By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

The Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

How can I accurately describe in words an adventure that takes me through five states, six national parks and a legendary Navajo tribal park, up and over desert mesas, deep into bottomless canyons, out into the rugged backcountry of the Mountain West, and through the very heart of the American Road Trip Experience? A lofty goal, to scribble prose about such an experience – an experience so grand that even photographs fail to capture its essential essence.

That said, it sure is fun to try.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

This was my first time on the road with Go Ahead tours, but it was obvious from day one that I was late to the party – it seemed as if more than half of or touring party had been on two, three, ten, twelve tours in the past, and while we exchanged pleasantries during our introduction dinner in Santa Fe, they raved about the good times ahead for us all (spoiler alert: the trip was every bit as remarkable as advertised). Yet instead of a lengthy debrief – a thinly-disguised effort to guard against a diary-style diatribe, if I’m being honest with you – I thought I’d write about a few of the experiences that truly touched me during this adventure.

The Grand Canyon, Go Ahead U.S. National Parks tour (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ve been a journalist for more than 10 years now, and I’ve been fortunate to have been sent out on assignment to some of the most remarkable places in the world, to do some of the wildest and strangest things imaginable. Sure, a few of those places are probably best characterized as terrifying, and a few of the situations I’ve put myself in have made for less than ideal travel memories, but I hope, I believe, that each new experience helps me appreciate the next deeper, and allows me to live in the moment each time I set out to do my job.

Wildlife on Go Ahead's U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Enter the tour company Go Ahead and their National Parks tour. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, peering out over an endless expanse of ochre and rust and cinnamon, condors diving to un-seeable depths, and clouds retreating toward a shimmering horizon, I quietly reflected on my entire career, and was charged with the realization that this moment ranked among the most moving.

Grand Canyon Views with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

Adrian, our energetic and informative Go Ahead guide, had slyly enriched our experience prior to our arrival by telling us stories about the architect Mary Colter and her efforts to design and build the Desert View Watchtower (as well as the Lookout Studio and the Hermit’s Rest). By the time we climbed the steps of the 70-foot stone monolith ourselves, it felt like we somehow deeply connected to the place, and that we knew a little something of the secret history of the Grand Canyon itself. Adrian’s thoughtful commentary – whether flecking conversations with anecdotes about mule trips into the Grand Canyon, or bear safety in Yellowstone – helped transform a sightseeing tour and into experiential travel expedition, and for his knowledge on geography, wildlife and history, I know I’ll be forever grateful.

Desert View Watchtower with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

I’ll remain grateful also for Adrian’s brilliant on-site recommendations. I knew I wanted to set off on my own for a more rigorous hike. I peppered him with constant questions about rim walks and hikes to great viewpoints; art galleries and artists in residence; and the best gift shops through which to procure walking stick medallions (in case you’re into that sort of thing…), and each time he responded with thoughtful commentary and useful references. And when he suggested that we embark upon a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon on our free day, I thought he was a certifiable genius.

Artist at Work in the Grand Canyon (credit: Flash Parker)

What could I possibly say about a helicopter ride of the Grand Canyon that I couldn’t convey in photographs? Here’s a quick glimpse at this once-in-a-lifetime experience, courtesy of the folks at #FlyTheCanyon.

Grand Canyon Bird's Eye View with #FlyTheCanyon and Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

By the time my feet were back on solid ground, I was so energized that I truly believed I could conquer the canyon – so I gave it my best shot by racing down the legendary Bright Angel Trail. Notorious for its unforgiving incline (10% for much of the trail) and extreme weather variations – it can be a cool 60F on the canyon rim and a blazing 105F on the floor – the Bright Angel is best tackled over two days. Since I was working with a little less than half a day, I decided to tackle the 12-mile round-trip journey to Plateau Point, rather than the 20-mile march to Phantom Ranch.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon with Go Ahead (credit: Flash Parker)

At times my odyssey was grueling, but it was rewarding throughout – views from deep in the canyon itself are unparalleled, and there’s nothing like the sensation of trekking along until the hustle and bustle of the South Rim is muted, and all that remains is ancient rock and raging Colorado River. When I arrived at Plateau Point, I thought of my new Go Ahead friends, and how the trip had been designed with something for everyone in mind – my free time allowed me to get out into the wild and challenge myself, create a story to call my own, and a few memories to share when I returned to civilization. Go Ahead had delivered on their promise to immerse me in the National Parks experience fully and completely.

Go Ahead U.S. National Parks Tour (credit: Flash Parker)

Go Ahead U.S. National Park Tour with Flash Parker

Interested in learning more about Flash’s journey? Read more about it on and check out Go Ahead’s U.S. National Parks tour.  

Flash is a journalist, photographer, and author based in Wyoming. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Celebrated Living, Asian Geographic, Food and Travel, American Cowboy, and more. Flash is the reigning 2016 SATW Bill Muster Photographer of the Year.

By travel writer Lisa TE Sonne

Austin Adventures’ weeklong guide training is held in Billings, MT each spring for both returning and new guides alike. The training involves classroom and field trip time in which the guides learn skills as varied as creating a beautiful picnic lunch spread, knowing what a guide should carry in her backpack, and specifics like the Austin Adventures signature “WOW Factor”. This year, the group toured Yellowstone National Park to put their skills and training to the test, and invited travel writer Lisa TE Sonne.

