What to see between Washington DC and Niagara Falls

Both Washington DC and the Niagara Falls are usually must-sees for the East Coast of the US. The problem with going to both of these places is in choosing what to see en-route from DC to Niagara or vice versa, which is almost 8 hours apart by car.

For my trip I have chosen to stop at Gettysburg and Watkins Glen. I’m not a history buff, but there’s some meaning in standing on the grounds where tens of thousands laid their lives fighting in the American Civil War.

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Various houses on the battleground were preserved.

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One of the many monuments set up in the area.

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A very serene setting.

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The Dobbin House Tavern is a nice place to stop for lunch.

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The Sachs covered bridge.

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Watkins Glen is just half an hour away from Corning, where the Corning Museum of Glass is located and where many tour buses make a stop. It takes just an hour or so (including photo taking time) to hike up the gorge trail.

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The trail leads you walking under waterfalls. It feels a bit like having a fantasy dream fulfilled.

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Water pouring down right in front of you.

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This waterfall is like a scene from a fantasy themed movie, except it is REAL.

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And you walk under it.

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Rock, water, trees. Perfect.

The Niagara Falls is about 3 hours drive from Watkins Glen. To do Watkins Glen and Niagara Falls in a day, you’ll have to skip the American side of the Niagara Falls. There is a huge car park just below Skylon Tower and from there it is less than 10 minutes walk downhill to the falls. You will have to walk uphill on the way back.

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The size of the falls is awe inspiring. I have been to the American side as well and I must say that if you have limited time, you should just see the Canadian side.

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The brink of the falls. The water is so voluminous that you can see a thick translucent layer of water over the brink.

Strategy for visiting attractions in Washington DC

The main attractions in DC are all clustered around the National Mall. Perhaps there are buses that allow you to hop on and off the attractions, I’m not sure, but otherwise, you’re in for an exhausting workout on foot. While we were there, the scorching sun made things infinitely worse. It takes more than 45 minutes to walk from the museums to the White House and to the Lincoln memorial, which is pretty much one end to the other end. Furthermore, you’ll be walking about in some of the museums and that adds a lot of walking distance. If you’re planning on spending time in the museums, it makes sense to allocate an entire day just for the museums. Otherwise, with very young kids like we did who cannot appreciate museum exhibits, it is sufficient to just take a quick look at two museums, and complete the rest of the tour of the National Mall within half a day. Though tiring, it is better to get it over with quickly than having to return to see more of less the same sights.

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The Air and Space museum has many exhibits of historical importance. The size alone makes them appealing to anyone.

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The eagle moon lander.

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The Natural History museum is famous for its collection of gem stones including the hope diamond.

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An event was being held at the White House.

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The Lincoln memorial.

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The reflection pool.

If you still have any energy left after walking to the Lincoln Memorial, you can venture another half an hour to the fish market to get some seafood. This is where locals go for seafood. There is only one stall that offers seating though.

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This was my first time trying freshly shucked oysters. It came with a little seawater and sand and maybe mud, but it was delicious! You can also find crab legs, mini lobsters, clam chowder etc. They were good.

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The Arlington National Cemetery is also near the National Mall. Unlike the National Mall for which car parking could be a hassle, you can park inside the Arlington National Cemetery. Two hours is about enough for walking about and visiting the sights.

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There are two main sights at the Arlington National Cemetery – the JFK gravesite, where there is an eternal flame, and the Tomb of the Unknown.

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JFK gravesite

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The half hourly, very elaborate change of guard ceremony at the Tomb to the Unknown. The Tomb is guarded at all times.

New York City in 1.5 days

There’s much to see in New York City, but it is still possible to cover all the major must-see sights in 1.5 days, including Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, 911 Memorial, Chinatown, The High Line, Times Square, New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal, Empire State Building and Central Park.

