The Stories Behind our National Monuments 

By Tauck

What’s the difference between America’s national parks and national monuments? Storied sites all, both share tales of treasured sights in public lands protected for the enjoyment of generations of visitors.

Designated by a legislative act of Congress, our national parks are areas of natural beauty, federally conserved due to their scenic, inspirational, educational, and recreational value. National monuments are established by presidential proclamation to preserve a place of historical, cultural or scientific interest.  

There are currently 133 national monuments throughout the United States, a number which can change with each new president under the 1906 Antiquities Act which gives the president the sole authority to designate and protect federal lands and resources quickly. We shine a spotlight on three of them here, giving you a glimpse of the stories behind these popular monuments. 

Sequoia Big Tree
Photo courtesy of Tauck

Protecting the noblest tree species in the world 

In 1908, President Roosevelt declared Sequoia National Forest a protected landscape, where giant sequoias some 3,000 years old and 300 feet high, lay claim to being the oldest living and largest trees on Earth. The trees live in only about 70 native groves in the middle elevations of the Sierra Nevada and have a history that dates back 10,000 years.  

Naturalist John Muir was enamored of the big trees from the moment he first saw them in 1868, calling them Nature’s forest masterpiece and the greatest of living things, and vowing to protect them after seeing loggers fell them indiscriminately. He wrote, “No description can give any adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less their beauty. The great age of these noble trees is even more wonderful than their huge size, standing bravely up, millennium in, millennium out, to all that fortune may bring them. God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” 

While the ancient Sequoias have been federally protected since the establishment of Sequoia National Forest in 1908, thanks to John Muir and President Roosevelt, it wasn’t until April 2000, under the direction of President Bill Clinton, that all the giant sequoia groves within the forest boundary were declared a national monument.  

Rainbow Bridge from 1,500 feet
Photo courtesy of Tauck

Immortalizing a sacred rainbow of stone  

President William Howard Taft declared Utah’s Rainbow Bridge a national monument in 1910 as a site of geological and cultural importance. A naturally sculpted sandstone arch standing 290 feet tall and 270 feet wide on the edge of Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge is revered as a sacred place by the tribal people who live in the region, inspiring origin stories, ceremonial rites and pilgrimages dating back thousands of years and still relevant today. Its name is said to have originated from the Puebloan people’s name for it, Nonnezoshe, which translates to “rainbow turned to stone.” 

Up until the early 1950s, the site was only accessible after an arduous multi-day hiking and rafting adventure into the wilderness, keeping all but the daring at bay. Much to the chagrin of the Navajo who still pray for rain and conduct ceremonies here, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam made it easier for travelers to get to it by boat and a one-mile walk. While visitors today can view Rainbow Bridge on a flightseeing excursion, those who visit on foot are asked to treat it respectfully and honor its role in the on-going religious ceremonies of the Navajo. As the locals will tell you, the true significance of Rainbow Bridge extends beyond the obvious, standing as a bridge between cultures. 

Statue of Liberty
Photo courtesy of Tauck

Where freedom rings: The Statue of Liberty 

A gift from France, she stood as a symbol of hope and refuge for generations of immigrants on Liberty Island in New York City harbor since 1886.  During the dedication ceremonies of the Statue of Liberty, President Cleveland vowed “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.” He made those works into an official promise as he declared the Statue of Liberty a national monument in 1924 protecting the shared ideals of our nation and the one that gifted her to us. Learn more about the stories behind Lady Liberty from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns by watching The Statue of Liberty, available on PBS. 

To visit these monuments in person is to stand with the visionaries who protected them just for this moment, gifting you a chance to become part of the stories that memorialize them. 

About Tauck

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2025, Tauck is a world leader in upscale guided travel, with more than 150 land tours, safaris, river cruises, small ship ocean cruises and family travel adventures to 70+ countries and all seven continents. In each of the last 26 years, Tauck has been honored in Travel + Leisure magazine’s annual “World’s Best Awards” celebrating the very best in luxury tours, cruises, hotels and more.  