The Austin Guides - veterans and trainees - celebrate a good training week! (Photo by Andy Austin)

The Austin Guides – veterans and trainees – celebrate a good training week! (Photo by Andy Austin)

While I am feeling carefree, gleefully riding a bike hands-free through a forest, there is a guide up ahead checking the route and ready to answer questions. Another guide (we are blissfully unaware of) is making sure our next activity is set up, the dinner location is prepared for any special diets in our group, and the hotel rooms and keys are all set for our arrival.

Gratitude and kudos to great guides!  They can take us to places that aren’t in the guidebook, help us tour the most tourist-popular parks, cities and iconic sites in novel ways, and share memorable non-touristy waterfalls and watering holes.

IMG_0653 (2)

Hikers round the bend and the advance guide has set up a delicious “Wow” moment and a chance for all to catch their breath and take photos.

As a travel writer, I’ve thanked guides on every continent for sharing their expertise and tips. A tour operator can plan fantastic-sounding itineraries and secure well-vetted accommodations, but it is often the on-the-ground/horse/kayak guides that make or break the experience-memories of guests.

Sonne wouldn't have been able to cover ash-boarding down a volcano in Nicaragua without the help of a good guide.

Sonne wouldn’t have been able to cover ash-boarding down a volcano in Nicaragua without the help of a good guide.

That photograph of the Amazon anteater in a tree with his long tongue sticking out? That was thanks to a naturalist guide who asked the boat driver to kill the engine and let us float.   My getting to “ash board” down a volcano in Nicaragua and write about it for American Way, the inflight magazine?  Wouldn’t have happened if a guide hadn’t carried the heavy board up the steep slope so I could take pictures of the steam rising up through vents in other-worldly looking terrain.  And I salivate thinking of all the goodies I have tasted because a guide arranged for a local specialty.

I appreciate good guides even more after spending several days last June with a dynamic group of 27 handpicked guides as they went through “Guide Training” in Montana and Wyoming for Austin Adventures, an award-winning member of USTOA.

Austin Guides make guests feel even more at home "where the buffalo roam" as the song goes and let visitors know that technically there are no buffalos in the United States - they are bison.

Austin Guides make guests feel even more at home “where the buffalo roam” as the song goes and let visitors know that technically there are no buffalo in the United States – they are bison.

Half the guides were Austin veterans with 1 to 20 seasons, quite familiar with both the guiding basics and the signature Austin touches, like a red carpet from the van.  The newbies ranged from guides who had been experts with other companies to people with diverse, relevant experience that wanted a career change – including ski instructors, river-raft captains, a medic during the war in Iraq, and people who ran outdoor programs for the handicapped and inner-city youth.

Being good with people and loving the outdoors are obvious qualities needed. But after spending several days with these chosen guides, it became clear that good guides also have to be logistics and time-management experts, good drivers, cooks, accountants, psychologists, cheerleaders, teachers, fixers and finders… as well as naturalists and fun-loving fitness-folk.

VP of Operations Kasey Austin Morrissey teaches the guides in situ as well as interviews all the candidates and makes selections. She was distinguished as the world's best family guide in 2014 by OUTSIDE Magazine.

VP of Operations Kasey Austin Morrissey teaches the guides in situ as well as interviews all the candidates and makes selections. She was distinguished as the world’s best family guide in 2014 by OUTSIDE Magazine.

Indoor sessions were held ranging from how to speak well and learn everyone’s names and interests, to good accounting and paperwork practices. Outdoor sessions in gorgeous settings included bicycle repair, how to pace a hike for multiple generations, practice creating the Austin “Wow” moments, and how to build “WAM” into the day – Water Appreciation Moments – so no one gets dehydrated.

Part of this phase of Austin Adventures’ guide-training was to let the new guides work with their partner for the upcoming season. This relationship is one of the deepest pairings they will have in their lives – more intense than marriage for some – because they need to keep each other going 24/7 and decide who does what behind the scenes so that guests can have a seamless, pampered vacation.

Working with your partner guide can be a complex dance of well planned choreography and some cool spontaneity (aka prepared plan B,C, D) to make sure the guests only have pleasure, not problems.

Working with your partner guide can be a complex dance of well planned choreography and some cool spontaneity (aka prepared plan B,C, D) to make sure the guests only have pleasure, not problems.

Throughout each trip, the Austin guides tag-team — one leads an activity while the other secures advance logistics/supplies, and then returns the multi-functioning van to the end of the trail site so when guests finish their walking, canoeing or horseback riding, they are met with fresh drinks, towelettes, cut-up fresh fruits, and other snacks.

Guides don't just drive the van. During training, guides learn how to organize, clean, load up and hitch trailers to the multi-functioning van as well as make sure the inside has guidebooks, drinks and fresh flowers.

Guides don’t just drive the van. During training, guides learn how to organize, clean, load up and hitch trailers to the multi-functioning van as well as make sure the inside has guidebooks, drinks and fresh flowers.

