decided to cooperate.  The rain stopped and the clouds began to break all the while letting a ray or two of brilliant sunlight illuminate the fjord’s brilliant green water.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Surrounded by incredible mountains, each sporting a waterfall and with most vanishing up into the mists we shoved off and left Flam port in our wake.  Anna and I quickly found a fairly empty area of the ferry on the lower deck near the ship’s stern.  The ship sheltered us from the chill northern air while offering a picturesque view of the fjord and ship’s wake.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As you wind through the fjords you can’t help but feel small.  The scale and scope of them is incredible.  Massive, rugged and wild they seem to be locked in a perpetual war with the sky – a battle so fierce, so intense that it exists outside our plane of understanding. The only indicator: the heavy mists which serve as a purgatory caught between earth, water and air.  As the two battle in a churning, twisting, boiling mess one cannot help but feel like the waterfalls streaming down the cliffs are silver trails of blood seeping from wounded Titans locked in conflict.

Aurland - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As we wound through the fjord we paused briefly at a number of small villages. From what I could gather these mostly service local power stations and infrastructure, much of which utilizes hydro electric power.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The first half of our ferry ride wound through the massive Aurlandsfjorden which threats its way gradually towards the sea.  For an insight into the sheer size of the fjord, note the small cruise ship in the middle of the photo above.

Classic Tourist - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Though Anna and I spent the majority of our time watching the awe inspiring natural scenery drift by, we also made sure to pause and enjoy some of the more entertaining moments occurring around us.   One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are few groups as odd and peculiarly entertaining as tourists. A huge cultural mish-mash we’re always good for a quick laugh, funny photo, or interesting pose.

View of the Fjord and Undredal - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As the afternoon continued, the sun slowly began to break the cloud’s hold over us.  Before long a group of friendly seagulls set out from one of the local towns and decided to keep us company.  Their aerial acrobatics, set against the fjord, small village, and snow capped peaks was a delight to watch.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Despite the time of year – it was early July – many of the mountain peaks still had a thin layer of snow.   Though we were thousands of feet below, the crisp air served as a perpetual reminder that we were in a part of the world which almost never truly experiences summer.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we neared the 2/3rds mark, we split off from the main fjord and began to trace our way into the UNESCO World Heritage Nærøyfjord.  As the walls narrowed I could not help but notice how much more spectacular the fjord’s size, rich greens, and beautiful grays looked in closer quarters.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve always been a sucker for water.  Rivers, waterfalls, even the ocean.  They hold a special place in my heart.  I suppose it comes as no surprise then, that waterfalls captivate me.  It is also probably why I find myself drawn to places with majestic falls. Scotland with its highland falls forever sits as one of my favorite places on earth.  Similarly the falls of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia stand out as one of my favorite places in Central Europe.  After winding my way through the fjords, I’m thrilled to add Norway to that list. I can only hope I have the opportunity in the near future to seek out new Norwegian fjords, valleys and canyons each home to their own plethora of falls – both mighty and miniature.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

The fjords offer an interesting contrast. On the one hand they look and feel wild and rugged. On the other it is obvious that centuries of human habitation have shaped them.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Small farms, fields and even churches can be found sandwiched between the water and the cliffs along small sloping deltas. Many of which look to have been carved out initially by waterfalls, and later silted in as the water transported newly harvested gravel down towards the water’s edge.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

In other places the falls seem to emerge from the cliffs, fall majestically for hundreds of feet, and then return once more into the cliffs only to re-emerge once again hundreds of feet below.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually we reached the harbor at the end of the Nærøyfjord. There we were greeted by a parking lot and lodge with food, restrooms and gifts.  As Anna and I checked our itinerary we were greeted by two options.  A nearly immediate bus, or an hour and a half gap until the next bus.  The decision was simple.

The Fjord, Waterfalls and a Thistle - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we pulled into the harbor, we’d spotted two small red dots (people) at the base of one of the nearby waterfalls.  Eager to get close to one of the falls, we opted for the later bus and set out back down the fjord.