There are 3 ways to see the Statue of Liberty. The first way is, of course, to get on the island itself. This can be costly and time consuming. The second way to view the Statue of Liberty onboard the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry is free, but a round trip is necessary and that takes an hour or so. The third way, which I have chosen, is to view the Statue of Liberty from Governor’s Island. The view isn’t the best, but to make better use of time one has to make a compromise, and in this case I think it’s worth it. To get to the Island, one has to take a ferry from Manhattan or Brooklyn (see here for schedule). The ferry ride takes only 10 minutes. We happen to be there on a weekend, so we were able to enjoy the free ferry ride (first 2 ferries are free).

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New York skyline including Brooklyn bridge, as viewed from the ferry.

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The view of the Statue of Liberty from Governor’s Island, with the Staten Island Ferry passing by. It does look slightly bigger in reality than it appears in the photo.

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The Bowling Green is a very peaceful park in front of the old customs house. The charging bull is right at the tip and Wall street is just a little beyond.

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The 911 Memorial is a stone throw away from Wall Street

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Not too far away is Chinatown, the logical place to have lunch. Brooklyn bridge is also nearby if one is interested to take a look.

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Chelsea Market is a nice place to check out on the way to the High Line. Many people chill out or have their meals here.

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A lot of interesting ideas are used in the High Line, such as this amphitheatre that allows one to sit and watch cars go by.

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The otherwise forgotten brick walls of buildings become a feature of the High Line. Murals add life to it. I’m surprised at how the loss of privacy was not an issue when they created the High Line that run right next to buildings.

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And of course you will find flowers in a garden that the High Line is, and it is much much more than a garden.

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Some train tracks are deliberately left intact.

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It’s not what it looks. I was drinking from a water fountain.

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On the way to Times Square you will pass by Broadway. I’m guessing you’ll have to book tickets way in advance if you want to catch a show.

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I have to admit, the billboards at Times Square look impressive.

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The Grand Central Terminal was completely revamped, yet retained it’s original look. It looked as if they polished every single stone and brick. You have to see it.

The Grand Central Oyster Bar is located at the basement of Grand Central Terminal. It was our dinner place, mainly because they have the Maine lobster.

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Gotta have oysters at an oyster bar.

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Also had the New York cheesecake for it’s name sake.

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To end the day, we went to the Empire State Building. It was darn expensive and way too crowded, but you kind of have to do it just so you can say you’ve done it. If you time your visit right, you’ll get to see New York at daytime (dusk) and night time.

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Central Park is another must-see attraction. It is huge, expect to spend 3 hours or more here.

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New York skyline from the park.

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Water fountains are a godsend when walking through the park.

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Footpaths underneath bridges intrigue me much.

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A peaceful atmosphere of people boating around the Loeb Boathouse.

If you’re into art, you can finish your Central Park tour with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located in Central Park itself.

Yellowstone and Grand Tetons

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Yellowstone National Park is one of the places that made it into my bucket list very early on. I had just a very vague impression of it being a place to watch a geyser spring into action, and it being a place of untold natural beauty. On this trip to the US, I resolutely made Yellowstone one of the destinations to visit.

The cheapest way to get to Yellowstone is by flying into the largest airport near Yellowstone and getting a rental car. The largest airport is Salt Lake City, which is about 5 hours away by car. Yes, not exactly near, but certainly cheaper, both for the flight and the rental car.

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On the way from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone, you can make a brief stop at Idaho Falls and check out the falls.

The accommodation inside Yellowstone itself are snapped up way ahead, and they’re expensive anyway. The next best alternative is to stay at West Yellowstone, which is the town just outside the west entrance of Yellowstone. There are decent dining options in West Yellowstone, so that’s a bonus.

IMHO the Norris Geyser Basin is the best attraction in Yellowstone. If there’s one thing one must see in Yellowstone, it must be a geyser, which is not easily found elsewhere. Norris allows one to see many geothermal features within a small concentrated area. One can easily spend two to three hours covering the two trails.
wpid-wp-1434080607387.jpgThe steamboat geyser sprouts water all the time.
wpid-wp-1434080612914.jpgA colourful spring.
wpid-wp-1434080655431.jpgBubbling mud pool.