These days, some people are tempted to organize and guide their own trip via internet clicks, but then you are often looking at a screen instead of savoring the setting and must always be in “responsibility mode” instead of just being able to respond to the beauty and pleasures around you. With a tour operator who has great guides, you can hand off any headaches to someone who specializes in good planning and flexible spontaneity.  After my guide training days, two advantages in particular stood out:

*Accommodations:   I don’t have to have reservations about reservations.  Someone else booked my room with my requests.  A guide hands me my key. My luggage is already in the room. And on an Austin Adventures trip, the room may even have a personal note or gift waiting for me. In the case of the National Parks, Austin Adventures connection with Xanterra means they could have blocks of rooms even when the web shows everything is booked.

Usually parents are expected to have all the answer. A good guide can ask and answer questions: Do you know what animal rubbed up against this tree and left it's fur? (Answer: some people would call it a buffalo, but you know it's a bison!)

Usually parents are expected to have all the answers. A good guide can ask and answer questions: Do you know what animal rubbed up against this tree and left it’s fur? (Answer: some people would call it a buffalo, but you know it’s a bison!)

*Questions:  Questions are part of all good travel, but it can be more fun to ask and learn than always be expected to have the answers. A good guide’s knowledge ranges from the names of plants and the years and yarns of battles to where the nearest bathroom is (or where the nearest answer is). You don’t have to bury your nose in a book or screen and miss the chick hatching under the penguin. You can listen to the guide tell you why the whales are jumping straight up out of the water… while they are surging up. And instead of being annoyed when you hear, “Are we there yet?” you might be entertained. The clever guide might pipe in “Not yet. It will be about half an hour, but see that tall mountain over there? Have you heard the legend about it?”

Yes, kudos and gratitude to great guides who help us make our own legendary memories.


Lisa TE Sonne is a travel hyphenate (author- writer- photographer- videographer- possibilitator) who has written for an Academy Award-winning documentary and Emmy-winning PBS series. She loves adventure and cultural travels and has enjoyed guided activities on all 7 continents and from many great ocean, river, canal and sea cruises. She received a Gold for “Best Destination” writing from NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association). Her current books include THE HAPPINESS HANDBOOK: Simple Ways to Change your Life for the Better, GREAT OUTDOORS: A Nature Bucket List, and MY ADVENTURES: A Traveler’s Journal.  She and her husband run a nonprofit that offers Giving Certificates that can help any charity (and make great gifts for travel lovers). For more information, visit and

Located only eight hours from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, The Islands of Tahiti are pure paradise in the heart of the South Pacific. In addition to natural beauty and tranquility, the islands offer diverse outdoor experiences and rich Tahitian culture. Join Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge as she scouts local activities and inclusions for itineraries from Goway Travel to The Islands of Tahiti.


Modern Day Explorers: Luxury in The Islands of Tahiti

Only eight hours from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, the Islands of Tahiti are a secluded, yet surprisingly accessible, paradise. Get an insider look at how luxurious accommodations and experiences are arranged for Goway Travel guests as USTOA Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge discovers the best of the Islands of Tahiti.


Modern Day Explorers: Culture in The Islands of Tahiti

Known for its idyllic blue water and French Polynesian culture, The Islands of Tahiti offer a tranquil and enriching island escape. Modern Day Explorer Brownyn Hodge of Goway Travel takes you behind the scenes in Huahine, Tikehau and Rangiroa to showcase the insider access provided by USTOA tour operator members.


Modern Day Explorers: Cuisine in The Islands of Tahiti

Curious how tour operators find the most memorable, enriching experiences for travelers to book? Follow USTOA’s Modern Day Explorer Bronwyn Hodge of Goway Travel as she eats her way through the Islands of Tahiti, visiting a vanilla bean plantation, fishing, tasting spirits at a local distillery and enjoying a private Motu picnic.


Discover even more at and

Ready to visit? Visit for details on traveling to The Islands of Tahiti with Goway Travel.

Growing up in a family travel business, Bronwyn has been traveling from a very young age. Her favorite experience was three months spent backpacking through India and Southeast Asia. She counts many countries among her ‘favorites,’ but is especially fond of Australia for its lifestyle, Cambodia for its culture and resilience, and Japan for its contrasts. She holds the proud distinction of being Goway’s only former Bollywood star – having once starred in a Coke commercial in Mumbai.

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

September is Travel Together Month (Credit: Celtic Tours)

This September, USTOA kicks off its celebration of world travel during the third annual Travel Together Month. Throughout the month travelers and travel agents will find more than 100 special offers and exclusive savings to explore the globe.

Travel Together Month showcases a curated selection of offers from the country’s leading providers of independent and escorted group travel with travel dates available through 2018. Offers can be found through September 30, 2016, at, featuring travel to all seven continents and countless “live like a local” opportunities. Travel agents will also find exclusive incentives, free trips and bonus commissions.