Old Dogs, New Tricks: Bringing Regenerative Practices to Legacy Tour Operators  

By Melissa DaSilva, President of TTC Tour Brands, North America – Trafalgar, Contiki, Brendan Vacations, Costsaver, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold 

For more than 100 years, The Travel Corporation has been taking travelers off the beaten path and into the destinations we serve. In those years, that ever-beaten path has become winding and deep. We’ve watched and adapted as buzzed about travel destinations became mere stops on a multi-country adventure, untouched destinations became harbingers of overtourism, and wonders of the world (of which there are now eight) became Instagram feed fodder. A demand for the “next experience” steadily rose with every new “where to go” headline; in turn, we saw an increase in international bookings and industry real estate as travel operators sought new and better.  

As President of TTC Tour Brands North America, I will never turn my nose up to new and better. Innovation is at the core of The Travel Corporation’s mission and that value informs everything we do. But with new and better, comes tried and true, revisited and improved.  

With a focus on reducing carbon and regenerating the planet, we’ve assessed our mission from every front. As we continue to traverse new destinations on new itineraries, we’ve refocused our sights on our existing itineraries and frequented regions. We’ve modified existing itineraries to include responsible travel experiences we call MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences, which address issues related to climate change, sustainable food production, waste reduction, diversity and inclusion, cultural preservation and wildlife protection.  

In terms of sustainability in travel, the words “net zero” are on everyone’s lips. So, what does it mean? Moreover, what can tour operators, hoteliers, and major servicers do to achieve “net zero” status? 

In 2020, we began a five-year mission we call How We Tread Right, which measures sustainability efforts across four core pillars – measure, reduce, restore, and evolve. In 2022, we became the first tour operator with validated near-term, long-term and net zero targets, which were supported by an industry-first Carbon Fund, created to finance the decarbonization of our business.  

The fund’s first investments were made in renewable energy for our properties and biofuel for the coaches our guests board. These investments aligned with the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) green investment priority for tourism’s recovery and future growth, and coupled with further nature-based solutions, contributed to our primary goal of reaching net zero emissions.  

So, what have we done? We’ve partnered with the Scotland-based Trees for Life to support its Wild Pine project, a rewilding project aimed at restoring Scotland’s globally important Caledonian Forest and its unique wildlife. We’ve supported the Australian-based Rainforest Rescue to enhance their efforts in the Daintree Rainforest, where the nonprofit is working to further its protection and restoration of the fragmented lowland rainforest, increasing the carbon storage potential of the rainforest. We’ve done all of this and more, but for us, regenerative tourism goes beyond the environment. As such, we’ve taken strides to make our business one that stimulates economies as much as ecology, and culture as much as tree coverage.  

Over the years, we’ve seen a rising interest in ethno-tourism – travel focusing on the exploration of Indigenous populations and their respective culture and traditions. In 2019, we polled our community of travelers and found that half cited interest in booking an indigenous travel experience, but a quarter of those travelers didn’t know where to start.  

In partnership with such organizations as AIANTA (American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association), ITAC (Indigenous Tourism Association Canada) and The Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas, we have placed Indigenous tourism among our top priorities as travel leaders. By amplifying Indigenous-owned businesses along our itineraries, we increase access to ancestral wisdom, preserve and reclaim culture and ultimately drive economic benefit to support the livelihoods of Native peoples across the world. 

We are proud to share that as of 2024, 66% of Trafalgar itineraries include at least one indigenous experience. Further, 100% of the proceeds of Indigenous experiences on Trafalgar tours go directly to the participating communities. 

We understand that a legacy is fruitless without a forward commitment to innovation and adaptability. We’ve been here for more than 100 years, and as long as people continue to traverse, explore, and amplify the world they inhabit, we will be here. In prioritizing sustainability, inclusivity, and economic empowerment, we are not just leading the way in tourism, but also shaping a brighter and more sustainable future for the planet and its people. 

About the author

Melissa DaSilva is President of the TTC Tour Brands for North America with an industry career spanning 30 years and has worked in both the US and the UK.  She has been recognized for her ability to rapidly adjust in a changing business environment, resulting in enhanced business practices, increased productivity, and profits.  She has a proven success record of recruiting and developing strong, collaborative teams and delivering consistency in multi-channel organizations 

The Travel Corporation family of brands is deeply committed to MAKE TRAVEL MATTER.  We recognize our responsibility to ensure our impact on the planet, the people we visit, and the wildlife we find there. Choosing to travel with us means choosing a travel company that puts sustainability at the heart of everything we do. 