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Toasted pine tree.

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From the Norris Geyser Basin, the next logical stop along the Grand Loop is the Mammoth Hot Springs. The claim to fame here are terraces formed by deposits from flowing hot springs. Unfortunately, the biggest terrace there has already dried up. There is still one active terrace (pictured above) that looks impressive and otherworldly.

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Next up on the Grand Loop is Tower Falls.

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Calcite Spring was a nice stop.

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The most notorious attraction in Yellowstone is none other than Old Faithful, the Geyser that sprouts every 2 hours or so. The photo above shows the final moments of an eruption. I nearly missed it, having arrived just 5 minutes before it happened.

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Old Faithful Inn is not to be missed while in the vicinity.

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The lower falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone looked like a Chinese painting to me, as viewed from Artist’s Point. I found that the lighting was better before 930. Afterwards it becomes too shadowy. There was supposed to be a rainbow that appears in front of the falls between 930 and 10 but a cloud covered the sun while I waited, so I gave up.

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I went down Uncle Tom’s trail and saw double rainbows in front of the lower falls.

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The upper falls can also be seen at the start of Uncle Tom’s trail.

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The most commonly found animal in Yellowstone is the bison. You will most likely have close encounters with them.

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wpid-wp-1434080781629.jpgIf you’re really fortunate you may get to see a reindeer.

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I have a strange love for meandering rivers.

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As we exit from the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park, we entered the Grand Tetons National Park. The Tetons range is part of the Rocky mountains that stretches from British Columbia in Canada to Colorado in US.

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The Tetons look good from any angle. Captured from the Mormon Row.

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While at the Mormon Row i spotted this little furry animal coming out of a hole in the ground. Probably a ground squirrel.

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I was told this was a beaver. There are so many wildlife enthusiasts in the National Parks.

Antelope Canyon

For most people, a tour of the west coast starts with San Francisco and ends at the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas. There is, however, another attraction worth seeing, just a little over 2 hours away from the Grand Canyon – Antelope Canyon. The photos you take here will garner the most ‘likes’ on Facebook, I guarantee you.

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Due to the popularity of the Antelope Canyon, the cost to visit it is very high, to the tune of USD40. For safety purpose, and to prevent congestion, they regulate the number of people at the site, which is a good thing since you don’t want to photograph other tourists. To avoid disappointment, it is wise to book your tour way ahead.

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You will notice that tours starting around noon time cost more. That’s because around midday, the sun casts a beam of light into the canyon that photography fanatics so like to capture. You can actually get a chance to see and photograph this beam of light without paying a premium, by timing your 2 hours tour to end between 11 to 12, which means you should book the 930 or 10am tour.

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Photography fanatics shooting the beam of light in the canyon. The guide tosses some sand into the air to make the beam visible.

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I managed to steal this shot. Does not look good, but that’s OK, i’m not a photography fanatic.

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The horseshoe bend is also very near Page, the town that is the base for visiting Antelope Canyon.

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As you make your way back to Las Vegas to catch a flight, you might catch a sight like the above, which reminds me of the Marlboro advertisement from the 70s. No Cowboys pictured, but the horses and the canyons are a perfect match.

USA West Coast

Probably all tours to the west coast of the USA will include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon in the itinerary. The typical must-sees are found in these places and they are within reasonable reach of each other by car. My trip starts with San Francisco.

wpid-wp-1433600551307.jpgThe Golden Gate Bridge is the main attraction.

wpid-wp-1433600544943.jpgLocated along the way to the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts.

wpid-wp-1433600538007.jpgPier 39 is good for watching sea lions.

Most people should know about outlet shopping in the US. Gilroy is an outlet along the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It has one of the very few Abercrombie and Fitch outlet stores. There are plenty of outlets in the west coast. In Los Angeles, Citadel Outlets is the one to visit.