Cuba (Credit: International Expeditions)

Cuba (Credit: International Expeditions)

Highlights include the following:

For consumers:

  • Alexander+Roberts: Couples can save as much as $1,000 ($500 solo) on all Small Group Journeys and Private Tours for the traveling party – including Japan, China, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, and all across Southeast Asia. Available through April 2018.
  • Australian Pacific Touring: Travelers save $2,000 per couple on select worldwide Small Ship Cruising itineraries. Valid on select itineraries; departure dates through 2017.
  • Globus: Guests on the 11-day “Best of Italy” itinerary visiting Rome, Tuscany, Florence, Venice, Naples and Capri save up to $646 per couple. Available on select 2017 departures.
  • Goway Travel: Savings of up to $12,000 per couple on select Antarctica sailings featuring destinations such as the Drake Passage and the Arctic Peninsula. Travel available during the 2016-2017 season.
  • Gate 1 Travel: Receive savings of $200 per person on the 12-day Classic South Africa trip, including, Cape Town, Hluhluwe, Swaziland, Hazyview and Johannesburg. Travel available through 2017.
  • Insider Journeys: Savings of $713-$1,547 per person on their choice of 17 departure dates between 9/1/16 and 12/31/16 for the Indochina Explorer 19-day trip in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Vietnam (Credit: Insider Journeys)

Vietnam (Credit: Insider Journeys)

 For travel agents:

  • Lindblad Expeditions: Travel agents receive a complimentary double cabin aboard the National Geographic Endeavour or National Geographic Endeavour II to Galápagos when six full-paying guests are booked aboard the same departure. Offer valid on a September 2016 – April 2017 departure.
  • Alexander+Roberts: Travel agents earn a $50 per person booking bonuses every time clients pay-in-full, and save $1,000 per couple ($500 solo), on three new Small Group Journeys, with never more than 16 guests, including the following trips: Our Pacific Northwest; Canada by Land, Water + Rail; and Stories of the Old South. Travel through April 2018.
  • Celtic Tours World Vacations: Receive a 16% commission plus $50 per person discount on all European self-drive tours, with a minimum of six-nights. Departures between September 1 – November 30, 2016.
  • African Travel, Inc.: Travel agents earn 15% commission for each Scenic Cape Town & Kruger Safari Vacation package booked. Clients will explore Cape Town, experience a Big Five safari near Kruger, and receive international and internal air. For travel January 1, 2017 – December 1, 2017.
  • Austin Adventures: Receive 12% commission plus an additional $100 per person booking bonus; applicable on all itineraries and destinations for departures within 2016.
  • Cox & Kings, The Americas: Travel professionals receive a $150 bonus commission when booking guests during the early booking incentive—save $500 per couple when travelers book any Custom Private Journey in the 2017/2018 brochures or on the website.
  • Collette: Travel agents can earn more with “Book Your Own Bonus”—agents qualify for the program with their first booking, can earn $50 for the second booking, and $100 for the third. Any additional bookings earn $100 per booking with no limit. Valid on new retail bookings made between September 1, 2016 – March 31, 2017 for departures in 2017.
Antarctica (Credit: Goway Travel)

Antarctica (Credit: Goway Travel)

Note: offers can be booked September 1-30, 2016. All travel deals, restrictions and booking instructions can be found at

For further inspirations or to search for dream travel itineraries and destinations, visit

Yellowstone National Park was set aside in 1872 for its abundant wildlife, beautiful landscapes and fascinating geothermal features. Join Modern Day Explorer Kasey Austin as she scouts experiences, activities and inclusions for Yellowstone National Park itineraries from Austin Adventures with the support of Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

Modern Day Explorers: Adventure in Yellowstone National Park 

Yellowstone National Park was set aside in 1872 to protect its abundant wildlife, beautiful landscapes and fascinating geothermal features. Explore the first National Park with Modern Day Explorer Kasey Austin of USTOA member Austin Adventures as she puts together the ultimate adventure vacation with the support of Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

Modern Day Explorers: Nature in Yellowstone National Park

Sunrise is always the best time of day to be out in Yellowstone National Park. Modern Day Explorer Kasey Austin of USTOA tour operator Austin Adventures with the support of Xanterra Parks & Resorts shows you why with a variety of wildlife sightings, from bears to bison.

Modern Day Explorers: Relax in Yellowstone National Park

Want to visit an increasingly popular national park without the crowds, hassle or planning? Modern Day Explorer Kasey Austin of Austin Adventures takes you behind the scenes in Yellowstone National Park with the support of Xanterra Parks & Resorts to showcase the insider access provided by USTOA tour operator members.


Discover even more at and

Ready to visit? Visit  for details on traveling to Yellowstone National Park with Austin Adventures.

Kasey works with ground operators around the world as well as domestic guides on the home front when it comes to the details of planning a vacation. She grew up in the business learning about adventure travel from a kid’s perspective and now puts what she’s learned since she was six years old to use both in the office and out in the field. Kasey has guided trips across the western United States and gets out to travel abroad whenever she gets the chance.



By Kasey Austin, Vice President of Operations, Austin Adventures


Behind every great tour experience is a phenomenal product manager – these “Modern Day Explorers” scout undiscovered experiences in new, emerging destinations, rediscover what’s new in beloved places, and get to know the community with the single goal to design enriching itineraries for you to book.

