National Park Service: An Appreciation

The U.S. National Park Service is one of the best things about America. It is America. 100 years old, it’s a national treasure to learn about our nation’s history and lands. I really love visiting different sites, from urban memorials to remote parks. See a list of National Park sites.

While I don’t want to get political, as a NPS lover and free-speech advocate, what is going on now is breaking my heart for the group I love. In January, the new president restricted the speech of parks employees via official social media accounts and talking to the media, for things like climate change, publishing reports and things like that. A group of parks employees are resisting and continue to get information out via Alt National Park Service.

The parks really provide so much value culturally and educationally to me. Aaron and I plan our trips with the National Park Service in mind, and enjoy our time at the sites. I love all the social media accounts for the park services, as the beautiful photos and informative captions always brighten my day and make me proud to live in a wonderful country.

While I’ve been going to National Park Services sites since before I could walk them without getting tired (so, at least the toddler years), I want to share some of my favorite photos from recent trips.

You can follow Alt National Parks. Get involved with the National Park Service, including donating.

I would love to see your photos and hear about your favorite park. If you have something to share, please leave it in the comments below. You are welcome to share or use my photos on this blog post for non-commercial use, don’t manipulate the photos in any way and credit Valerie Dennis at These photos follow Creative Commons license.

Aaron and me hiking a small portion of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. Near the highest point in the park, Tennessee on one side, North Carolina on the other.

Grand Canyon | Kale and Ale

Entrance to Grand Canyon. I’ve been here once as a teen and once last year, 20 years later. Much more appreciation when I’m older.

San Felipe del Morro Fortress is part of San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico.

Golden Gate Park | Kale and Ale

15-year-old Valerie looking as thrilled as any teen not fully appreciating escaping an Iowa winter to see the Golden Gate Bridge.

Blue Ridge Parkway | Kale and Ale

When in North Carolina we headed north out of Asheville and went up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beautiful drive and tons of lookouts.

Mississippi Minneapolis | Kale and Ale

The view of the only waterfall on the Mississippi and the Stone Arch Bridge is beautiful at the Mississippi National River area in Minneapolis.

Zion beer | Kale and Ale

Enjoying a hard-earned beer at the lodge in Zion National Park, perhaps our favorite place we have visited yet.

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Tips to Drink Beer From Afar at Home

Tips for drinking beer from afar in your home | Kale and Ale

Original photo by Flick user quinnanya.

One thing I love about craft beer is its exclusivity. By nature craft beer is not as widely produced, meaning it’s not as widely available. (There are exceptions to this, for example, some brewers have set up shop on both coasts.)

Because of this, it’s exciting to get my hands on brews not available in Minnesota. When I travel—even home to Iowa—I look for beers I can’t get from my own liquor store. It’s part of what’s fun about traveling.

Case in point: A recent weekend I had beer in my home in Minnesota from three well known places to have a unique selection: Wicked Weed in Asheville, N.C., Surly in Minneapolis and Russian River in Santa Rosa, Calif. Only Surly is sold anywhere near here.

Wicked Weed Russian River Surly beer Kale and Ale

From top left: Russian River Pliny the Elder, Surly Barrel Aged Pentagram, Wicked Weed Freak of Nature

Through the years, and specifically more recently, I’ve gotten more savvy about getting beer to me that I can’t buy locally, from transporting it myself or getting it from others. Below are some tips I’ve learned to cast as wide a beer-sampling net as possible in your own home.

Get a Growler to Go

A growler is a jug used to transport tap beer. The vessel is usually 64 ounces, and it’s often found at breweries and taprooms where you can fill up beer from their tap (typically good for three to five days) and take it off site for consumption. This is good because if you have a growler or buy one their, you can take beer that might not even be bottled, or certainly not sold where you live. Growler laws vary widley by state, so know before you go (can you bring your own growler, can you use the growler your size, etc.). Find growler laws by state.

Friends Going on Trips

Find a beer buddy near you and let them know what you like. I can think of two people this year alone who brought me back beers from their travels without me asking before. And because of that, I’ve done the same for them. I’ve also asked non-beer drinkers to keep an eye on things for me, too. So don’t be shy and ask, the worst they can say is no.

Pack Carefully

The above Wicked Weed bottle came back thanks to bubble wrap that I brought for that purpose. I’ve had 3 Floyds Zombie Dust the day it was bottled from the brewery by my husband Aaron packing the beer in his clothes and shoes. Take a chance if it’s worth it to you (beer won’t usually stain if you take care of it right away) and the reward can be great.

The Travel Channel video gives inspiration on the best ways to pack and travel with glass bottles.

Beer mail

Another option that you have to be careful about is trading beer via mail. You have to be careful as it’s a liquid and alcohol, so check with the carrier. Also important to keep in mind is the actual shipping. Beer Exchange has an excellent guide on how to ship beer. You can ship among people you know or find people on beer boards. Again, be smart and find out what you can ship, where and with whom.