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A queue forms outside the Kate Spade shop.

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Coach offers 50% discount. The same discount was also offered at their Las Vegas outlet store. Could be a permanent marketing strategy and it works.

wpid-wp-1433600517162.jpgThe Grove is a shopping mall in Los Angeles with a nice ambiance, worth a visit if you have the time.

wpid-wp-1433598252017.jpgHollywood is famous for its walk of fame. Visit at night to see the glitzy lighting.

wpid-wp-1433598079078.jpgDisneyland is one of the few theme parks in Los Angeles worth visiting even if you are not traveling with kids. The night time parade, fireworks and lights show is bound to leave you wowed.

wpid-wp-1433598135031.jpgA jubilant mood on the main street after the show.

wpid-wp-1433600491196.jpgNow that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, they have added a Star Wars attraction – the Jedi Training Academy. Kids love it.

wpid-wp-1433566679419.jpgLas Vegas is the next logical stop after LA. Las Vegas is famous for gambling (of course), shows and food (specifically buffets). The fountain in front of Bellagio is not to be missed.

wpid-wp-1433597050124.jpgBased on reviews I went to the Bacchanal buffet at Caesars Palace. It was the best buffet I have been to (granted I don’t normally go to expensive buffets). At USD57 per pax it was very good value. Service was impeccable. The food was almost made to order. The Alaskan King Crab legs are a favourite item among diners. I was most impressed that the Chinese section tasted authentic Hong Kong style (I’m sure they hired a Hong Kong chef).

wpid-wp-1433598059265.jpgDo get there early (6pm) if you intend to dine at Bacchanal. Once the tables are fully occupied, you will have to queue. As you can imagine, people take their time to enjoy a buffet, so it will be a long wait.

wpid-wp-1433600509680.jpgAfter the filling dinner it helps to do a bit of strolling along the strip. You might want to check out the original Venetian Canal Shoppes.

wpid-wp-1433600459302.jpgLas Vegas offers a chance to catch up on outlet shopping if you have not been fully satiated on previous attempts. Pictured above is the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North.

wpid-wp-1433566668096.jpgOn the way to the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam is a popular stop. Not very interesting in my opinion.

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Degadillo’s Snow Cap is a much more interesting stop, and the food is actually not bad. They close at 6pm, so it would be a nice tea break or early dinner stop.

wpid-wp-1433600482923.jpgThe Grand Canyon. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. I took on the recommendation to hike some way down the canyon and it truly offers a nicer perspective on the canyons.

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wpid-wp-1433566633646.jpgIf you’re fortunate you might see an Elk.

Another mission impossible trip

Itinerary

Going on a trip on 20 May. This is the longest trip i will embark on yet, both in duration and distance. It probably looks impossibly crazy or even silly to some. Country count: 4 (which is little compared to the usual 9 or 10 countries i do for each Europe trip). Duration: 39 days (previous record 35).

As usual, i try to cover all the must-sees, which would include the following:

Japan (9 days)

  • Kyoto and Nara – basically overloaded with temples and shrines. Ranks high on the must-do list.
  • Castles – Osaka (a reconstruction but since i will be in Osaka, why not), Himeji and Matsumoto
  • Hiroshima and Miyajima – UNESCO World Heritage sites
  • Tokyo – not much to see here but much to eat and shop
  • Mount Fuji – rather than making a specific stop to see Mount Fuji, i hope the weather will be clear enough for me to just catch it while on the Shinkansen

Canada (7 days)

  • Rocky mountains – mountains, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers
  • Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City – a sampling of cities that probably best represents Canada

US (18 days)

  • The usual tourist destinations (for international travellers to US) – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, New York, Washington DC, Buffalo (Niagara Falls)
  • The not-so-usual tourist destinations – Antelope Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Watkins Glen National Park

This is the first time i will attempt to blog as i travel. Stay tuned!