Wild Strawberries - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Before long we’d identified a tiny path that looked largely abandoned.  As we strolled along it towards the falls, I spotted wild strawberries a little ways off the path.  Always one to try wild berries in foreign countries, we quickly paused, picked one and tried it.  They were absolutely delicious.  Hungry from our ferry ride, we relaxed for a few minutes and dined on wild strawberries, enjoying their crisp fresh flavor and relishing the sheer majesty of the setting.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

With red stained palms we continued along our way and eventually reached the waterfall.  It was stunning.  The roar of the water rumbled below our feet, the humid scent of fresh water beat into a mist filled our nostrils and a gentle breeze blew down the fjord.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve mentioned the size and scope of the fjords repeatedly. But note the image above. If you look closely, you’ll see me standing at the foot of the falls. The experience was humbling and made that much more powerful by the lack of any improvements. The falls were wild, natural and completely exposed.

The Waterfall - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we sat enjoying the falls, the light broke through just long enough to catch the falling sheets of water. The dark color of the rocks, combined with the rich greens of the moss and fern covered cliff face only added to the beauty of the falls.

A Waterfall Through the Mists - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually, the wind blew a light drizzle our way.  Heads ducked under our hoods we made our way back along the path towards the visitors center and our waiting bus.  I couldn’t let out a sigh, thinking the adventure was largely over. Little did I know, two more wonders still waited.

View Towards the Fjord - Stalheim, Norway

We boarded our bus, stripped off our drenched outer layers and settled in for the ride back to the train station. Only, to our surprise we passed the main tunnel (one of the longest in the world) and began to wind up the valley. The sound of the bus in low gear, groaning as it climbed and climbed piqued my interest as I lazily sat gazing out the bus window, enjoying being warm for the first time in hours. Then we turned a corner and I saw it. A spectacular view back down the valley from thousands of feet above the valley floor. It was mesmerizing.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

…and then after the briefest of pauses and a brief level stretch the front of the bus tipped forward. The bus jumped slightly as the driver changed gears, and then we began to wind downward. Only, it wasn’t a slow gradual descent. Instead it was one of the famous zig-zag switchbacks Norway is famous for. With an insanely steep grade, we wound down the switchbacks with baited breath.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

Barely more than two bus lengths a leg, the switchbacks left us all with an adrenaline rush. Some stood and looked out over the side, others made small whimpering noises and lowered their eyes in an effort to avoid the apparent insanity of it all. Then, in that heightened state we paused briefly in the middle of one of the middle switchbacks. There, to our left was one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the largest, or the most powerful – but framed as it was by lush green vegetation and viewed as it was from a bus window in the midst of one of the most harrowing switchbacks I’ve ever experienced, it was absolutely astounding.

It was with that final image in my mind that our trip through the fjords wound to a close. We made our way through one of the worlds longest tunnels, transferred back onto the train to Bergen, and eventually made it back to Bergen in time for a late dinner as the sun moved towards twilight.

If you ever have the opportunity to do it, the Norway in a Nutshell fjord tour is an absolute must. It truly is the experience of a lifetime.

Sleeping at the Hospital and My Intro to Stavanger


Trip to Stavanger

I’ve known for quite some time now that I can’t sleep sitting up. Give me a flat surface or a semblance of one and I’m out in minutes even if its alongside a busy street. A reclining chair though?  Heaven help me. It’s a hopeless battle. So, no doubt you can imagine what – or should I say how – I spent most of my 8 hour overnight train ride from Oslo to Stavanger. I suppose given my propensity for the odd but no less boisterous snore it was ultimately in the best interests of everyone else in the train car…still…I’m just selfish enough, that I’d have gladly said to hell with them and dozed contentedly even if it might have sounded as though we had a freight train in tow.