How do these explorers find the most memorable, culturally rich experiences you ask? Well, in 2016, USTOA is taking you behind-the-scenes with a handful of these Modern Day Explorers to find out. Today Kasey Austin of Austin Adventures reveals her experience in Yellowstone National Park. So, in her words… 


One hundred years… On August 25, 2016 the National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial, its kick-off to a second century of stewardship, its 100th birthday…whatever you call it, it’s a BIG DEAL! At Austin Adventures, we’re fortunate to host adventure vacations in the United States’ most precious gems, the national parks. This year is the most special year in the national parks’ history to date as we celebrate the big 1-0-0-TH birthday of the National Park Service. As our beautiful, precious parks grow their reputations as memorable vacation destinations, my job as an itinerary developer is to figure out ways to provide our guests with extraordinary experiences in these parks that rapidly grow in popularity each year. My week spent as a United States Tour Operators Association Modern Day Explorer gave me the chance to explore new places, meet old and new faces and show off a side of Yellowstone National Park that most visitors never see. Here are a few national park vacation planning tips I thought of along the way!

Blog - Kasey jumping_YL Sign

Access to National Park Lodging

First things first, like any great itinerary creationist, I’m going to first review local lodging and make sure I can secure it before I move on to any other steps of the itinerary building process. When traveling to Yellowstone, you’ll notice that Xanterra Parks & Resorts is the official in-park provider of all lodging, whether you’re looking to stay at the historic Lake Hotel or the famous Old Faithful Inn. In the peak summer season, it can be more challenging to find last minute accommodations, especially as the popularity of our national parks continues to grow. But, as a tour operator, we’ve been planning for two years prior to your vacation date, so even if you’re not able to secure room space for your get-away, all it takes is a simple call to see what lodging and itineraries we have available in the national park you want to visit. We’ve already done the planning for you (what a piece of cake!)

Blog - Old Faithful Inn

Finding New, Unique Ways to “Discover” Old Favorites

So you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone and you want to visit the iconic spots – Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lake Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River… the list continues. Go on your own during the busy summer months and risk visiting these beautiful places with hundreds of your closest friends if you choose to walk in from the parking lot and stick to the boardwalks. With a tried and true adventure itinerary and knowledgeable guide, you’ll discover these old favorites by hiking into the Grand Canyon “the back way” through flowery meadows, lodgepole pine forests and secret backcountry geyser basins. You’ll “happen” upon Old Faithful after having taken a fascinating walk past bubbling hot springs and goopy mud pots where you won’t see another tourist just a mile from the main boardwalk. Our jobs as adventure professionals require us to find those hidden attractions, just outside the public eye, and combine these experiences with the “gotta see ‘em” icons to create a one-of-a-kind adventure vacation.

Blog - Grand Canyon

There’s More to Yellowstone than Yellowstone Itself

Alright, so that heading is a bit confusing…! What I’m trying to say is that even though Yellowstone is the number one attraction on your Wyoming/Montana vacation, sometimes you’ve got to head just outside the park’s borders to truly add rich experiences and appreciate the region’s majesty. We combine our Yellowstone Vacations with zip lining outside the park’s west entrance in the Gallatin Canyon; horseback riding outside the park’s north entrance in Paradise Valley; and rafting outside the park’s south entrance in Jackson Hole. No trip to Yellowstone is complete without some exhilarating adventure activities – as a tour operator, we’ve scoped out all the options and picked the best of the best for your vacation out west! Plus, you won’t be dealing with the same magnitude of crowds if you wish Yellowstone au revoir for a few days (don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you return!)

Blog - Horseback riding

We are a tour operator who is proud to operate in our national parks. Heading into century number two of a dedicated National Park Service, places like Yellowstone will be dealing with the challenges and growing pains of an ever-increasing tourist population. However, with a USTOA member, your vacation to a national park can be one you’ll remember, without the crowds, hassle or planning that goes into creating the ultimate adventure vacation. We do all the work for you and love what we do!


Interested in learning more about Kasey’s journey to Yellowstone National Park? Go behind-the-scenes with Kasey with our video series, A Modern Day Explorer’s Quest to Yellowstone, launching later this week.

 Ready to visit? Visit for details on traveling to Yellowstone with Austin Adventures.

Kasey works with ground operators around the world as well as domestic guides on the home front when it comes to the details of planning a vacation. She grew up in the business learning about adventure travel from a kid’s perspective and now puts what she’s learned since she was six years old to use both in the office and out in the field. Kasey has guided trips across the western United States and gets out to travel abroad whenever she gets the chance.

By Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador


Every guidebook description of Skagway, Alaska—no matter how brief—mentions its Fourth of July celebration. Every single one. How can one day be that print-worthy? Well, I’m here to count the ways:

  • Skagway’s Fourth of July celebration starts on the Third of July. It’s that good. The campgrounds and RV parks are filling up with attendees and parade participants have arrived and are milling around town, looking for action. A bagpipe band (Ensemble? Corps?) holds a practice session at the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Street. They’re casual, wearing sweatshirts and jeans, but the pipes sound strong and echo off the mountains that hug the town. Dogs and toddlers run around, confused and excited by the noise and people.
  • Because of the long hours of summer sunlight up here, the fireworks don’t start up until almost midnight. Shot off from a boat, they scream into the sky between the walls of the fjord, spectacular, reflected in the water. Again, the booming bounces between the rock faces of this box canyon, making it echo as long as the colored light falls from the sky. It goes on for a ridiculously long half-hour, relentless, no Grucci Brothers orchestration of highs and lows, just fun, over-the-top, pretty explosions. Afterwards, everyone wanders back into town from the water’s edge, pulling sleepy kids in wagons.
  • When morning comes, the bagpipes have begun warming up and people drift outside. The cross streets are blocked off. Three cruise ships arrived early and the brilliant white Holland America Line ship seem to be watching over the proceedings from its dock at the end of Broadway, massive and jarringly modern in this townscape of historic buildings.
  • The parade starts with floats from local businesses—decorated work trucks and tractors piled with employees and their families throwing candy to the spectators. Sled dogs, harnessed to a crepe-paper-festooned ATV, yap and strain and pull it up the street, clearly bummed out when they have to slow down for the stupid slow float ahead of them. A couple, dressed in vintage wedding finery, ride a three-wheeled bike back and forth along the street with a Just Married sign on the back.
  • A regiment of Mounties, in full Dudley Do-Right red woolen jackets and black jodhpurs, have come across the pass from Canada to march on our holiday, our smiling neighbors.