Travel is both a personal passion and a professional pursuit. She is motivated by the impact travel has and believes that travel has a tremendously positive effect on people.  It helps broaden perspectives through the connectivity of shared experiences of adventure, exploration, learning and laughter showing how we are all more alike than different.             

An avid traveler herself to more than 50 countries, Melissa currently resides in Southern California with her Brazilian husband and two daughters, with whom she has shared the travel bug. 

About TTC Tour Brands  

The ease of touring has never been more important nor relevant, and no one does tours better than TTC Tour Brands. The portfolio includes the award-winning brands of Luxury Gold, Insight Vacations, Trafalgar, Brendan Vacations, Costsaver and Contiki. TTC Tour Brands are the global leaders in tours for any and everyone.  From budget to luxury and everything in between, the portfolio brings agents access to over 1000 tours, across 80+ countries via one single sales, reservations and marketing team, with the added ease of a single sign on booking platform.   

  TTC Tour Brands is part of the family-owned and run The Travel Corporation (TTC), driven by service for over one hundred years.  


Passport Delays Causing Travel Chaos 

By: Steve Diehl, Chief Corporate Development Officer – CIBT 

It is the traveler’s worst nightmare; you’ve meticulously planned a trip abroad, you’re packed and ready to head to the airport, and then you realize your passport is expired. Or it is lost, or damaged, or does not have the minimum validity required to travel overseas. And suddenly, your dream vacation is gone. 

A valid passport is the key to international travel. But most of us don’t think about our passports until we’re planning a trip or getting ready to leave. Unfortunately, the US Department of State, the body which oversees issuing passports in the United States, is currently dealing with unprecedented delays in processing passport applications and renewals. 

Photo Courtesy of CIBT

The State Department website lists the current passport processing times as 10 to 13 weeks. And this figure does not take into account the time it can take for a passport or passport application to be received by the processing center, and the time it takes for the completed passport to be delivered to you. This can add one to two weeks to the total, meaning your passport application or renewal could wind up taking 12-15 weeks, or more than three months! Even processing times for the extra-cost “expedited” service can currently take seven to nine weeks, plus added time for delivery.  

The root of the current backlog can be traced to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a record number of Americans hit the skies post-pandemic, demand for passport services has soared, resulting in the busiest year on record.  The US State Department has acknowledged the delays and is increasing staffing levels to meet the higher demand. Unfortunately, the State Department does not expect the processing delays to ease before early 2024. Even if you have a currently valid passport, you could still find your travel plans grounded. One reason this could happen is that many countries require visitors to have at least six months of validity on their passport after their expected departure date from the country you’re visiting.  That means if your passport is near its expiration date, you may have trouble visiting some destinations. 

Additionally, the physical condition of your passport can also pose a problem. Passports that are excessively worn or damaged could be rejected by immigration authorities. If you have legally changed your name since your passport was issued, this can also cause problems. If your name has changed, it is best to have your passport reissued in your current legal name. For frequent international travelers, not having blank pages in your passport for the addition of a visa or border control entry stamp can also cause you to be turned away at the border. 

Photo Courtesy of CIBT

If you’re planning to travel internationally, check your passport and look for factors like its expiration date, physical condition, and number of blank pages. If you need a new passport, or if you need to apply for one for the first time, be mindful of the current delays at the passport processing centers, and remember these delays are not expected to ease before 2024. 

So, what if you need a passport sooner? One option is using a passport expediter. These are private companies, like CIBT, who work directly with the passport agencies to issue a passport much more quickly than the standard processing service, sometimes in as little as a day, and typically within three to five days. To qualify for urgent passport processing, travelers must demonstrate travel within two weeks from time of application or 30 days if traveling to a destination that requires a visa, too. Visit our website at: https://cibtvisas.com/passport-information to learn how we can get you a passport, fast! 