The one upside to, well…being up was that by 3 or 4AM when the sun began to rise, I was awake and able to see the sheer beauty of the Norwegian countryside as dawn stirred it from a fitful evening’s rest. It was beautiful.  With gorgeous fjords, wild shorelines, small rivers, and beautiful forests it was my first true taste of the untamed Norwegian countryside.

Tall Ship - Stavanger, Norway

Eventually, the wild countryside gave way to a more domesticated landscape.  One with cottages, small towns, sleepy villages, and then eventually a bustling city. I’d arrived in the city of Stavanger.  At just over 120,000 citizens in the city proper and 300,000 or so in the Stavanger Metro Area it ranks as Norway’s third largest city, though if you’re like the average tourist, you may not necessarily have heard of it.   Located at the end of a rail line which branches out from Stavanger and forks down through Kristiansand before winding back up and around the deep fjords to Stavanger the city is geographically fairly close to the popular tourist and cruise destination of Bergen but only accessible from Bergen by ferry, bus or car as rail traffic to the city requires a return trip back to Oslo and then back out towards Bergen.

Upon my arrival I spent a considerable amount of time in the cool morning air dodging the occasional raindrop as I tried to make heads or tails of what seemed to be profoundly vague hostel directions.  After asking several bus drivers and getting a variety of different looks and answers I eventually tracked down the pick up spot for Bus 11. Though it sounds like a simple enough task, it was about a block away from the station and halfway around the small lake which sits in front of the train station.  Made that much more challenging to identify, as the spot was marked by a small placard on a lamp post instead of the glass booths which marked the other 20 something bus stops.

Sleepy Duck - Stavanger, Norway

The ride itself was rather painless.  My goal was to find the Student Hospital which my notes from the Hosteling International website identified as the closest nearby landmark.  As it turned out, the bus driver though being friendly, really didn’t speak much English and apparently either misunderstood my question, or forgot about it. As I watched what looked like it might be a hospital drift past, a friendly local who had over heard my conversation with the driver, suggested that I get off at the next stop for the hospital.  Grateful, I hit the button just in time and sighed in relief as we pulled over and paused at the 2nd (and last) stop near the hospital.

The bus pulled away, and I found myself standing somewhat baffled. The directions said it was located near the hospital and was at times used as overflow accommodation for the hospital.  Weird, but no big deal…right?  The catch was, the only thing I could see besides the hospital was a sea of houses. With a harrumph, I spotted the  Hospital Hotel – a hotel which was physically attached to the hospital itself and shared a common lobby, but which was designed to service hospitalized patients family members as well as those no longer i need of an actual hospital bed, but not yet ready to leave the immediate vicinity of the hospital itself.  I figured that of all the locals, the front desk staff at the hospital was my best bet for locating the hostel.

Cathedral - Stavanger, Norway

A few minutes later found me in the hospital lobby at the hotel desk.  As I walked up and smiled, I looked more than a little out of place, surrounded as I was by new and expectant mothers, bandaged elderly, and the occasional wheelchair bound patient out for a stroll.

“Excuse me? Can I ask you a quick question?” I asked somewhat meekly.

I followed up the woman’s nod and courteous smile, “Can you perchance tell me where to find the Hostel near here?”.

Her nose crinkled slightly as her lips pouted to one side in an obvious expression of thought before she responded, “A Hostel?  I’m not familiar with one, but let me ask my boss”.

She turned and beckoned to a second woman in the office behind her. I groaned silently in gentle frustration.

She passed my question on, and then took a step to the side as the manager joined me at the counter. “Oh!” She exclaimed “That’s us! We actually just began renting out hostel rooms, though none of the supplies have arrived yet”. I stood temporarily left mute, then recovered quickly as she continued, “Since we don’t have the bunks yet, we’ll give you a private room at the price you booked at (some 295 NOK or about $45 USD).  I checked in trying to not chuckle and began to ponder the oddity of it all.