A regiment of Mounties in Skagway


  • A huge papier-mâché head of Teddy Roosevelt looms down the street, leading several National Parks Service floats, homemade extravaganzas honoring the 100th anniversary of the national parks. Behind Teddy, female park rangers, each costumed and wearing beauty-pageant sashes bearing the names of national park, laugh and throw candy and wave. Ms. Statue of Liberty tries to read aloud the act of Congress that created the parks but she can’t stop laughing.


National Park Rangers in Skagway


  • The parade goes around twice.
  • A post-parade schedule is circulated. It includes band performances, foot races, tug-of-wars (tugs of war?), arm-wrestling, eating contests, more. A basketball hoop is set up on Broadway and one-on-one contests and free throw competitions go on the rest of the day.
  • An epic egg toss begins: Close to a hundred participants line up across Broadway from their partners, the parallel lines of players extend seven blocks. The eggs are lobbed across the street and caught, or not. The losers step back, some with actual egg on their face; more and more missiles are thrown and the winners continue to close up positions until their ranks only span one block. The crowd is noisy, taunting, cheering, laughing. The length of Broadway is splattered with broken eggs. Finally a young couple, with impressive lobs and heroic lunging catches, win.


Epic Egg Toss in Skagway


  • Up on the commentator’s platform, arm-wrestling begins. The kids’ divisions go first with contestants standing on folding chairs to reach the high table. The two final young competitors in the Girls Under-12 division are so well matched that their grimaces and moans continue for long minutes, a standoff.  The commentator laughs, then cheers, then is at a loss for words. The girls strain on. No one in the rapt crowd is thinking about the strong men who’ll compete next because these two girls are determined and impressive superheroes.
  • In the foot races, the boys and girls run with a grace and lightness, even when they’re trying their hardest, that makes even the fastest adult look thick and plodding.  Poor adults.
  • Cheating is apparently condoned in Skagway tug-of-war. Grown-ups and teenagers regularly step in to pull and even up the teams during the little kids’ contests.  It is noisy and fun and good-natured and inclusive.


Tug-of-war in Skagway


In addition to organized events, there are:

  • Dogs in tiny red, white and blue top hats.
  • Toddlers twirling and dancing to the drums and bagpipes.
  • Old people who set up their own chairs along the parade route holding court for the rest of the day.
  • The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, still in their magnificent uniforms, holding hands with their own kids and laughing.
  • Off-duty pipers in kilts, drinking beer at the bar of the Red Onion Saloon.

Broadway is crowded well into the evening, when the cruise passengers wander back to their ships, sidestepping broken eggshells. Everyone, townspeople and visitors, seems tired and really, really happy.

In summary, the guidebooks are right. If you can make it up to this tiny port town at the top of Alaska’s Inside Passage for the Fourth of July, you should definitely come to Skagway. I kind of cheated: My trip was part of a sponsored exploration of the Yukon-Alaska land programs offered by the Holland America Line, but I’d do it again on my own dime.  This day is the feel-good stuff of small-town mythology.


Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.

By Ann Shields, AFAR Ambassador


At the risk of sounding like a flake, it seemed that as I approached Denali, I could feel its power grow.

Denali Roadway

I first noticed things were changing when we crossed a clear geographic divide between where we had been and where we were headed. Specifically, past the summit of Broad Pass on the journey between Anchorage and Denali, rivers begin to flow north, not to the Pacific, but to the Bering Sea, the Arctic Sea. (The Arctic! In my mind, my New York apartment swept exponentially further away.) During the last Ice Age, the region around this pass was buried under three miles of ice. The single thing tall enough to be seen above the thick rigid blanket was Denali. We can’t see Denali from here, but now we know it’s there.

The observatory train I was riding the McKinley Explorer, picks up the course of the Nenana River at the base of Panorama Mountain. The schist monolith looms tall above the rest of the incredibly high mountains and the train tracks pass by too closely to see it by itself, to truly measure its height or to photograph it to prove to others how tall it truly is. This mountain, unlike it green-mantled neighbors, rises in shades of grey, like a graphite-pencil drawing of a mountain against a backdrop of lively green, like the deepest chord on a pipe organ made manifest. Even its flanks are divided by alluvial piles of grey avalanched rock—the other mountains have waving ferns and buoyant moss and high grass tucked in their pleated skirts. The young train guide says: This mountain is tall, yes? We all nod, eyes on its immensity looming above the windowed dome of the train. He says: If you stack three of this mountain, one on top the other, that’s how tall Denali is.