About Steve Diehl

Steve Diehl is the Chief Corporate Development and Emerging Markets Officer for CIBT, the leading global provider of immigration, visa and document services for businesses and consumers. CIBT taps the passion and expertise of nearly 2,000 immigration and visa professionals, attorneys, and qualified migration consultants located in over 60 offices in 27 countries to empower people and organizations to live, work, travel and trade seamlessly through its global reach, local expertise, and customer-focused technology solutions. 


Top Reasons to Explore in Your Own Backyard in 2022

By: Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, President and Chief Brand Officer of Collette  

The past two years have given travelers the chance to reflect on the memories and experiences that they may have been yearning for.  For many, after an extended period of staying home and building their list of places to go, it’s clear that 2022 is the rebound year for travel. Travelers are itching to explore, and right now, there’s a huge demand for finding adventure right in your backyard. As restrictions ease and travelers reconnect with the road, it’s a great chance to see a destination that you never would have thought to explore.  

Photo Courtesy of Collette

Why the United States? 

Travelers seem to want to explore close to home more than ever. There’s comfort, after such uncertainty, in getting back out there and getting away without being too far. Within the United States, there is so much diversity and adventure to be found. From stunning coastlines and national parks to musical cities and quintessential small towns, there is a destination that appeals to travelers looking to explore close to home, those seeking an outdoor adventure, or the couple easing their way back to travel.    

Photo Courtesy of Collette

Exploring Close to Home 

In spite of unprecedented travel restrictions over the past two years, travelers have pivoted their energy into exploring what lies in their own backyards. After all, a true explorer can find adventure anywhere and there is so much culture, history and beauty right at your fingertips. Travelers are looking at the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the Rocky Mountains, national parks, deep South, Midwest and more. During this incredible rebound year for travel, domestic trips are trending more than ever, and the industry is responding with new tours to capture this ever-growing interest. Deep dives into lesser-traveled destinations like Montana, or new ways to explore big cities like Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., are allowing travelers freedom to go in-depth on tour in places that often are seen as a stop-over during a bigger tour. 

Photo Courtesy of Collette

Getting Outdoors 

Americans planning a domestic trip are searching for truly enriching experiences. In the last year, trips that connected travelers with the great outdoors and wonders of nature were some of the most popular. There’s a growing expectation that travelers will continue gravitating to some beachy locales. In terms of domestic outdoor spots, places like Martha’s Vineyard and Maui are highly searched destinations in the U.S. right now.  

There’s a growing trend, since the pandemic started, that travelers want to be outside! Given the restrictions indoor venues faced last year, it makes sense. People are choosing a lot more outdoor activities in their free time or on tour than prior to the pandemic. Many Americans are looking to experience nature as well, so experiences like seeking out the Northern Lights in Alaska, catching some sun on the white-sand beaches of Hawaii or relaxing at one of the many public seating areas overlooking the immense and colorful Grand Canyon are topping travel to-do lists more than ever before. 

The US Has It All 

From a lobster bake in New England to stepping inside the recording studio that Elvis Presley once created musical masterpieces – there are endless great experiences right in the United States for culturally curious travelers. Going in-depth in historic and bustling cities, slowing down and taking in the scenery, and learning more about the place we call home is a great way to reconnect with travel and connect with our roots at a time that’s ideal for doing just that.

About Collette

As the longest-running tour operator in North America, Collette is the company travelers can trust. Leading with integrity, Collette’s comprehensive travel protection plan, flexible tour pacing, and strong relationships within the travel space set it apart. The happiness of its guests has been its roadmap since 1918 and today Collette offers over 160 tours to all seven continents and five distinct travel styles, including small group touring and river cruises. This third-generation family-owned business is dedicated to giving back in both local and global communities through its social responsibility platform.  For more information, visit www.gocollette.com.  


A Guide to 7 of Colorado’s Top National Parks and Monuments

By Katie of Trafalgar

Colorado’s national parks and monuments are home to the state’s greatest treasures. You’ll find everything here from dinosaur bones and ancient ruins, to stunning scenery ranging from snowy mountains and river gorges, to rocky canyons and golden sand dunes. Whether you want to go hiking, kayaking, sandboarding, stargazing, or wildlife spotting, the Centennial State is the ultimate American adventure. Planning a trip? Read our guide to seven of the best national parks and monuments in Colorado – and be sure to add some to your bucket list.