It’s important to note that while by general European and international standards $45/night for a hostel bed is ridiculous (and by far $10 more than any other hostel I stayed in), it was fairly reasonable for Stavanger which is only serviced by 2 hostels.  The other of which is a a classic Hi Hostel which charged 250 NOK for a dorm room, and an additional fee for wifi and sheets which I figured would have come to ~295 NOK if not more. Which, despite the profoundly bizarre nature of the accommodation, made what I’ve begun calling the Hospithostal a fairly decent deal.

The good news was I ended up with my own room, with a great/clean bathroom, Television with Cable, a 4th story view out over the fjord and free Wifi with a strong signal.  The bad news was, I was effectively in a hotel attached to a hospital and seemed to be one of, if not the only backpacker in the place. As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled by my prospects for wild and crazy adventures with fellow hostellers. I really can’t imagine the Hospithostel has any clue what they’re signing up for – I can imagine a lot of odd and off beat locations poorly prepared for the onslaught of a group of drunk and rowdy traveling Aussies and Americans, but a hospital is one place that just begs trouble. Especially given drunken hosteller’s propensity for playing with things and ending up in places they really aught not be in. Luckily for my criminal record (or lack there of) my stay in Stavanger ended up being a quiet one. No co-conspirators, no wandering through the hospital, and no memorable antics.  Which, given the beating my body ended up taking during the Preikestolen hike, was probably a good thing.

…and what the hell – how many hostels have YOU stayed in where you had to pass on the first elevator that showed up because a mother was pushing her newborn baby in a crib on wheels around the hospital for a post-delivery recovery walk.

I settled in, did laundry, and then curled up for a nap.  It was only 10AM after all, and I needed to recharge before heading into town and beginning my explorations.

Scandinavia Bound – Packing and Trip Prep

Hello friends!

As I gear up and prepare to start my next adventure later today, I’ve assembled a few tips and tricks for those of you who may be considering making a similar trip.  I’ll be spending the next 18 days traveling through Norway, Denmark and Germany, with a brief overnight stop in Dublin.

As i’ll be taking the trip between June 25th and July 13th daylight is not an issue (the equinox was on the 21st).  Temperature, however, will be. I’ll be leaving 110+ degree temperatures for the 50s and 60s which are the status quo this time of the year in central Norway.

I’ve recorded and included my latest packing video above. My key considerations have been layers, technology, and dealing with the high probability that I’ll end up drenched a few times.  The video is self explanatory, but if you have any questions on specifics, please don’t hesitate to ask!  I’ll be shooting photos/video on my Canon G11 and my Vixia HF200. Both of which I’ve been really happy with.


When I initially purchased my ticket, I had tentatively planned to visit Central Europe. As a result I picked an airport schedule that allowed me to fly into Dublin, Ireland (RyanAir’s main hub/cheapest airport in Europe, Madrid being the 2nd), and fly out of Nuremberg, Germany.  As I watched for airfare specials, it quickly became apparent that there’s some sort of pricing tiff going on between RyanAir and Central European airports, which drove me to choose a 5 Euro ticket (total cost, 25 Euro w/ 1 checked bag/taxes/fees) from Dublin to Oslo, Norway.  Combined with the recent economic woes which have crippled the Euro/Euro area countries, it seemed like there probably wouldn’t be a better  or cheaper time to visit Scandinavia, which is notorious for its high prices.

By the time I worked in my 1 day layover in Dublin, timezone changes, and travel time I have about 15 days of actual travel time.  Which, while longer than some trips, really only gives me 5 days per country.  This forced me to scrap my initial plans of doing Sweden, in addition to Norway, Denmark and Germany as it just didn’t make sense from a travel time cost.  Unfortunately, I only realized that I wouldn’t be able to do Sweden AFTER purchasing a 4 country, 8 day Eurail pass.  In retrospect, a 3 country, 8 day pass would have been a far better choice.  That said, the price difference was fairly negligible (some $70) compared to what the cost would have been for 8 individual train trips, which removed some of the sting from the mistake.  The final price for the pass was $390 which wile a decent expense, is far cheaper than the $80-$170 price on most medium-long leg train tickets in Scandinavia and Germany.  In addition to the base $390 fee, there will be several smaller reservation fees to reserve my actual seat, but these fees should be small.