Road Trip: Decorah, Iowa

Decorah, Iowa, is located in the northeast corner of the state, 15 miles south of the Minnesota boarder among bluffs. Best known for the eagles, liberal arts college Luther, Norwegian pride and Toppling Goliath Brewery, it’s an outdoor haven of small-town living. Having only passed through it once 18 years ago, I decided to head down Highway 52 and explore the big hiking and beer options in this small town.

Aaron and I visited over the long Memorial Day weekend, and be warned: The town shuts down on the holiday. There were only two places open downtown for breakfast, but more on that later.

Beer and Food Options in Decorah

Oneota Coop Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Oneota Community Co-Op

We arrived in Decorah around lunchtime, so we headed straight to the Oneota Co-Op, recommend by my dad. The shop itself isn’t large, but the cafe portion includes a salad and hot bar and pressed panini sandwiches. I was hard pressed (hilarious, right?!?!) to pick between the magic mushroom and chipotle tofu sandwiches, but ended up with tofu simply because I knew I would appreciate the protein from it and the two slices of cheese on it later when I was hiking and drinking. And the sandwich was amazing, featuring slices of tofu in an amazing sauce between two melty, flavorful slices of cheese. We ended up stopping at Toppling Goliath Brewery for lunch, eating on the patio and washing the food down with a hoppy beer.

Seed Saver Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Seed Saver’s with heritage seed area in the front

After lunch we made our way to Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm to view the gardens and hike the grounds. There is a lot of ground there, so it was fun to walk around past an orchard, through a prairie and in a pine forest. Beyond the hiking (of which there are many miles of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, pick up a map in the visitor center to find out trail features, length and difficulty) are the gardens. There is a great herb and decorative garden, but my favorite part is where Seed Savers is trying to identify possible duplicate types of produce to properly name and identify foods and to save the heritage seeds. The farm is free to visit and interesting, worth a few hours of time.

Pulpit Rock Brewing Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Pulpit Rock Brewing and chill patio

Next we stopped at Decorah’s other brewery, Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. It had a great, large patio with a great view of a city park. It was warm, so it was great to hang out outside. People kept filling in and out, ordering beers and enjoying themselves. We, however, weren’t that impressed with the beer. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t impress us, feeling like we could take it or leave it. So we left it, but like I said, many people were taking it.

We made out way to Hotel Winneshiek, the restored turn-of-the-century hotel, to drop off our things and freshen up, and walked around the cute downtown. The Decorah Hatchery clothing and outdoor store came recommended, but was already closed for the day when we made it there, as it had very limited hours on Sundays. We walked down Main Street, passing historic buildings and looking at some interesting houses featuring large gardens and solar panels.

Main Street ends at the Upper Iowa River and an entry point for the well-maintained paved 11-mile trail around Decorah, running alongside the well-known Fish Hatchery and Raptor Resource Project, home of the Decorah eagles. We plan to bring our bikes next time and explore the trail in full.

Toppling Goliath | Kale and Ale

Tons of small-brewery charm at Toppling Goliath

This time we didn’t have our bikes so we walked back to Toppling Goliath. I recommend walking because parking isn’t great (both in size of lot and that you have to go down a steep drive to exit) and the beers are so damn delicious you won’t want to limit yourself. Pro tip: Belly up to the bar and chat up the servers to find out what fun beers they have had recently (we scored samples that way) and to learn about what beers are in the works. See current beers on tap.

Mabe's Decorah Iowa Beer Gnome | Kale and Ale

Beer-drinking gnome at Mabe’s, the best kind

After trying enough beer, dinner was in order so we walked back downtown to Mabe’s, It was a good choice for after-drink dinner, with a homey feel and delicious food. And the casual family vibe and large dining room meant we felt we could linger. From there we went back to the hotel, tired from a long day, and needing to rest for more hiking the next day.

Lots of Hiking in Decorah

We ate breakfast at our hotel restaurant, Restauration. It was only one of two places open for the holiday, but by going there we weren’t settling; it was a fantastic meal. It focuses on homemade and local food, which is a warm welcome in a hotel restaurant. I got the blue plate special (served on a blue plate!): eggs, potatoes, fruit (instead of meat) and toast, and the potatoes where smashed and fried with the skins on, seasoned well, and the eggs were local. Very filling meal for around $6.50, great to keep me nourished while hiking, and good coffee, too.

Dunnings Springs Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Dunnings Springs is totally worth the stop

Right inside town are three parks next to each other, each worth exploring: Dunnings Springs, Ice Cave and Palisades. Each is worth a stop, even a quick one, on its own. The spring can be seen from parking and is very impressive, and there are benches to sit and view, so it’s a great spot to visit no matter your athletic ability. View hiking options in Decorah.

Decorah really has a little of everything I look for in a getaway, and I can’t wait to return.

San Antonio, Texas

Texas Cupcakes | Kale and AleI recently was able to travel to San Antonio, Texas, for the first time. It was a quick, busy work trip, so I didn’t have much free or personal time. However, I was lucky enough to be staying right on the River Walk, so I could easily enjoy a few outdoor walks and meals—a nice escape to temps in the upper 70s and sunny instead of about 30 and cloudy back at home.