Rocky Mountain National Park

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

As one of the world’s most extraordinary landscapes, the Rocky Mountains National Parks is regularly hailed as one of Colorado’s top national parks. It’s filled with snowy peaks soaring more than 12,000 feet high, alpine lakes and waterfalls, and gorgeous meadows dotted with moose, elk, bighorn sheep and more. If you can tear your eyes away from the views, you’ll also find campgrounds, fishing spots and 350 miles of scenic trails ranging from short walks to multi-day treks. The central area of Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park are great places to start your Rocky Mountains adventure. And be sure to take a drive along the Trail Ridge Road, a spectacular scenic byway crossing the continental divide, famed as the highest continuous paved highway in the USA. 

GET INSPIRED BY: Welcome to Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park

2. Mesa Verde National Park

If you’re looking for the best national parks in Colorado, you can’t go past Mesa Verde. Set in the stunning Four Corners area of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park offers both natural beauty and fascinating history. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, here you can trace the ancient footsteps of the Ancestral Puebloans who carved cliff dwellings out of the sandstone canyon walls. The park is home to some of the country’s most well-preserved archaeological sites, including more than 4,000 ruins dating back hundreds of years. Drive along the Mesa Loop Road to see the amazing carved dwellings or walk the Petroglyph Point Trail for stunning views and the best rock art in the park. You can also take a ranger-led tour to see more impressive archaeological sites, including the Balcony House with 40 preserved rooms and Cliff Palace, with 150 rooms and 23 kivas. 

Colorado National Monument

3. Colorado National Monument

The Colorado National Monument protects one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the US. Set in the northeast of the Colorado Plateau, you’ll come face to face with sheer-walled canyons plunging as deep as 500 feet, and granite rock monoliths towering to 450 feet. It’s all red rock and green juniper forests, and as you gaze out over this mesmerising landscape, you might even spot soaring eagles, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. You won’t want to blink as you drive the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive along the spectacular plateau lined with spectacular views. Or get on solid ground with the 14 hiking trails in the Colorado National Monument, including the popular Serpent’s Trail, a zigzagging trail that takes you along the original dirt road into the monument in just 2.5 miles.

RELATED CONTENT: Hit 10,000 steps a day on these 7 iconic USA National Park hikes

Dinosaur National Monument

4. Dinosaur National Monument

Ever wanted to see a dinosaur? You’ll find them in Colorado’s national parks. Well, the bones at least. The Dinosaur National Monument is one of the few places where you can see and touch massive dinosaur bones sticking out of the rocks where they were found, and even see ancient petroglyphs. But dinosaurs aren’t the only attraction here. You can hike along miles of trails, and go swimming, fishing and boating around the gorgeous area where the Yampa and Green rivers meet. Take a drive along Harpers Corner Road for mesmerising views over the rivers, or grab a raft and float along while admiring the ancient canyon walls and spotting elk on the riverbanks. Dinosaur National Monument is even an International Dark Sky Park, and astronomy lovers flock here for stargazing and night hikes in summer.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Preserve

5. Great Sand Dunes National Park Preserve

With 149,000 acres of sand dunes, forest and wetlands, and home to the tallest dunes in the country towering 750 feet high, the Great Sand Dunes National Park Preserve is one epic sandbox. While the incredible scenery provides plenty of photo opportunities, this is also one of the most fun national parks to visit in Colorado, with outdoor adventures like sandboarding, sand sledding and four wheeling. Start at the fantastic Visitor Centre to see the exhibits and short film about the park or meet a Park Ranger to uncover the secrets of this unique natural phenomenon formed more than a million years ago. If you want to go climbing or sandboarding, make your way to High Dune and Star Dune, or head to the 22-mile Medano Pass Road for a four-wheeling experience across sandy creeks. After the spring snowmelt, the Medano Creek is also great for swimming, sunbathing and relaxing after your ride down the sand dunes.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
It may not get the hype of the Rocky Mountains, but this national park is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. The park surrounds a 53-mile gorge plunging 2,700 feet into the earth, with the marbled rock walls carved out by the Gunnison River. The deepest points of the canyon barely receive sunlight, and it’s a mesmerising experience to stare into the dark depths. For the best views of the gorge, head to Devil’s Lookout and Dragon Point. You can also walk the Chasm View nature trail on the north rim or stop at the viewpoints along the South Rim Drive, where you’ll also see the striped Painted Wall. Besides the scenery, there’s also plenty of wildlife including golden eagles, elk and mule deer, a railroad museum that tells the story of the railroads that used to cross this gorge. It’s even an International Dark Sky Park with sky parties and astronomy festivals in summer. 