I’ve booked two other major legs ahead of time.  These are a ferry trip from Stavanger to Bergen in Norway and a budget flight from Bergen to Copenhagen, Denmark.  While I prefer to travel on a more flexible schedule, research indicated that Stavanger and Bergen are only connected by Rail through a round about route which loops back through Oslo adding 6+ hours on to any tentative trip.  A ferry ride provides the opportunity to travel through the Fjords by boat, while traveling straight north along the coast directly to Bergen.  Additionally, by booking online through Flaggruten, a Norwegian ferry company, I was able to knock the price from 750 NOK, to 250 NOK or $38.50 USD. A hard price/special to beat.

The second challenge was getting from Bergen to Copenhagen, without having to re-trace ground through Oslo and Sweden.  What would have been a 10-15 hour train ride ends up being a mere 1 hour direct flight.  By experimenting with different budget airports, airlines and destinations, I was able to find a flight for 693 NOK which is about $107 USD.  This cut hours and hours of travel time out of my schedule, was reasonable, and allowed me to spend an extra day exploring the cities I wanted to spend time in. I found the ticket through Wideroe, which seems to be the best priced discount Scandinavia airline (they also have an amazing all you can fly pass – similar to a Eurail pass).  Unlike a number of their competitors Wideroe offers a youth (under 25) ticket, which knocked the price down substantially.  By choosing a flexible departure time, and booking a youth ticket I was able to save $50-100+ off the price of the next cheapest competitor.

The rest of my travel and transport will be done via my Eurail pass or local day tour groups.

For now, I’ve gotta run.  My flight and a new part of the world awaits!

Martian Landscapes, Barren Desert and Old Bridges

Northern Arizona Desert - B&W

When I left you last I’d just wrapped up a delightful evening exploring Flagstaff and begun my first American Hostel experience.  The following morning I woke up early, washed up and made a quick call to connect with Noelle who was the friend of a friend I’d met the evening before and was eager to join me on my day-long road trip through Northern Arizona.  We connected around 10:30 and by 11 had piled into the car and were trailblazing northward.

Desert Cactus - Northern Arizona

The first 30 minutes of the drive were pleasant and cool along old route 89A.  It took us through rural Flagstaff, pine forest and open meadows before cresting a small hill which opened up onto Arizona’s barren flatland’s.   The view before us stretched out and away for miles with the straight black line of the road cutting a ruler-perfect line down the sloping hill and out toward the horizon.  From our vantage point it was easy to identify where the pine transitioned into juniper, the juniper forest into grass lands with an occasional tree and then the naked rocky terrain that springs to mind when one imagines Arizona.

Northern Arizona - View Towards Flagstaff

As we said goodbye to most things green we found a small paved road which forked out from a tiny town (Gray Mountain) with a restaurant, gas station and 4 buildings nestled along along the highway. Eager to get out into the countryside we followed the road as far as we could – it eventually turned to dirt before dead ending at a power relay station.  As we backtracked we parked (essentially in the middle of the road) and got out to take in the natural beauty and sheer contrast of the location.   The desert that surrounded us was brown and lacked any consistent form of ground vegetation, though it was periodically dotted by beautiful blooming cactus blossoms or small wildflowers with muted orange and yellow flowers.  The barren desert landscape stretched out, largely flat, but was broken by the snow covered peaks of the San Francisco Mountains which surround Flagstaff.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona


The small town of Cameron is located just under 60 miles north of Flagstaff and tends to stand out on maps for two main reasons.  The first and best known of which, is that it sits at the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 64, which splits off from 89 and strikes west towards the Grand Canyon.  The town’s second claim to fame is the Cameron Trading post: a sprawling trinket, food and hotel complex that sits overlooking the Little Colorado’s dusty riverbed.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