When I go on work trips I look forward to new and different beers. This was not the trip of that, though. Those were few and far between. One the stood out was the St. Arnold Endeavor, a double IPA. If you like doubles and see this, get it. It was a hint of sweet fruitiness and the right hoppy balance. I had a few other IPAs, but nothing to mention.

Regarding food in San Antonio, in a group of five it was me (a vegetarian trying to eat vegan as much as possible) and two people who can’t have gluten, and very few restaurants seemed able to accommodate or understand our dietary needs. This blows my mind as I assumed any restaurant on the River Walk or near the convention center where I was would be more service oriented and knowledgeable and able to accommodate. To be fair, we went to a restaurant, Boudro’s, that was good but the server wasn’t, so that was too bad. But my meal was excellent and made vegan with the lack of cheese: a portobello tostado with jicama slaw and black bean puree.

Boudro's Portobello Tostado | Kale and Ale

Portobello Tostado from Boudro’s

Have you been to San Antonio? Was your experience better?

Texas Social Media

The real star of the Texas experience was before and after I was in Texas, though. I tweeted I was going to be in San Antonio and asked for beer recommendations. No hashtag, no @ sign.

A week later @TexasTourism responded, asking me to direct message them information and they would send me beer suggestions and other fun things for my trip. Talk about doing it right! I was pleasantly surprised, bit when I got my goodies I was blown away. It was full-on swag, Texas does it big: a neck pillow, speakers, Post-It notes, a nice notepad with a personal note.

San Antonio Texas | Kale and Ale

Big swag from Texas

This was impressive. The fact Texas Tourism has people and resources to making a more memorable trip for people already going to Texas is impressive. It shows how how far hospitality and branding goes for them, and I will definitely use the items, which are all branded with the Texas logo, getting their name out there even more.

What is the best example of marketing you have seen?

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Raices Fountain | Kale and Ale

In front of Raices Fountain.

This is part three of three focusing on my Caribbean vacation. Read about St. Croix food and St. Croix activities.

Coming back from St. Croix Aaron and I decided to extend our Caribbean vacation a little longer by having a 24-hour layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We took a small plane from St. Croix over the most beautiful water to San Juan.

Once we landed we hopped in a cab to Old San Juan. Riding on the interstate, I felt like I was in Miami, but once we entered Old San Juan, with its very narrow, brick streets and colorful buildings that touch one another, I knew I was somewhere special. On first impression I called it a Spanish New Orleans, but it’s its own special place.

We made it to our boutique hotel Monastery Art Suite, which I recommend. It’s a great location, the owner Elena is great and the room is full of old-world charm yet modern. Elena has good recommendations on local places to visit. We freshened up and hit the streets to explore.

We grabbed some coffee and made our way down the tree-lined open street Paseo de la Princesa, stopping at a sculpture park off to the side. Heading east, the street ends at the large Raices Fountain. This is next to the governor’s mansion and leaders to a nice, wide walkway along the shore toward one of the two forts on Old San Juan. It was a warm and sunny yet thankfully breezy day, so it was nice to be outside one more time before heading home to winter and reality. We went to the western fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and walked around until lunch.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro San Juan | Kale and Ale

Lighthouse at Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan.

Having looked on Happy Cow, I had few restaurants in mind, but since it was Monday many were closed. We went to Cafe Berlin, which has a great vegetarian selection of Latin food and breakfast late into the day, so everyone is sure to find something. From there we walked past the cruise ships and up Calle Fortaleza, the main shopping and food drag in Old San Juan. Because there were two cruise ships docked that day, there were lots of people walking around, so we browsed some galleries and made our way to more food and drink.

Old San Juan fort look east | Kale and Ale

Looking east into Old San Juan from the fort.

This led us to Club Spritz, a new restaurant and bar with a great location on a closed-off street overlooking water. It’s called Club Spritz because the husband is from Italy and they feature spritzer drinks, which were super refreshing after walking around in the warm sun. We sat and enjoyed drinks while the sun went down. The husband and wife team are very friendly and the place has a good atmosphere. We walked around more, looking at the architecture at night, making our way to Toro Salao for sangria and dinner. Toro Salao is a hopping place near a main square, serving fresh and innovative food. If you are looking for a trendy nightlife restaurant, this is the place. And because we sat at the bar and stayed so long, chatting up the employees, we happened to get free dessert of a cheesecake-type bar and churros in homemade chocolate sauce. I said yes to free dessert on the last night of vacation! After all this food, drink and walking it was time to go to bed.

Toro Salaeo Old San Juan | Kale and Ale

Free dessert!

The next day before our flight to reality, we visited Castillo de San Cristóbal (pro tip: save your receipt from a fort, you can visit both with the same admission) where it was pretty similar a fort and display, but it was neat to see a different perspective. After that we got a filling lunch at a restaurant next to Cafe Berlin, Caficultura, which has good coffee, nice sidewalk seating and a filling breakfast.

Old San Juan Courtyard | Kale and Ale

Beautiful buildings all around Old San Juan.

All in all this is a great place to visit, but a stop on a cruise or a few days to try more food, a water sport or perhaps the Bacardi rum tour would be enough.

Have you been to Puerto Rice? What did you do/see/eat that you loved?