RELATED CONTENT: What to pack for a trip through America’s great national parks

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

7. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
If you want to get closer to Colorado’s prehistoric life, the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is the place to be. You’ll find thousands of fossils dating back millions of years, including plants and insects, and huge petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide, which are best seen along the 1.1-mile Petrified Forest Loop. Other hiking trails reveal the natural beauty of the park, with alpine forests, granite outcrops and lush meadows spread across 6,000 acres. You can even explore the pioneer history of the area, with a fantastic museum and an early homestead that shows what life was like during Colorado’s settlement. For the perfect mix of history and nature, this has got to be on your Colorado bucket list. 

Are you dreaming of visiting Colorado’s national parks and monuments? Guided touring company Trafalgar Tours offer incredible travel experiences to many of America’s great National Parks. Visit their website or get in touch to start planning your next vacation today.

Katie is a regular contributing writer for Trafalgar’s The Real Word blog, based in sunny Perth, Australia. She lives for and writes about all things travel, culture, food and nature, and loves to inspire people to discover the world through her travel blogs.


By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador

Photo by Megan Murphy

This October, Contiki set off on a high-energy Western Highlights tour through Southern California, Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. Our crew of 55 young adventurers flew in from all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Japan, and a couple from the Eastern United States—to experience the best of the nation’s west coast. Some traveled with groups or as couples, but the majority arrived solo, eager to make new friends and embark on the adventure of a lifetime with #NoRegrets. If non-stop action and excitement is what you crave, this tour delivers.

One of the greatest draws of Contiki? The optional excursions offered at each destination along the way, allowing you to tailor the trip based on your individual interests. Though plenty of fun-filled memories were made during our 8 days together, here are my top picks from our epic expedition.

Speed Boating in San Diego

After kicking off in Los Angeles (hitting silver screen sights and landmarks along the way), and soaking up the sun at Cali’s beautiful beaches, the stunning city of San Diego was on the agenda. Here, we got to play captain by driving our very own boats with Speed Boat Adventures, zipping around the harbor at high speeds while taking in sights of the downtown skyline, historic maritime ships, over-the-top yachts, and even sea lions.

Speed boating, Photo by Megan Murphy

Up in the Arizona Air

If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon before, I’d highly recommend it. An early morning ride with Hot Air Expeditions in Phoenix delivered the rush of soaring at heights of up to 5,000 feet over the expansive Sonoran Desert. After floating through the dry desert air (at multiple speeds based on wind patterns) for an hour, our flight concluded with a Champagne breakfast upon landing. Cheers to that!

Hot Air Ballooning by Megan Murphy

Hot Air Balloon by Megan Murphy

Rocky (Off) Road-ing

In Sedona, an artsy mountain town with incredible views of the massive, brightly-hued red rocks, we saddled up in open-air 4×4 Jeeps for a “Canyons & Cowboys” off-road adventure with Red Rock Jeep Tours. Our spirited guide, Wendy, greeted us with a full cowgirl getup (complete with spurs!) and a huge smile as she grabbed the wheel and navigated through the rough, rugged and rocky terrain; at times I was certain the Jeep would topple over. I was wrong.

We trekked along through the heart of historic Dry Creek Basin and the seven surrounding canyons, as Wendy enthusiastically told us tales of murder and moonshine and the early cowboy days at the old Van Derin cabin, where we stopped to snap a group pic and enjoy exceptional views.