While the trading post itself has never had much draw for me – it mostly consists of the usual over-priced south western toy tomahawks, sand paintings and weird leather cowboy memorabilia – the old bridge built in 1911 has always captured my imagination.  There’s something about the basic design, when combined with the classic suspension architecture that oozes personality.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

The old one lane bridge, which has been closed to public traffic for years, turns 100 next year.  Though old and no longer used by automotive/foot traffic the bridge is in good condition and still supports a large north/south pipeline.  It offers an interesting contrast between new and old, as it stands immediately parallel to a more modern bridge which supports 89A and serves as one of Arizona’s main North/South arteries.

Northern Arizona Desert

Painted Desert/Tuba City

Some 30 miles North of Cameron is Tuba City.  Though a relatively short geographic distance, the geological variation is spectacular.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those 30 minutes, took us close to two hours as we regularly paused along the side of the road to explore.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our first stop was at a series of incredible bald hills.  The hills, if they can be called that, varied in size and looked more on par with giant anthills than the usual small hill.  Roughly the size of a house, they were completely devoid of any vegetation.  What limited vegetation could be found was usually in the form of small plants clustered along small ditches carved out by rain and erosion.

Northern Arizona Desert

Unfortunately, the area we stopped at had been used somewhat recently by ATVers for off road fun which left the hills heavily scarred. The ground itself had an odd consistency.  The dirt was cracked and obviously dry, but also extremely fine and soft.  It left me feeling like I was walking across the surface of the moon, though its appearance had far more in common with mars.  The dirt itself was a wide mixture of colors, from reds and browns to deep grays.  It’s truly an incredible site and well worth exploring.  Especially if you’re the type who has always dreamed of visiting Mars or the Moon.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our next stop wasn’t technically in the painted desert, which is further to the North East, but it did offer an incredible view of gorgeous desert landscapes that looked as though they’d been painted in watercolor.

Northern Arizona Desert

Located just outside Tuba City – these hills were absolutely stunning.  With each layer a different color they offer a desert rainbow for those who pause long enough to take them in.   In many places the sandstone rocks have been partially eroded creating small sand dunes, which only serve as a further reminder of just how arid and difficult the natural environment is.

Northern Arizona Desert

As we paused for a few photos, we were greeted by one of those a-typical sights that you only stumble across while traveling. As we stood sweating, roasting in the desert heat a heavily laden Asian man in what appeared to be his 30’s passed us.  In and of itself not all that noteworthy right?  Wrong, this guy was apparently rollerblading his way across the state, loaded with a heavy backpack, wearing two roller-blades, and with a modified hockey stick for balance (and perhaps snakes).  Needless to say, the guy oozed a mixture of badass and Buddhist monk.

From there it was up a hill, across jagged, rocky terrain and into Tuba City.  A small-ish town with a few gas stations, fast food joints and a dive restaurant or two.  We ended up at a small sandwich shop which looked busy and had mediocre food.   The service was slow and ambling, though that may have been as much perception as reality given our famished state.

Northern Arizona Desert

Time was slipping by, and we elected to stop our northward push and begin making our way back towards Cameron, where we’d split off and make a B-Line for the Grand Canyon in the hope of reaching it in time for sunset.  First, however, it was time for another quick break.  This time we found a small pull off atop a decent sized shelf, which offered a Lion King esque view of the desert valley below us.

Northern Arizona Desert

The view was incredible and the lack of vegetation served as a stark contrast against the pine trees and lush greenery that we’d started the morning out with.

Northern Arizona Desert

We took a few minutes to enjoy the view, paused to snap a few silly snapshots jumping off the cliff or taking in the scenery and then jumped back in the car.  We were drenched in sweat and eager to escape the sun scorched desert.

Where next? Cameron, a quick pause along the Little Colorado and then the Grand Canyon to take in a spectacular sunset. The photos from that leg of the trip are spectacular, so stay tuned for my next post!