In the dinner-theater production at the McKinley Chalet Resort, the lovely Holland America Line property directly across the Nenana River from the national park, the actors perform the story of the first ascent of Denali by two local characters. The backdrop hung behind the delightful cornball antics of the performers is painted with a deliberately amateurish abstraction of the mountain, a strangely mesmerizing canvas of ice blue, shimmery white, angles and ridges with orange-pink sunset tones.  The cast members ham it up and laugh, sing and tell jokes, cajole and engage the audience, but that unblinking backdrop tells the story that they can’t. Outside those faux-rustic walls, there is a mountain.

Only 30% of visitors to the park actually get to see Denali—the mountain is more often than not obscured by the clouds that snag on its peaks and gather around it. Rain was forecast for my first day in the park so I brace myself for the possibility of not seeing the mountain.

Denali Bus

The admirably democratic tradition of the National Park Service invites everyone to enjoy Denali National Park and Preserve but here everyone is limited to just one way in: the Park Road, a 92-mile-long road that runs west from the entrance on the east side of the park, roughly paralleling the Alaska Range. At the park gate, visitors on my tour, the Tundra Wilderness Tour, rich and poor, old and young climb onto tan-colored converted school buses to be driven as far as Mile 62, the Stony Hill Overlook. The narrow corridor of the vast six-million-acre park visible from the road is thrilling, glorious, and diverse, but the thought of all those many mountainsides and valleys and glaciers and wild animals beyond its reach is distracting. During the course of a seven-hour round-trip, my busload encountered antelope, Arctic ground squirrels, moose, Dall sheep, and the big-ticket item: a blond grizzly bear asleep on a hillside who woke, walked a bit and then stretched out to sleep some more.

Denali Antlers

Along the way we also saw braided rivers, glacial valleys, several mountain ranges, and the geologic big-ticket item, Denali. Just nine miles into the park, the bus climbed a rise and the driver said: There it is. Unlike the purple and green mountains around it, Denali is snow white. Its implausible white expanse is easy to mistake for a bunch of cumulous clouds clustered above the smaller mountains, until your eye notices the sharp lines and angles in that white mass, angles that make it unlike any cloud you’ve ever seen. Then you realize that those many clouds are in fact just one 20,000-foot mountain, so much taller and more magnificent than expected and you catch your breath. Or I did, anyway.  And maybe you weep a little. And proceed to take pictures and stare intently at the mountain, to capture its greatness and to remember the thrill of standing before it. And to feel grateful to be among the 30% of visitors who get to see it.

Denali Mountain

When the bus proceeded down the road, the mountain was obscured again by closer hills and by roadside spruce forests. At the next rise where we could possibly see it again, its peaks had been swathed by lavender-grey. The clouds remained for the rest of the day, but edge of the north peak, a classic pyramid-shaped mountaintop, would occasionally cut through the cloud to assert its presence. I found myself distracted by those clouds, watching and waiting for the knife-edge of the peak to appear.  And when, at the end of the day, the bus passed beyond any possible sightline of Denali, around the far side of the mountains that border the park, I was sad. I do believe I was leaving a sacred place.

When people talk about having some primal response or epiphany by visiting Bali or Rome or a safari camp, I listen and nod and wonder if maybe they’re still a bit giddy from jet lag.  More than a week has passed since I returned to the city (my trip had been a sponsored exploration of the Alaska-Yukon land programs offered by the Holland America Line, so I had a lot of experiences to process). It’s been nearly two weeks since I was near Denali, but I do still feel altered, like I came near a great force, a powerful presence.  I’ll admit it would sound flakey to the pre-Alaska me. But now I’m a different me. I’m already plotting my return to the mountain.


Interested in learning more about Ann’s journey with Holland America Line? Visit

In these quiet days leading up to her Powerball win, Ann Shields works as a freelance travel editor and writer. A fan of literature, museums, history, high-minded cinema, and bad television, Ann lives in New York with her husband and two teenaged children. She likes road trips, local bars, getting lost, and laughing, so Ireland ranks high on her list of favorite places.

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

With the 31st Summer Olympics kicking off this summer in Rio de Janeiro, South America has piqued the interest of travelers and soon viewers around the world. USTOA tour operator members have recognized rich packaged travel opportunities across our neighboring continent, and are excited to offer guests a chance to experience the vibrant culture of South America with travel options like these.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Credit: Colin Roohan)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (credit: Colin Roohan)

Offering a multi-country trip through the colorful continent, Collette’s “The Wonders of South America” tour is a 12-day exploration of Chile, Argentina and Brazil’s most vibrant cities. Travelers will learn about the strong Andean roots of Chile’s capital city Santiago, learn how to create the famous caipriniha cocktail in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and spend a day at a gaucho horse show in the Argentinian countryside. Available throughout 2016, 2017 and 2018, prices from $2,819 per person based on double occupancy.

Guests on Mayflower Tours’ “Cruising Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands” have the opportunity to see indigenous wildlife or snorkel with species native to the South American islands, with the backdrop of the stunning Alcedo Volcano. With travel dates available in the fall of 2017, this eight-day adventure celebrates the untouched beauty of the land, as well as the history and preservation of the islands starting at $3,799 per person twin.