Jeep tour, photo by Megan Murphy

Jeep Tours by Megan Murphy

Hikes & Helicopters in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is like no other place the the world; a natural wonder that every American should try to see in their life. In my experience, nothing has compared to the body-encompassing feeling that takes over you when peering out into the vast desert below: the gigantic peaks and deep valleys, the spectrum of rich colors, the layers of igneous rock formations.

After stocking up on the necessities—sunblock, snacks and lots of water—we spent an afternoon hiking the canyon’s south rim down a steep, winding and quite narrow-at-times trail that provided endless photo ops. Others in our group saw breathtaking panoramic views from above, with a heart-pounding helicopter ride over the Kaibab National Forest and into the deepest and widest part of the canyon. Experience of a lifetime.

Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon View by Megan Murphy

Grand Canyon with Megan Murphy

Our journey ended with a bang: two outrageous days in Vegas—complete with a glitzy nighttime tour of bustling Fremont Street, Cirque Du Soleil show, music- and Champagne-filled limo rides around the Strip, VIP nightclub entry, dancing ’til dawn and all the debauchery you can get into in Sin City. Need I say more? Viva Las Vegas, baby!

Overall, I was impressed with the amount of opportunities for adventure on Western Highlights. Our rockstar guide, Christy, was knowledgable, friendly and fun—and always provided nightlife options for anyone looking to party. Trust me, there was no shortage of a good time on this tour. Even the road trips between destinations were amusing thanks to our lively coach driver/deejay, HB, who blasted upbeat tunes while cruisin’.

There was plenty of downtime and opportunities to relax during our journey, as well. But of the many memories made during the trip, it’s the once-in-a-lifetime thrills and the people I “got loose with” (as the Aussies say) that I’ll remember forever.

 

Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com, the USTOA blog and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.


By Megan Murphy, AFAR Ambassador

 

The Grand Canyon by Megan Murphy with Contiki

The Grand Canyon

One of the most magnificent and diverse places on Earth, the United States is home to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have experienced several of these spectacles on my first-ever Contiki tour.

The Western Highlights expedition ventured across Southern California and Arizona, ending in Las Vegas. There was plenty of action and excitement every step of the way, and an abundance of nature’s finest sights on display—from beautiful beaches and rocky deserts to exotic animals and the majestic Grand Canyon. Here are a few highlights from the trip that any nature lover would appreciate.

Beach Bound

There’s a reason why California is known for its beaches: they are some of the finest in America, if not the world. Our tour group soaked up some rays and Cali-beach vibes at Santa Monica State Beach and its iconic pier, and also explored Venice Beach’s lively boardwalk scene. More beach time beckoned the following day, as we cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway to stunning Mission Beach for sun, sand and surfing until the sun went down. There’s nothing like a mesmerizing California sunset to cap off your day.

Venice Beach with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Venice Beach

Mission Beach sunset with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Mission Beach sunset

All About Animals

We got in touch with our wild side at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This sprawling wildlife sanctuary—which sits on 100 acres within Balboa Park—houses more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals in exhibits designed to replicate the animals’ natural habitats, and is especially beloved for their giant pandas. As an avid animal enthusiast, this was one of the destinations I was most excited for. Child-like giddiness came over me as I got up close and personal with all my favorites including gorillas, elephants, pandas, penguins, koalas, monkeys and flamingos.

Mama gorilla with her baby

Mama gorilla with her baby at the San Diego Zoo

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingos by Megan Murphy with Contiki

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

Desert Destinations

After arriving in Arizona, an early morning hot air balloon ride in Phoenix was on the agenda. While peacefully floating in the air, we soaked up 360-degree scenic views of the rugged Sonoran Desert terrain and distant mountain peaks. Indigenous animals, including jackrabbits, deer and coyotes, and a variety of cacti species were spotted below as we peered down from our ballooned baskets.

Our next stop was in Sedona, a serene town with phenomenal views of the towering, vividly-colored Red Rock Mountains. After grabbing lunch on bustling Main Street, our group trekked through rocky terrain in off-road Jeep tours through seven magnificent canyons and historic Dry Creek Basin.