My First US Hostel, New Friends and Flagstaff Arizona

Northern Arizona - View Towards Flagstaff

I’ve made no secret of my general lack of passion for the desert so this series of posts will no doubt surprise some of you. Based out of Scottsdale, AZ most of the year, I don’t do a lot of hiking and seldom write posts dedicated to exploring my own back yard. We’ve got a lot of different types of cactus, cat’s claw, dirt, rocks, rattle snakes and scorpions. None of which really reaches out and excites me – a person drawn to running rivers, green mountains, moss covered rocks or sandy beaches and open ocean.

Flagstaff - Downtown

That said, A three day weekend presented itself and I decided to give Northern Arizona a chance while checking out my first US Hostel. I’ve been in Arizona for a long time. Nine years in Sedona, four years in Prescott and another seven plus in various cities around the valley. Prescott holds a special place in my heart for its fun atmosphere, history and spunky nature.

On the other hand Sedona and I have just recently begun to get re-acquainted. After leaving the city at the end of middle school we got a much-welcomed divorce. I lost any/all appreciation for the area’s natural beauty and was at constant odds with the never ending onslaught of star children, boredom, grumpy retired corporate executives and a prolific assortment of people that were…well…quite often batshit insane.

Flagstaff - Downtown

I share this with you because it underscores the often overlooked value of changing your perspective and exploring your own back yard through the eyes of a tourist. Over the years I’ve probably made 50+ trips to Flagstaff to shop or visit College friends. I can navigate my way around, am familiar with some of the popular watering holes and can readily recite local attractions. Despite all that I hadn’t ever truly seen or experienced Flagstaff until this past weekend. A realization which has only just begun to register.

The Trip

The premise was simple: Drive north. Try a hostel. Be a tourist. Have fun.

I had 3 days, a hand sketched map of Northern Arizona with a few significant points of interest marked and a $19 online booking for 1 night at the Grand Canyon International Hostel in Flagstaff, AZ. From there I’d spend a day exploring the far northern reaches of the state before returning to Flagstaff where I’d crash on and old College buddy’s sofa before heading back to Phoenix the following morning.

Flagstaff - Downtown

The trip started out well.  Shortly after mid-day on Saturday I packed up the car, grabbed a water, wiped the sweat from my eyebrows and cranked up the AC.  I was off. Me, myself, my thoughts, and an adventure.

Flagstaff - Downtown

The drive north was great. No where near the Memorial Day Weekend traffic I expected.  The weather was beautiful – sunny blue skies with a slight breeze.  The Scottsdale/Flagstaff leg of the trip on the I-17 was old hat, but I tried to push myself to see it differently…to explore it as a new adventure and experience. The end result was a very pleasant drive which left me drifting along the interstate lost in my own thoughts and the hypnotic feel that goes with a long drive down open roads on a beautiful day.


I reached the city around 4:30 in the afternoon. Scratched my head and looked at my poorly drawn directions before setting off to find the hostel.  Before long I found San Francisco Street and made a right turn.  The road was blocked by a passing train which caught my attention and drew most of my focus.  As I sat filming the train from my diver’s side window a shirtless biker paused briefly.  I raised an eyebrow to which he quickly responded, “Dude, you know this street is one way, right?” I quickly muttered a curse about one way streets in Arizona, thanked him for the heads up and flipped a hasty U turn more than a little grateful that the train was still racing by blocking the wall of traffic which no doubt waited patiently on the other side. I was a bit flustered and couldn’t help but laugh heartily at myself.  You don’t find many one-way streets in Arizona and yet I’d not only found one but turned down it. It would appear I was working overtime to play the part of the tourist.

Flagstaff - Downtown

After a bit of backtracking I quickly overcame the challenges posed by the one-way streets and found the right cross streets for my hostel.  Parked and made my way inside. The guy at the front desk was friendly, checked my reservation and made a face.  My heart skipped a beat as he muttered “Oops, looks like there was an issue with your reservation” he paused briefly, then looked up and smiled, “No worries though, your reservation has been transferred over to  Dubeau hostel down the street” I grimaced, not sure what to expect and thanked him for the directions.