Cox & Kings takes luxury travelers to Paraguay, a lesser known destination in South America. This seven-day private journey lets guests venture off the beaten path as they visit a local village to meet the resident gauchos, or explore the country’s rich history with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesus. On a private journey through this extraordinary landlocked country, itineraries are handcrafted and a private guide and vehicle are included. Guests can travel now until March 31, 2017 with prices starting at $3,850 per person based on double occupancy.


Huayna Picchu, Peru (Credit: Colin Roohan)

Huayna Picchu, Peru (credit: Colin Roohan)

Travelers can experience the beauty of western South America during Overseas Adventure Travel’s “2016 Southern Peru & Bolivia Inca Landscape & Lake Titicaca” trip. The 15-day excursion across Peru and neighboring Bolivia takes guests through spectacular and unknown territory such as The Andean plateau, the world’s highest navigable lake and the pre-Incan ruins at Tiwanaku. The rich history and beauty of the area can be discovered through 2016 from $ 3,595 per person based on double occupancy.


Cartagena, Colombia (credit: Justin Weiler)

Cartagena, Colombia (credit: Justin Weiler)

During Goway’s “Best of Colombia” trip guests discover the fascinating cities of Bogota, Cartagena and Armenia. This sometimes misunderstood country exposes travelers to Colombian history, colorful Caribbean charm and the lively pulse running through the veins of each city. The eight-day trip includes activities such as historical tours, a visit to El Infiernito, an astronomical center used by the local Musisca Indians, and of course a stop at Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Trips are available through 2016 from $1,207 per person based on double occupancy.

Editor’s Note: Information was correct at time of writing. All tours/packages subject to availability. Prices may vary from time of writing, based on currency fluctuations.

This post originally ran in the August 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.

By Nina Dietzel, Special Correspondent, AFAR


After a thorough immersion into Nashville and Memphis’ music scenes, our Trafalgar travels brought us to Natchez, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I had forged quite a vivid idea about the area after reading ‘The Bone Tree’ and ‘Natchez Burning’, the first two books of an epic trilogy of race, family and justice by Natchez author Greg Iles []. I couldn’t wait to see how the real South matched up.

Joe Stone’s home and B&B in Natchez, Mississippi

Joe Stone’s home and B&B in Natchez, Mississippi

Be My Guest

Nothing drops you faster into the culture of a place than an invitation to a local’s home. We only spent a night in Natchez, but we were treated to a double dose of the fabled southern hospitality at two of the grand antebellum (pre–Civil War) homes in town.

The Elms in Natchez, Mississippi

The Elms in Natchez, Mississippi

Our magical evening began with a short piano concert at Joe Stone’s home, which was built around 1850. Joe, a musician and antiquarian, played for us on his Steinway Grand, and between pieces told us about the music, Natchez, and his own intertwined history with ‘Stone House’, which has been in his family for over 130 years.

After the concert, we walked across the street to ‘The Elms’. This mansion, even older than Joe’s by 50 years, belongs to chef Ester Carpenter, who treated us to an incredibly picturesque dinner on her magnificent porch, surrounded by ancient oak trees.

My only regret about Natchez? I wish we’d had more time in this storied town. I would have loved to wander through the streets to take a closer look and try to run into some of the characters of Greg Iles’ novels that I had read so much about.

Frogmore Plantation Now & Then

The next morning, we finally crossed the vast Mississippi into Louisiana, the third and last state on our tour through the South. The goal was to visit Frogmore, an 1800 acre cotton plantation dating from the early 1800s that still works today as one of the most technologically advanced cotton estates in the area. In addition to farming their very land, owners Lynette and Buddy (George) Tanner are passionate about sharing an authentic slice of plantation history. Over the years, they have painstakingly restored a number of buildings that date as far back as the early 1800s. The timeworn kitchen, plantation store and slave quarters now provide a powerful background to Lynette’s historical tours of Frogmore.

Lynette Tanner, owner and expert guide at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Lynette Tanner, owner and expert guide at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

There was no sugar coating on the hard parts of Southern history. Lynette gave us an honest overview of what life on the plantation must have been first for the slaves, and later on for the sharecroppers. She read us passages from ‘12 years a slave’ by Salomon Northup, a slave’s memoir from 1853 that, as you may remember, was turned into an Oscar winning film directed by Steve McQueen in 2013. Lynette’s compassion, vigilant research and deep knowledge on the subject made for a deeply memorable and thoroughly educational experience.

Carefully restored slave quarters at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Carefully restored slave quarters at Frogmore Plantation, Louisiana

Y’all Take Care, Until our Paths Cross Again

As our breathtaking trip neared its end, I began to think about the vast number of unforgettable experiences we were able to pack into such a short timeframe. It’s such a gift, to experience a new destination, and to be left with the feeling that you have barely scratched the surface. Trafalgar has given me this gift. I’m longing to come back for more now, on my own. And this time, without a schedule.

Interested in learning more about Nina’s journey with Trafalgar? Visit

Nina Dietzel is constantly exploring as a photographer and AFAR Ambassador. She has photographed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, collaborated with British sculptor and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, and documented the making of @Large-Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Her focus is travel and art, and her personal work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Germany.