Ballooning over Phoenix with Contiki by Megan Murphy

Ballooning over Phoenix

Red Rocks

Red Rocks

The Grand Finale

How can I possibly describe the feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time?

Mother Nature has a way of grabbing you by the heartstrings and never leaving you quite the same again. This was one of those times. I was whole-heartedly moved by this larger-than-life sight—captivated by the radiant color combinations, endless erosional forms and ever-changing ridges of light that deviated with the sunshine and movement of clouds, non-stop from morning to night. The sheer magnitude of the canyon can never be accurately depicted in pictures or by words. It has to be seen with your own eyes, and felt with your own soul. Absolutely incredible.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

I heart the Grand Canyon

Discovering nature with Contiki was a life-changing experience that gave me, and my fellow travelers from all over the world, a new appreciation for why our great nation truly is America the beautiful.

 

Interested in learning more about Megans journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Contiki’s Western Highlights tour.

An adventure lover at heart, Megan is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in NYC. She has contributed to AFAR, Bon Appétit, Clean Plates, Eater, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Thrillist and Travel + Leisure, and runs her own website. Megan is happiest when embarking on new travel and dining experiences with her beloved family and friends, and her adorable dog, Cooper.

 

 


By Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As the one Wyoming resident on my recent Go Ahead National Parks tour, I had a grand old time talking local lifestyle with my new touring friends while visiting Jackson, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park. It’s not every day that I get sent out on assignment in my own backyard, and the opportunity to explore the great wild Wyo with a group of unfamiliar faces was part of the reason I accepted this assignment in the first place; the Cowboy State is one of the country’s most spellbinding destinations, and it’s always thrilling for me to be with people experiencing its wonders for the first time.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As our bus motored through Grand Teton NP, our tour director, Adrian, tossed me the microphone, and I proceeded to rattle off a few facts about the local atmosphere.

Bison are less friendly than elk, moose are less friendly than bison, and bears are least friendly of all. Except for badgers. And wolverines. They’re worse than bears. Cows are cool, but bulls are mostly ornery. More on bulls later.

Mountains are for climbing, woods are for hiking, and rivers are for traversing. And yes, Surf Wyoming is a real thing.

Geyser gazing is a great pastime, rodeo is a real sport, Rocky Mountain oysters (those poor ballless bulls) are not at all what they sound like, and you should wear your best boots and spurs when you visit the Million Dollar Cowboy.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

As I wrapped our Wyoming Q&A, we arrived at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, and thrust ourselves into the throngs of onlookers eagerly awaiting the great geyser’s eruption. Adrian’s clever anecdotes and inside knowledge of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone lent the parks a feeling of familiarity and deepened the sense of spectacle, and left each of us charged to explore on our own. Many of us used our time to wander the boardwalk and gaze into bubbling mud pits, fumaroles and geysers, and a few were lucky to spot bison and coyotes playing in the muck.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

We rolled on, deeper into the park, taking in the spellbinding views and ancient majesty at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where silence fell upon our party like a blanket. We hiked String Lake together, marveling at the towering Tetons, so close we could reach out and touch them, and floated down the serpentine Snake River with the good folks from Solitude Float Trips, who graciously shared the water with us (and a few of woodland creatures for good measure). In the evening we wandered the streets of picturesque Jackson, huddled under the elk antler arches in the town square, feasted on rustic pub grub at The Local, sampled quintessential craft beers at the iconic Snake River Brewing Co., and went all the way nouveau-Wyo at Thai Me Up and Melvin Brewing. Jackson’s sensational food scene is certainly its robust food scene.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

The Wyoming segment of our Go Ahead tour was a remarkable three day stretch that blended into one epic experience. I live and play in Wyoming, and I know this part of the state well – and I know that Go Ahead delivered an immersive, experiential adventure, with plenty of time for solo exploration. As far as glimpses at the Wyoming way of life go, this was a great one.

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Wyoming (Credit: Flash Parker)

Interested in learning more about Shawn’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com 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 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 AFAR.com 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.


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 www.ustoa.com/blog/experience-yellowstone/ and www.ustoa.com/modern-day-explorers/yellowstone.

Ready to visit? Visit www.austinadventures.com/destinations/yellowstone/  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.