Flagstaff - Downtown

It turned out that the Dubeau hostel was right around the corner and a great place with a fun vibe. I’ve done dozens of hostels in Europe and Central America but had no idea what to expect in an American hostel.  Would they be social?  Would they be clean?  Would they be youth oriented? As it turns out, the answer is yes.  It would seem that hostels are hostels no matter what country you find yourself in.

The hostel was an old converted motel in the shape of a U.  The rooms stretched back around a parking area while the bottom of the U consisted of the main office, two kitchens, a dining room, common reading area and activities room with free pool, table soccer and several tables.

I was given a quick tour, then sent out to find my room.  The room was nice and clean.  It had an en-suite bathroom, and 4 bunk-beds.  I quickly chose one of the remaining free ones, and got acquainted with a Brazilian guy who was unwinding after a long bus ride from Canada. We talked about Flagstaff, things to do and see and a bit about Brazil before I set out to explore the town.

The hostel has a great vintage feel, driven home by a large sign mounted on top of what looks like an old radio tower in the front yard.  It adds a very western feel which seeps into the surrounding area.  The streets south of the railroad tracks between Beaver Street and San Francisco Street are alive with small shops, dive bars and old-nearly abandoned warehouses, accommodation, and apartments.  Buildings are either decorated with pealing paint and old sun faded signs or vibrant wall art/graffiti which brightens up alleyways and puts a near constant smile on your face.

Flagstaff - Downtown

As I wandered through the area I found myself pausing regularly to take in entertaining little nuances.  Perhaps the most entertaining was an old beat up tourism sign on what looked to be a small abandoned building framed perfectly by a sign for the local strip-club which was across a side street and right next door.  The end result was a comical contrast of clashing cultures which perfectly reflects Flagstaff’s eclectic culture.

Flagstaff - Downtown

Before long I found myself crossing back over the tracks and into the city’s main downtown area.  A mixture of outdoor shops, restaurants, bars, new age shops, art galleries and coffee shops the whole area is alive with foot traffic and bustling with energy.  People are friendly and the sound of an outdoor music performance could be heard drifting from a public square near by. Truly, it’s a great part of town and one that I’d never seen or experienced during previous trips.  The area which also holds the town’s bar district (similar to Whiskey Row in Prescott and Mill Avenue in Tempe) was something I’d only seen at night and often only in passing.

Hostel Life

From there it was back to the hostel where I quickly struck up a conversation with two guys from the  UK – one from England, one from Scotland. As it turned out there were 6 of them, all Royal Airforce/Military on a two week hiking trip out from their military base on Cypress. We quickly hit it off and talked travel, Arizona, US and Mexican food before joining a game of horse shoes (a first for them) with two girls from Durango.  As we continued to get acquainted over a beer or two  a French Canadian gal joined the group, along with two Germany girls and the rest of the Brits.  We shared stories, got acquainted and then got several raging games of table football going before playing some music.  Shortly after 11PM I geared up to head to the bars where I was scheduled to meet up with an old College friend. I set off with one of the guys from Scotland in tow. Before long we’d found our way into one of the local watering holes and set to enjoying the local bar scene.

Flagstaff - Downtown

A while later my friend arrived with several of his girlfriends. We got acquainted and continued telling funny stories while laughing heartily as the others tried to decipher Paddy’s thick Glasgow accent. As the night wound down, I shared my plans for the following day with Noelle – one of Ryan’s friends. She expressed interest in the trip and I invited her to join.  To my surprise (Given we’d just met and since I’d made it clear I didn’t have a set schedule) she jumped at the opportunity.  We set a time to connect in the and then said our goodbyes before heading back to the hostel to call it a night.

Stay tuned to part II of this post for photos and stories of the wild desert north of Flagstaff, Tuba City, Painted Desert, a Man on Rollerblades and Sunset at the Grand Canyon!